Iran's Syria Project Begins to Stutter

Iran has reduced its activity in the Damascus airport area, and cut down the number of Tehran-backed militia members. Israel has mainly Russia to thank

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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A convoy of tanker trucks carrying Iranian diesel crossed the border from Syria into Lebanon
A convoy of tanker trucks carrying Iranian diesel crossed the border from Syria into LebanonCredit: Bilal Hussein/AP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

The latest air attacks attributed to Israel in Syria, one of them at the end of last week, all took place in the center and north of the country. Missing from the map of the attacks this year is a key target of the air force in recent years: the international airport in Damascus. There is nothing random about this. Since Israel started taking action (mostly according to foreign reports) against the Iranian presence in Syria, in late 2017, numerous modifications have occurred there. In early, 2019 Haaretz reported that the Iranians were evacuating their forces from the region of the Damascus airport in the wake of the many Israeli attacks. They returned there a year later and recently again reduced their presence in this area.

The change is due to pressure being exerted on the Iranians by the Russians and the Syrians. For Syrian President Bashar Assad, the Israeli strikes against the airport, which were visible far and wide in and around the capital, were a source of embarrassment. Thanks to the substantial Russian aid, the murderous regime’s grip is beginning to stabilize again. The attacks showed that not all was well. In the wake of the pressure, Iran again centered much of its activity in the T-4 air force base, east of Homs, which is much farther from its border with Israel.

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Nor is that the only change in their activity. Various Western intelligence sources estimate that the number of pro-Iranian Shiite militiamen in Syria has been halved, from 20,000 to 10,000. Tehran is having difficulty financing its Syrian project, even after the spike in oil prices, which this month hit $80 a barrel, after falling to zero at the start of the pandemic.

Israeli spokespersons generally tend to paint a picture of a threatening encroachment by Iran across the region, in order to underline the danger that country poses. But it would appear, in fact, that changes in different directions have occurred in these trends over the years. Iran has encountered concrete difficulties of its own, particularly since the assassination by the United States of the commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Gen. Qassem Soleminai, in January 2020.

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad meets with Iran's foreign minister, Hossein Amir AbdollahianCredit: Syrian Arab News Agency/Reuters

Concurrently, an attempt is underway to normalize relations between the Arab world and the Syrian regime. The thaw in the relations between Syria and Jordan, which will probably include the opening of border crossings between the two countries, is meant to boost both countries’ economy. Jordan’s situation is worrisome. King Abdullah is encountering internal criticism in the wake of the exposure of his net worth and his corruption in the Pandora Papers, and because of the sharp increase in unemployment in the country; nearly a quarter of the labor force and half the young population are jobless. As usual in crisis situations, the king shuffled his government – the fourth time in a year.

Amman is very much in need of aid from Israel. Which is why Jordan this week took the unusual step of playing up Israel’s agreement to increase the quota of the water it supplies to the country. Former prime minister Netanyahu assailed Bennett for his weakness in the face of Jordan. “He’s giving them water, and they’re transferring oil to Iran.” More than any of us, Netanyahu should know how greatly Jordan contributes to Israel’s security. Suffice it to recall the latest report in the Arab media, to the effect that the planes that bombed an area near Homs arrived from the south, meaning that they flew in Jordanian airspace. Nevertheless, Netanyahu is continuing to display an irresponsible attitude toward Jordan, which is due in part to his longstanding difficult relations with the king.

In Lebanon, which is subject to intensive Iranian influence, the process of domestic collapse continues. A new low seemed to have been reached at the beginning of the week when the national power grid ceased to operate for a day. Hezbollah is trying to exploit to some extent the vacuum by means of fuel that’s arriving in oil tankers from Iran.

However, things went from bad to worse. On Thursday, Beirut exploded with some of its worst sectarian violence in decades. At least six people were killed and dozens were wounded during a protest organized by Hezbollah and its allies against the lead judge probing last year’s blast in the city’s port. 

Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian and Lebanese Foreign minister Abdallah Bou Habib attend a joint news conference in BeirutCredit: Aziz Taher/Reuters

A Syrian exile tweeted this week about the extreme disparity between the military might that Hezbollah projects, with its stockpiles of rockets and its public threats against Israel, and the country’s gloomy situation, with the economy and the state institutions barely functioning. If Lebanon were a human being, Kamal Thabath wrote, it would “certainly be a depressed man living in a battered commercial vehicle, with a stash of five pistols under the mattress which he fished out of a garbage can.”

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