The departure of an Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander from Syria this month has led to some speculation in regional media that the Syrian regime is seeking to recalibrate its relations with Tehran. Two Saudi news outlets claimed that the officer was removed at the direct order of President Bashar Assad. According to the reports, in Al Arabiya and Al Hadath, the independent activities of the officer, in violation of Syrian sovereignty, led to the order for his removal.
An additional article by Lebanese commentator Ali Hashem at Al-Monitor purported to provide further details regarding the growing sentiment at the top of the regime against the Iranian presence.
According to Hashem, who quotes an unnamed source, Assad himself is cautious and wishes to avoid pressuring the Iranians to leave. A second camp wishes to take a firmer stance, intended to induce the Iranians “to accept that the war in Syria is over and there is no need for their presence.” This camp, according to Hashem’s source, includes the president’s wife, Asma, and the president’s younger brother, Maher.
The officer in question, Gen. Javad Ghafari, was appointed commander of the IRGC’s forces in Syria at the height of the civil war, in 2015. He replaced IRGC general Hossein Hamadani, who was killed in that year – the highest ranking Iranian commander to die in Syria.
Closer observation of events in Syria suggests that these claims should be treated with some skepticism. That Ghafari was deployed in Syria and has now departed is not in doubt. But the extent to which his departure reflects a Syrian effort to detach the regime from its Iranian patrons remains deeply open to question.
This is for two reasons: firstly, because the timing of the supposed expulsion fits perhaps a little too neatly with a current Arab diplomatic campaign to bring the Assad regime back to international legitimacy.
Secondly, and more importantly, because available evidence from the ground suggests no significant change in the Iranian deployment in Syria. Rather, the Iranians are continuing both in efforts to entrench their presence in the country, and in the cloaking of these efforts by weaving them into the deployments of the official Syrian Armed Forces.
The revelation of the commander’s departure came just days after the visit of UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah Bin Zayed Al Nahyan to Damascus. It was reported not in regime media outlets, but rather in Saudi media. The Emirati foreign minister’s visit to Damascus was the most visible step so far in an ongoing diplomatic campaign to end Syria’s isolation. The UAE has pioneered this effort, reopening its own Damascus Embassy as early as 2018. Other Arab states are on board. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan are all engaged in this effort.
The intentions of these states is to draw a line under the Syrian civil war. Assad is in urgent need of funds for reconstruction. The US Caesar Civilian Protection Act, and the European insistence of the commencement of a political process mean that Western largesse is not available to him. The Arab states believe that inducement of the regime and normalization with it are the best tools for convincing Assad to dispense with the Iranian presence, which in their view he no longer needs. The announcement of Ghafari’s departure and the subsequent articles are clearly intended to offer early evidence that this process has begun.
Is there any substance to the notion that the regime has tired of the Iranian presence and is seeking ways to reduce or end it? Certainly, it has been possible to hear such sentiments expressed in pro-regime circles in recent years. The Assad regime is a family dictatorship. In so far as it has ideological pretensions, these are in the direction of Arab nationalism and chauvinism. Its supporters have little in common with the Shia Islamist revolutionaries of the IRGC. But the Iranian presence in Syria is not a matter of personal taste. Without Iranian assistance, the regime would almost certainly have fallen before the Russian intervention in 2015.
Iran today possesses an extensive infrastructure in Syria. This includes exclusive control of a border crossing, (Albukamal-Al Qaim, between Iraq and Syria,) and the roads leading from it, and an extensive archipelago of bases and positions extending to the border with Israel. It has established Hezbollah-style militias in southern Syria, recruited for pay from among the impoverished Sunni population. In addition, through such formations as the National Defense Forces, it has created structures that are today part of the official security forces. Certain bodies of long standing within the security forces, such as Air Force Intelligence and the 4th Division also work closely with the IRGC.
That is, Iran, in the pattern now familiar from Lebanon and Iraq, but in the unique circumstances of Syria, is some way toward achieving the implantation of its own “deep state” in Syria, partially within regime structures and partly outside, on Syrian soil but beyond the regime’s control. Bashar Assad simply does not possess the means to expel this structure.
The problem is that as is also seen in Lebanon and Iraq, the Sunni Arab powers also lack the kind of coercive abilities that alone could challenge the Iranian structures. The Gulf Arabs and the others can bring money, diplomatic acceptance and a return to legitimacy. This, however, if it is achieved, is likely as elsewhere to exist alongside, rather than in place of the Iran-controlled hard power element.
In the latest evidence emerging of Iran’s activities on Syrian soil, a report at the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights this week noted that Iranian positions in the Albukamal area took down Iranian and militia flags on November 12, replacing them with Syrian regime banners. This followed a deadly attack on November 10 by unidentified drones, according to SOHR, which maintains a network of informants across Syria and in the relevant area. A neater illustration of the interconnectedness of the Iranian element and the regime would be difficult to find.
The Israel-based Alma Center, meanwhile, published a report claiming Iran is in the process of smuggling surface-to-air missile systems into Syria. If confirmed, this would constitute the latest evidence of the deepening and widening threat of the Iranian presence.
There are no simple or easy solutions to this challenge. Israel has been engaged in its “war between the wars” campaign for eight years now. We are told that the defense establishment is pleased with the damage inflicted and the progress made. Still, the depth and dimensions of the Iranian project in Syria may well be beyond what can be destroyed by surgical air strikes alone (albeit that these can surely destroy particular systems and impede progress).
This machine is still less likely to be dislodged by the diplomacy of Sunni Arab states, who have shown again and again that they lack the crucial hard-power capacity to halt the ambitions of Iran and its proxies. These are the harsh dimensions of the situation. The departure of a single officer does not change its essential elements.