How Iran’s Syria project ground to a halt over six months

This has not been a good year for Iran in Syria.

Syrian President Bashar al Assad visits Syrian army troops in war-torn northwestern Idlib province, Syria, October 22, 2019 (photo credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Syrian President Bashar al Assad visits Syrian army troops in war-torn northwestern Idlib province, Syria, October 22, 2019
It has become an almost nightly occurrence. Syrian social media watchers await the explosions from airstrikes that are likely to occur. From villages near Deir Ezzor and Al Bukamal, to five hundred kilometers north to the Aleppo countryside and then four hundred kilometers south to Damascus, those watching Syria’s skies have become used to aerial bombardment. 
The night of May 4 was no different. Syria’s SANA state media reported its air defenses confronting an Israeli attack near Aleppo before midnight. Those details were picked up by pro-Hezbollah and pro-Iranian media networks. Then, an hour later, more reports emerged from the Euphrates river valley of explosions along the road that runs from Deir Ezzor to Al Bukamal on the Iraqi border. Rumors circulated of Iranian-backed militias being targeted. Later reports would indicate that Iranians were killed in the strikes. 
May 4 was a transformative night in two weeks that have seen at least five airstrikes on Syria. These include an April 20 airstrike near Palmyra, April 27 airstrikes at Mazzeh airport in Damascus, rocket fire near Quneitra on April 30 and the explosion of a warehouse south of Homs on May 1.
If we look back a little further, local Syrians also reported strikes that ripped apart Iran’s Imam Ali base on March 11 near Al Bukamal, a major attack on Shayrat airbase in Homs on March 31 and an airstrike that missed a Hezbollah vehicle on April 15 near the Lebanese border. There were other incidents in Homs on March 5, February 27 near the Golan and January 9 near Al Bukamal. The airstrikes have targeted Hezbollah, Iranian-backed militias, warehouses where Iran stocks weapons and munitions and bases that Iran and its allies use in Syria. 
In short: This has not been a good year for Iran in Syria. However, Iran’s media is wary of discussing the full extent of the blows Iran’s project in Syria has been hammered with. Instead it has been pushing a different narrative: Iran blames the US for increased ISIS attacks in Iraq. Over the past week, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq suffered casualties at the hands of ISIS, which has exploited the pandemic and instability in Iraq to carry out assaults. Iran’s Fars News, Press TV and its proxies in Iraq blame the US for the attacks. Iran has also been pressuring the US in the Persian Gulf, sending boats to harass the US Navy. On April 22, US President Donald Trump warned Iran that the US would sink the boats. Iran, in turn, launched a military satellite it says can be used to spy on its adversaries, including the US and Israel. 
Iran seeks to draw focus from losses in Syria by bragging about its new drone programs, including anti-tank missiles that it designed by copying, at least on the outside, Israeli anti-tank missiles. Iran’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah, has had to make due with its own attempt to respond to the strikes. It sent a small model airplane drone over the border on March 25. After two Hezbollah members were killed on February 27 and April 5, and following an airstrike on a Hezbollah vehicle on April 15, it launched an operation to sabotage three parts of the fence between Israel and Lebanon. But overall Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s speeches have not said anything unique about Israel in recent weeks. He has concentrated on a budget crisis in Lebanon and anger over Germany blacklisting Hezbollah. In short: Hezbollah has suffered setbacks and focuses its rhetoric at home. 
The Syrian regime is in an even tougher spot than Iran and Hezbollah. A key businessman and cousin of Bashar al-Assad has become a critic. Rami Makhlouf released videos over the last week slamming the regime, a rare criticism from an insider. Meanwhile rumors swirl in Syria that Russian-supplied air defense has not prevented recent airstrikes, and that the regime should use Chinese radars instead. In addition, there are rumors of a rift with Iran.
All this undermines Damascus and its already weak position. Between the summer of 2018 and the fall of 2019, Damascus thought it was winning. It had swiftly reconquered the south from the rebels near the Golan. It had retaken swaths of the north and the US had decided to withdraw. But the American withdrawal stalled, and the regime’s attempt to retake Idlib in the north failed and almost grew into conflict with Turkey. 
Iran too had thought that things might improve in Syria. Back in the fall of 2018 Syrian air defense shot down a Russian military plane in the midst of an Israeli airstrike. Russia was angry and Syria got S-300 air defense systems. Damascus fanned stories that Russia had “prevented” Israeli airstrikes after that, with claims circulating into September 2019 that “Russia prevents Israeli airstrikes.” Criticism of Israel came from Moscow in December 2018 and April 2019, and misinformation clogged up some media in the Middle East with lurid reports of “Russian Su-35 jets scrambled to stop Israel over Syria” in December 2019. The real story was more complex with Moscow. In November 2019 the Russian Foreign Ministry revealed details about alleged Israeli strikes on Syria. These included a November 12 incident where Islamic Jihad member Akram al-Ajouri was targeted, another attack on November 18 near Al Bukamal and a November 19 attack near Damascus. Then cruise missiles were fired at targets near Damascus on November 20. Russia also said that Israel has “reportedly crossed Iraqi and Jordanian airspace.” 
The Russian criticism came after Iraq’s prime minister had also slammed Israel for alleged airstrikes in September. Iran’s plans for Iraq, like Syria, appeared to unravel with the new year. Last year it was trying to push the US out using proxies and rocket attacks. It also sent ballistic missiles to Iraq and was pleased when the border crossing at Al Bukamal and Al Qaim re-opened at the end of September. But Iran suffered setbacks with protests in Iraq and US airstrikes, which killed its IRGC Quds Force leader Qasem Soleimani. 
If one sketches an arc of changes from the fall of 2019 to the spring of 2020, there have been rapid setbacks for Iran in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Whatever hegemony it thought it was creating in 2017 and 2019 – sending militias into Kirkuk, helping the Syrian regime retake land and seeking to humiliate the US in Syria while supplying Hezbollah with precision guided munitions – might be in tatters. Soleimani's replacement, Esmail Ghaani, has offended Iran’s friends in Iraq, Assad is losing friends at home and Hezbollah has been called upon to help in Syria and Iraq when it is nearing bankruptcy at home. In crisis there can be opportunity, but with apparent setbacks for Iran there can also be miscalculation.