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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Iran Is Exploiting the War in Ukraine to Strengthen Its Presence in Syria

Filed under: Iran, Israel, Syria

Iran Is Exploiting the War in Ukraine to Strengthen Its Presence in Syria
Two IRGC colonels, Ehsan Karbalaeipour and Morteza Saeednejad, were killed near Damascus, Syria, on March 7, 2022. The Iranian News Agency (IRNA) declared that “the Zionist regime will pay the penalty for this crime.”1
  • Israel is preparing for an Iranian response to the deaths of two Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers in Syria. It believes Iran is exploiting the Russian invasion of Ukraine to shore up its military presence in Syria.
  • Iran’s attack on an American base in Erbil, Iraq, on March 13, 2022, is considered by some to be in retaliation for the death of the Iranian officers in Damascus.
  • Iran has upped the activity of its militias in southern Syria and continues to funnel weapons to Syria and Lebanon. The Russians have signaled that Israel’s freedom of action in Syria will not be curtailed, but that could change.

The Israel Defense Forces have beefed up their preparedness on the northern border after Iran announced the deaths of two Revolutionary Guards officers in a bombing allegedly by Israel of Iranian targets near Damascus International Airport.

Israeli security sources said the two officers were involved in Hizbullah’s PGM precision-guided-missile project.

Residents of southern Lebanon expressed fear that the Iranian response would be carried out by Hizbullah there. However, IDF sources believe the response could also come from pro-Iranian militias in Syria, Iraq, or Yemen using missiles or drones.

The rubble of a base near Damascus after the March 7, 2022 attack
The rubble of a base near Damascus after the March 7, 2022 attack. (SANA)

The Israeli assessment is that the Iranian response will come in any case but may be delayed by the Vienna nuclear talks. With the talks reportedly on the verge of an agreement (before Russia made its demand for its own sanctions relief), Israel believes that for now, Iran will not want to risk an escalation with Israel and the loss of the new status the agreement will grant it in terms of selling oil to the Western countries.

The two Iranian colonels killed in the attacks were buried in a large official funeral in Tehran attended by Revolutionary Guards Commander Mohammad Ali Jafari and Revolutionary Guards Air Force Commander General Ali Hajizadeh. Iran threatened to take revenge against Israel, and Israeli military intelligence believes the threat is serious and will be carried out when Iran feels the time is right.

Vengeful Precedence

In 2018, seven Iranians were killed in an Israeli strike on the T-4 airbase east of Homs in Syria, including Colonel Mehdi Dehghan Yazdeli, a commander from the IRGC Aerospace Force’s Shahid Karimi UAV base. In that case, the Iranians responded by firing 50 rockets at Israeli targets on the Golan Heights.

Colonel Mehdi Dehghan Yazdeli
Colonel Mehdi Dehghan Yazdeli, a commander of a drone base, who was killed in 2018 at T-4 base in Syria.

On March 10, 2020, the Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, a Hizbullah mouthpiece, reported that Syrian sources said: “there is no intention to get pulled into a general confrontation with the enemy.” The Syrian sources stressed that “neither side wants an all-out war but only a reinforcing of equations, of deterrence, and the military balance.” This means the Iranian response will be a measured one.

Iran’s Military Entrenchment in Syria

According to political sources in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Bennett discussed with President Putin at their March 5, 2022, Kremlin meeting the Iranian danger and Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria.

Though their conversation topics are still unknown, senior security sources say Iran is exploiting the war in Ukraine to shore up its military presence in Syria.

The Syrian army now controls almost all of southern Syria. It closely coordinates with the Iranian militias, which significantly concerns Israel.

Israel hastened to make the most of its “green light” from Putin to attack Iranian targets in the Damascus area for the first time since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine. It was reported from Syria that two civilians were killed in the strike; afterward, Iranian sources said the fatalities also included two Revolutionary Guards officers.

The anticipated nuclear deal between Iran and the world powers is no longer the focus of international interest, which naturally has shifted to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The signing of the deal may also be delayed by Russia’s demand of the United States that sanctions on Russia be lifted in the context of the deal. If so, Iran can keep violating the 2015 agreement by enriching uranium beyond the threshold allowed.

If the nuclear deal is not signed in the coming days, Iran will be able to race toward the bomb with no international monitoring.

President Putin has a clear interest in undercutting the nuclear deal, which President Biden is keen on signing as soon as possible to remove the issue from the U.S. diplomatic agenda in the coming years and focus on the struggle against the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the growing might of China.

Although the Iranians are expressing concern about the delay of the deal, they are also keeping an eye on the United States, which is under tremendous pressure, and rubbing their hands in glee as Putin, their ally, makes life difficult for Biden.

While the Cannons Roar, Iran Is Active

As the war in Ukraine continues, the Iranians have begun a series of coordinated diplomatic and military moves with the Russian regime.

On February 27, 2022, General Ali Mamlouk, the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, visited Tehran for the first time in two years and met with President Ebrahim Raisi and Ali Shamkhani, Secretary-General of Iran’s National Security Council. They discussed tightening security coordination and preparations for any possible repercussions on Syria from the war in Ukraine.

Ali Mamlouk with Ali Shamkhani
Head of Syria’s National Security Bureau Ali Mamlouk (right) meets with the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani in Tehran, on February 27, 2022. (IRNA)

In the meeting with Ali Mamlouk, the Iranians also asked for quicker implementation of the Iranian-Syrian economic memorandums of understanding regarding energy, farm produce, and transportation sectors. Alongside military activity, Iran is also deepening its economic involvement in Syria.

According to Israeli security sources, the Iranian militias in Syria have stepped up their activity in the south in the Daraa and Suwayda regions, which worries Jordan’s King Abdullah, especially in light of increased drug smuggling from Syria to Jordan and from there to the Gulf States.

Iran has also intensified its arms smuggling to Syria and Lebanon, including drones, precision-guided missiles, and aerial defense systems. According to Syrian sources, Israel is worried that Russia will help the Syrian army intercept its air force planes. Hence, it has preferred to attack Iranian targets in Syria with surface-to-surface missiles instead of airstrikes.

On March 2, 2022, Falih al-Fayyadh, one of the heads of the umbrella organization of the pro-Iranian militias in Iraq, Al-Hashd al-Shabi (the Popular Mobilization Forces), paid a visit to Damascus. There he met with President Bashar Assad and discussed the reinforcement of security on the Iraqi-Syrian border and the curtailing of the activity of the Kurds in Syria.

Russian Forces Move from Syria

Russia’s ongoing military invasion of Ukraine and conquest of large swaths of territory may, in the Iranians’ assessment, force Russia to transfer some of its military forces in Syria to Ukraine. As a result, Russia’s military power in Syria could decline while Iran’s military power and influence could grow.

Israel is concerned that Russia will give Syria an advanced S-300 anti-aircraft defense system. This system is already present in Syria, but Russian soldiers currently operate it. Its operation by the Syrian army’s air-defense forces could hamper the Israeli air force’s freedom of action in attacking Iranian targets in Syria.

A Calming Signal from Russia

A few days ago, the Russian embassy in Israel issued a calming announcement that the security coordination over Syria between the IDF and the Russian army will continue, affirming that “Our military officials discuss the practical issues of this substantively on a daily basis. This mechanism has proven to be useful and will continue to work.”2

The Russian embassy posted on Facebook: “We are maintaining close contacts with our Israeli colleagues. We do not want Syrian territory to be used for actions against Israel or anyone else.”

The more the war in Ukraine continues and escalates, however, things could change. In January 2022, Russian warplanes conducted a joint aerial patrol with Syrian planes along the Golan Heights border to warn Israel about its attacks in Syria. The Russians are playing a carrot and stick game, and Israel does not want to find itself in a confrontation with them.

It is unclear how the Israeli attempt to mediate between Russia and Ukraine will turn out, nor what will happen in Syria if Israel eventually has to side unequivocally with Ukraine and the United States. Israel cannot zigzag and dodge the raindrops indefinitely to maintain its freedom of action in Syria.

With Putin, there is no free lunch. At the moment, he is using Israel’s services to achieve his goals. However, ultimately what matters is interests, and in the course of the war in Ukraine, the picture could change rapidly, possibly to Israel’s detriment.

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