Will Iran Withdraw Its Forces From Syria?

With Israel adamant on preventing Iran from getting close to the border and Russia ordering a retreat from Syria, Iran has some choices to make - that Assad may not like

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File photo: Syrian President Bashar Assad visiting Iran, 2009.
File photo: Syrian President Bashar Assad visiting Iran, 2009.Credit: AP

The Iranian forces’ bases and installations in Syria have been under relentless attack these past few weeks by the Israel Air Force. That’s a clear message that Israel is adamant about preventing the Iranians from approaching Israel’s borders, even at the risk of escalation. This challenge to Iran’s plans to expand its presence and influence in Syria poses a dilemma for the rulers in Tehran.

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The Iranian and Syrian air forces are no match for Israel’s. What’s more, Israel seems to possess almost real-time intelligence on Iranian activities in Syria, which exposes the Iranian forces there to almost constant and immediate attack. On that front, the Iranian military capability is inferior to Israel’s. The Iranians could respond by extending the conflict through the use of Hezbollah, its Lebanese terrorist proxy. Hezbollah has over a hundred thousand rockets and missiles deployed in Lebanon and is able to cover all of Israel. Tehran’s use of the Lebanese-based militia movement would represent a substantial escalation in the Iranian-Israeli confrontation. It also runs the risk of causing considerable damage to Israel’s home front, despite Israel’s considerable missile interception capabilities, but it might also lead to the quick elimination of Hezbollah’s capabilities in Lebanon, risking the loss to Iran of a much-needed ally in case of need.

The Iranian dilemma has been made that much greater with the recent American announcement in support of Israel’s position that Iranian forces must be withdrawn from Syria. That and President Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the deal to restrain Iran’s nuclear activities and impose heavy economic sanctions against Tehran are backing the Iranians into a corner. Even the other partners to the Iranian nuclear accord are now raising the possibility of renegotiating the agreement to include limitations on Iran’s ballistic missile activities and on its worldwide support for terrorism.

The Iranians have to take into account the possibility that an escalation in the Iranian-Israeli conflict might bring about direct U.S. involvement on Israel’s side. Iran’s problem is compounded a rapidly deteriorating Iranian economic situation. In light of all this, would it be the better part of wisdom for Iran to abandon its expansionist plans in Syria? That, no doubt, is being considered in Tehran among the available alternatives.

There is also another player in this precarious game: Russia. It is the Russians who have saved Syrian President Bashar Assad from defeat by the coalition of rebel forces in his country. But just as his position seemed to have been stabilized by Russian military intervention, as Russian air and naval bases in Syria have been secured under his rule, the Russians see the possibility that his continued rule might be endangered by the Israeli attacks on the Iranian deployment in Syria. They have evidently become convinced that Israel will not be dissuaded from its plans to force the Iranians to leave Syria.

The ad hoc alliance between Russia and Iran that has propped up Assad seems to be unraveling. Now President Vladimir Putin’s advice to the Syrian president is to order the Iranians to leave Syria. Assad’s response is far from enthusiastic. Does he have a choice? Alliances in the Syrian theater of operations are shifting. This shift is the direct result of Israel’s determination to prevent Iranian military forces from approaching Israel’s borders. The danger as perceived in Israel leaves little room for Israeli compromise. That seems to be well-understood in Washington and Moscow. Let’s also hope it also understood in Tehran. Assad may end up being the loser in this development, and perhaps the long-suffering Syrian people will benefit from this change.