Islamic Republic’s plan to use Syria as forward operating base unravels.
By Ari Lieberman, FPM
Things are looking bleak for the Islamic republic these days. Iran is currently facing its worst economic crisis since the 1979 revolution. Money wasted on endless proxy wars and crippling sanctions instituted by the Trump administration have taken a heavy toll on Iran’s economy. The value of Iran’s currency, the rial, continues to plummet. On the black market, one dollar fetches 156,000 rials rendering the currency virtually worthless. Iran’s attempt to rename its currency and slash some zeros off that lopsided exchange rate will do nothing to stem the problem of hyperinflation and unemployment in the Islamic Republic.
The Chinese coronavirus has also taken its toll. Government health officials reported 109,000 confirmed cases with 6,685 deaths. That official number is almost certainly a lie and the figure for those infected and succumbing to the disease is far greater. In addition, at least 700 Iranians have died from drinking toxic methanol alcohol in the convoluted belief that this would prevent them from getting infected.
Iran’s crumbling economy and the devastating effects of the coronavirus have adversely impacted Iranian overseas terrorist funding and operations. Nowhere is this positive trend more evident than in Syria, where Iranian Quds Force operatives and allied militiamen have been taking a beating at the hands of Israel.
The combination of repeated Israeli airstrikes and domestic shortcomings has convinced the Iranian regime to begin evacuating its bases in Syria and withdraw from the war-torn country. In the last two weeks alone, the Israeli Air Force has launched seven strikes in Syria targeting Iranian emplacements.
On May 5, Israel launched two strikes, one targeting an Iranian base in the Deir Ezzor region near the town of Mayadin and the other on an Iran-linked arms and munitions depot east of Aleppo, adjacent to Syrian defense research centers. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 15 Iranians and Iran-linked militants were killed in the strike near Mayadin. There were no reports of casualties in the arms depot strike but according to reports, the warehouse stored munitions destined for Hezbollah, the terrorist entity that controls Lebanon.
There are concerns in Israel, backed by credible intelligence that Iran is assisting Hezbollah in transforming the group’s vast stockpile of unguided rockets into precision missiles by upgrading them with GPS kits. Israel views this troubling development as a strategic threat and has acted resolutely, and thus far successfully, to thwart this menace. Some analysts believe that the arms warehouse hit in the most recent strike housed precision missiles and specialized engineering equipment.
As Syria’s civil war grew in intensity, so did Iranian involvement. Iran considers Syria to be an essential component in its bid to secure its Shia hegemony. Syria also provides the Iranians with a land bridge to the eastern Mediterranean and a link to Lebanon’s Hezbollah.
Since 2011, Iran has been attempting to establish Syria as a forward operating base against Israel but its efforts have been costly and have not borne fruit. Israel has made clear to the Iranians and the Russians – the real masters of Syria – that they will not tolerate the presence of Iranians or their proxies near the border, will not tolerate arms smuggling efforts to Hezbollah and will not tolerate the presence of Iranian ballistic missile sites in Syria.
The Israelis have waged a relentless campaign against the Iranian presence in Syria, inflicting massive casualties on the Iranians and their proxy militias. The Syrian Army has also been targeted and its air defenses have been severely degraded by precision Israeli strikes. The Israelis have made it clear to Syria’s chief warlord Bashar Assad, that Iran is more of a liability to the stability of his regime than an asset.
The relentless Israeli pressure appears to be paying dividends. The reported claims of an Iranian retreat from Syria are credible and corroborated. Aside from the Israeli pressure campaign and Iranian economic woes, there is likely another factor at play in the Iranian decision to cut and run.
The January 3, liquidation of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and many of his top lieutenants in a U.S. drone strike at Baghdad International Airport, severely undermined Iran’s ability to conduct its foreign military adventures. Soleimani was well-versed in Arabic, maintained excellent relations with the region’s bad actors and was considered to be a brilliant tactician. His removal from the scene was a severe blow to the Iranians and created a void which could not easily be filled.
Whether the Iranian retreat is permanent or temporary in nature remains to be seen and some analysts have expressed skepticism over Iran’s intentions. What is certain is that the Iranians are reeling and their actions on the ground are a direct result of Israeli and U.S. resolve in combatting and curbing the Islamic Republic’s malign regional influence.