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Despite his gratitude to Soleimani, Assad is clamping down on Iran’s presence in Syria

January 5, 2022 at 11:00 am

People gather for a commemoration ceremony during a vigil marking the second anniversary of killing of Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani in a US drone attack at at Imam Khomeini Mosalla in Tehran, Iran on 3 January 2022. [Fatemeh Bahrami – Anadolu Agency]

Two years after the assassination of Qasem Soleimani in a US missile attack at Baghdad Airport, the legacy of the late commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is still disputed. His critics insist that he was a war criminal who was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Sunni Muslims in the Middle East by helping to set up of dozens of Iran-backed Shia militias, and leading infamous attacks and sieges in Syria, such as the battle for Aleppo.

Soleimani’s supporters, on the other hand, call him the “great martyr of Jerusalem” who defeated Daesh singlehandedly and was an integral part of the “Axis of Resistance” against the interventionist west. This is despite the fact that none of Soleimani’s battles liberated Jerusalem or the Palestinians – indeed they killed many Palestinians in Syria – and that fighting Daesh is not a benchmark for legitimacy and moral superiority. If it was, then almost every army and militia operating in Syria and Iraq should be lauded, including America’s.

Even more important and pressing than the controversy surrounding the figure of Soleimani, however, is Iran’s position in Syria two years on from his death.

Tehran has supported the government of Bashar Al-Assad military and financially extensively throughout the ongoing conflict. It has paid at least $30 billion towards the war effort, helping the regime to bypass international sanctions. Soldiers like Soleimani and proxy militias such as Hezbollah were deployed to fight alongside Syrian forces.

Damascus has been grateful, showing its appreciation to Tehran by granting Iranian militias a free rein and movement throughout the territories under regime control, facilitating their attacks and providing them with entire districts and neighbourhoods during their stay in the country. Simply put, the Iranians have been at the forefront and centre of much of what the regime does and decides.

All of that, though, seems to be coming to an end.

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In recent years, cracks have emerged between Iranian elements within Syria and forces loyal to the Assad regime. In 2019, Iran-backed militias drove out militants of the Assad-backed Qaterji group from the eastern province and city of Deir Ez-Zor, taking control of the river crossings in an effort to break its monopoly and establish their own.

A year later, regime forces attacked sites held by Iranian militias in the same province, wresting control of an oil field from them. Two months ago, Assad was reported to have demanded the removal of Jawad Ghafari, the commander of the IRGC’s Quds Force in Syria.

This clampdown on Tehran’s influence and power in Syria is happening because the regime is growing both frustrated and ever more suspicious of the Iranian presence.

The frustration is due to the numerous blunders, violations and infringements of potential peace moves that Iran’s militias and military advisers have been known to commit during the war. Whenever there was the possibility of a ceasefire, such as in Aleppo and more recently in the southern province of Daraa, it was usually Iranian elements which violated its terms.

Iranian military sites are generally the targets of the frequent Israeli air strikes in Syria, which the Syrian army must deal with. Damascus is concerned about such breaches of its sovereignty, including that which took place when the now-expelled Iranian commander Ghafari reportedly authorised military strikes against US and Israeli forces without consent from the Assad regime.

A commemoration ceremony is held near Baghdad International Airport marking the second anniversaries of the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards' Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and the vice president of the Hashd al-Shaabi Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, on 2 January 2022 in Bahgdad, Iraq. [Murtadha Al-Sudani - Anadolu Agency]

A commemoration ceremony is held near Baghdad International Airport marking the second anniversaries of the killing of Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani and the vice president of the Hashd al-Shaabi Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, on 2 January 2022 in Bahgdad, Iraq. [Murtadha Al-Sudani – Anadolu Agency]

The decision to expel Ghafari was thus a direct result of the frustration of Assad and senior regime officials. According to reports citing an anonymous Syrian source, Assad “sent a message to the Iranian leadership asking them to take this step in order to preserve the strong ties between the two countries.”

The same source also revealed that “there were other demands such as for the Iranians and their allies to leave Damascus completely. In addition, relations should from now on go through the embassies, but they never made this request officially.”

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Suspicion towards Iran is growing within the Assad regime and its intelligence services. They are aware of their ally’s efforts to expand not just its hegemonic power in the region, but also its particular version of Shi’ism, and even the demography of certain territories.

Reports abound of Syrians joining the Iran-backed Shia militias in southern and eastern Syria, with returnees and former refugees amongst the recruits. They are reportedly given guarantees of protection from the militias, as even Assad’s security forces would not dare to touch them. Many join and convert to Shi’ism, resulting in entirely new brigades made up of local Shia converts.

Along with the building and renovation of Shia shrines and religious sites in Syria, the settlement of Iranian militants and other foreign Shia fighters from Iran’s proxy groups is resulting in serious demographic change in Syria and, in fact, the region as a whole. This is so drastic that many predict that Syria could shift from being predominantly Sunni in the near future.

Such a change hardly concerns Assad, who is from the Alawite Shia community. What is of concern, though, is that with the change comes the inevitable expansion of Iran’s influence in Syria. This was never allowed to happen by the president’s father and predecessor, Hafez Al-Assad, who laid the foundation of the regime’s relationship with Iran’s Islamic Republic by being the first to recognise it after the 1979 revolution. Assad Senior was careful not to let Iran expand into Syria. Today, with Iran – and Russia – having intervened to save him from being overthrown, Bashar Al-Assad does not have the luxury of sovereignty that his father had.

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None of this will cause a direct conflict between the two allies or even significant tension in the near future. Tehran has invested too much into saving Assad simply to neglect the relationship or abandon its long-term goals in Syria. In fact, it continues such investment, with deals to build 200,000 housing units in Syria and to bolster air defence systems in the pipeline. Last month, Iran made clear its readiness to help in the reconstruction of Syria.

Despite the continuation of the partnership, though, we could see heightened suspicion or apprehension on the part of Assad and Syria’s ruling class towards Iran and its proxies, and further action to curtail their influence. Whatever form that takes, the cracks are already visible.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.