President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia and Israel in May carried with it multiple statements about Iran’s role in sponsoring militias in the Middle East. Tehran responded by pointing out Saudi Arabia’s own military involvement in other countries in the region, yet without refuting what Trump said about Iranian sponsorship for militias. Over the past 6 years, this sponsorship has spread beyond Iraq and Lebanon into Yemen and Syria, among other places.
It remains to be seen whether the US will follow up on Trump’s strong words against Iran with actual action against its militias in Syria, but Iran has already started preparing itself to counter any Western-backed effort at containment on the ground. The method used by Iran in Syria is not new; it is broadly aligned with what Iran has implemented in Lebanon and Iraq. Iran’s strategy for control in all those places revolves around cultivating bottom-up influence. This carries the potential for long-term instability in Syria even if a settlement for the conflict is reached, and therefore any US strategy aimed at containing Iran must take it into account.
As things stand, the United States’ focus in Syria remains military and focused on the battle against ISIS. Following a period of decreased military activity in the south, the US has been in talks with Jordan about potentially using southern areas of Syria, where ISIS presence remains comparatively limited, as a springboard to launch a military campaign moving northwards to liberate Raqqa and Deir Ezzor from ISIS control. American and Jordanian-backed Free Syrian Army forces successfully stopped an advance by ISIS in the south in recent weeks after the group launched an attack on al-Tanf base, where the US has been training FSA groups in preparation for the Deir Ezzor battle.
The re-activation of FSA operations in the south is a major cause of concern for Iran, since al-Tanf is a Syrian border crossing point to Iraq, where Iran sponsors militias including the Popular Mobilization Forces that are currently battling ISIS in Mosul. Iran-backed militias, in collaboration with the Syrian army, advanced towards al-Tanf in mid-May, causing anti-ISIS coalition US airplanes to strike the pro-regime tank convoy. The advance by those pro-regime forces is likely to have been motivated by the aim to link up areas controlled by Bashar al-Assad and his allies in Syria with those controlled by pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.
This military advance came at a time when some Popular Mobilization Forces leaders announced their willingness to enter Syria from Iraq under the pretext of liberating Raqqa from ISIS, following the liberation of Mosul from the group. But linking up Syrian and Iraqi areas under an Iranian umbrella would mean creating an arc of military presence for Iran that will allow its forces to close in on Syrian rebel groups from the northeast as well as from the west, which is mostly under pro-Assad control. This would further squeeze Syrian rebels into the Idlib governorate on the Turkish border.
The American strike has not deterred pro-regime forces composed of Syrians, Iranians and Hezbollah fighters, who have continued to move surface-to-air missiles close to the frontlines with the Free Syrian Army in the east. The move came shortly after Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed at the Astana talks to allow Iran to set up observations posts in so-called ‘de-escalation areas’ in Syria, including in Idlib and in the south, under the pretext of ridding these areas from ISIS and other extremist groups. Following population transfers that have evicted Syrian Sunni residents from their original towns near the Lebanese border to Idlib, to be replaced with Shia residents who have in turn left their own towns in Idlib to move to the border region, Hizbullah has also removed 3,000 fighters from Syrian areas bordering Lebanon in order to re-deploy them in eastern Syria.
All those tactical moves by Iran and its sponsored groups are causing the US and its allies to worry about the viability of establishing any kind of safe zone in southern Syria. It is possible that Iran and the Syrian regime will not allow such zones to be implemented, seeing in them a threat to their vital interests.
But this military dynamic is only one part of the story. The other important dynamic is to do with Iran’s actions inside regime-controlled areas. Early on in the Syrian conflict, Iran summoned Hezbollah to support an Assad regime that had started to lose capacity in the face of pressure from the Free Syrian Army. Later on, Iran not only sponsored the creation of pro-regime militias, mainly the National Defence Forces, to further fight alongside the regime, but also imported mercenaries from Afghanistan and other countries to participate in the conflict, in addition to sending its special forces and troops to Syria.
While most foreign fighters may eventually be made to leave Syria in the event of a conflict settlement, Iran cannot afford to lose influence in Syria because that would mean cutting off the supply line to Hezbollah. Presenting its militias as elements in the fight against ISIS and extremist groups, Iran aims for Hezbollah to continue to play a role in Syria in an advisory capacity in the long run. The militias funded by Iran in Syria are also preparing themselves for long-term existence. Many have established non-governmental organizations as a way to both appeal to residents in regime areas in which they operate and get their hands on funding through the Syrian government, including foreign funding meant for humanitarian assistance.
These militias and their associated organizations echo the model used by Hezbollah in Lebanon that has seen it transform from a military group into a political party with social, economic and military wings. Iran has also started buying land in Syria and conducting trade and investment deals with the state, with the aim of establishing long-term economic presence in the country. But just as it is in Hezbollah’s interest for state institutions in Lebanon to remain weak in order to justify the continuing presence of its own parallel institutions, Iran-backed groups in Syria are likely to become a cause for state fragility in the long run.
If the US is serious about containing Iran in Syria, focusing on Tehran’s military tactics alone in the fight against ISIS is not enough. What is of wider concern is Iran’s bottom-up effort to infiltrate Syria, which would enable Iran to maintain influence no matter what shape the conflict settlement might take. This requires a strategy that goes beyond military matters and that takes into consideration the important Iran-blessed institutional and social changes happening in regime areas, not just opposition areas.
Dr Lina Khatib is head of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.