Iran is on the defensive against joint efforts by Israel, Russia, and the United States to push militias backed by the Islamic Republic out of Syria. The latest Israeli attacks, on the evening of July 20, targeted Iranian-backed groups near Damascus, killing five and injuring several others. It comes as one Iran-backed faction in the area complained of going unpaid for months on end.
Russia's Latest Incursion into Syria
Khaled Al-Hammad, a writer and the Secretary-General of the rebel group the Association for Authenticity and Development, told IranWire: "Russia has recently begun to intensify its presence in Deir Al-Zour, especially east and west of the Euphrates."
Earlier in July, Russia sent military convoys to Deir Al-Zour, the biggest city in eastern Syria. Russia had recently seized an oil field in an area of eastern Deir Al-Zour after expelling regime forces as part of its plan to destabilize militias supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Syria-based IranWire correspondent Umar Al-Ahmad confimed that on July 10, three huge Russian military convoys arrived at the Al-Talaia camp in the city of Deir Al-Zour. The convoy, part of the 7th Artillery Batallion, replaced First Brigade forces of the Russian-backed Fifth Corps, and included more than 60 military vehicles, among them large trucks coming from the direction of Raqqa governorate. The incoming forces stationed themselves in Al-Tabiah, Marat, and Khasham, east of the Euphrates, up to Husseiniyah, west of the Euphrates.
This followed the arrival of another convoy on July 7 and another on July 4. Twenty Russian soldiers, accompanied by 50 Jerusalem Brigade (Liwa' Al-Quds) militia members affiliated to Russia, expelled Syrian security personnel stationed within the Al-Ward oil field located near the town of Al-Duwayr, east of Deir Al-Zour. Following this expulsion of Syrian regime officers, the Russians reinforced their position by installing fortification barriers and deploying weapons and anti-aircraft equipment around the field.
The arrival of these four convoys in Deir Al-Zour coincided with disagreements between Iranian militias on the one hand, and Syrian regime forces and Russian militias on the other. Additionally, Iraqi Hezbollah militias have expelled Syrian regime forces from the Jamiat Al-Rusafah district in Deir Al-Zour and taken over the regime's headquarters and its barriers.
Russia’s Extension into Syria and the Pact Against Iran
It is obvious Russia is taking measures to reduce Iran's influence in Syria following the conclusion of several major military operations. It sees Iran's presence as a hindrance to its own political plan for Syria and its regime, adding further pressure on Iran and its military in Syria, which are already regularly targeted by Israeli strikes.
Association for Authenticity and Development senior official Khaled Al-Hammad, who is from Deir Al-Zour, says the United States, Russia, and Turkey have a tripartite agreement to gradually reduce Iran's presence in Syria until it withdraws, which would be of huge benefit to Russia. According to Al-Hamad, this is only the beginning.
Recent events have shown that, in its conflict with Iran, Russia has the upper hand. In fact, Russian intervention came about following Russia's participation in the Syrian peace process and talks in Geneva involving the international community. Russia has also publicly signed agreements with the Syrian regime, and has taken control of the Khmeimim Air Base in Latakia governorate.
Al-Hamad said he didn't think the Russians would enter into direct conflict with the Iranians. However, it is expected that coalition strikes on Iranian positions will intensify, and the Russians could work to form Sunni blocs along the lines of the Russian-backed Fifth Corps in southern Syria. This comes in addition to assassination operations against the ranks of Iranian militias, which are expected to be launched over the coming days.
According to Al-Hamad, there is now greater competition between the Syrian regime and the Iranian militias to recruit members, pointing out that in the middle of July, 43 members of the National Defense defected and joined the Iranian militias, suggesting Iran was offering potential new recruits tempting deals.
A recent report by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs describes how Iran has intensified its efforts to establish a "land corridor" to access Syrian ports. Other research indicates an increase in Iranian militia activity in northern Syria in an attempt to sabotage the Russian-Turkish ceasefire agreement in Idlib.
Syrian journalist Muayad Abazayd told IranWire: "This policy places Iran in direct confrontation not with the regimes of its enemies, including the United States and Israel, but with its closest ally in this field, Russia, the involvement of which in the Syrian war has contributed to strengthening Iran's regional status and to establishing its influence in the country."
Khaled Al-Hamad believes that Russia wants to send a message to the Syrian people, as well as to the whole world, that it is actually in charge in Syria and will have a presence in the country for as long as this supports its interests. The military mobilization in Deir Al-Zour is the latest clear evidence of this. He also predicted that there would be pushes to implement the "Russian-American-Israeli agreement to expel Iranian militias from eastern Syria ... in the coming days."
According to the German Institute report, Iran's attempts to expand and enhance its influence in Deir Al-Zour will take the form of long-term geopolitical, economic, security, and military projects, to prevent it becoming marginalized by other countries. Iran and Russia in particular are locked in a race to seize Syrian wealth and economic ventures in this area. Russia, Muayad says, also wants to keep Israel happy, and will support its efforts to keep the Iranians out of Deir Al-Zour: in particular because it enables Iran to deliver weapons from Tehran to Lebanon, which poses a threat to Israel's security.
Iran Refuses to Pay Soldiers
Militia factions loyal to Iran have handed over some checkpoints in the city of Deir Al-Zour to the Syrian regime under the supervision of the Russian military police and the Jerusalem Brigade, which is supervised by the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group. It is also worth noting that the Jerusalem Brigade was once pro-Iranian militia, but has now become a popular militia affiliated to Russia and is deployed in the vast desert region of Syria known as the Syrian Badia.
Aside from this, Russia's intervention in eastern Syria comes at a time when National Defense units loyal to the Syrian regime complained that had not been paid by Iranian- and Syrian-backed sponsors for several months.
The fact that Iran has not paid these units in southern Raqqa indicates that Iran has changed its focus. As the Middle East Institute argues, when the pandemic began, Iran’s neglect of these troops was part of its overall repositioning tactic in Syria and its attempt to reduce its losses within the Raqqa area in particular.
Over the last few months, the Islamic Republic has shifted its focus from eastern Syria to the southwest — an area of the country closest to Israel. In securing locations such as Al-Mayadeen and Albukamal, Iran may well feel it has achieved its main objectives, reasoning that it is no longer worth keeping troops in places vulnerable to the ongoing Israeli airstrikes.