When Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 2022, Iran began preparing for a new and emerging global scene. Soon after, the Russian repositioning of its forces in Syria promised to open a new chapter for Iran in terms of its ability to influence the war-torn Arab country. This recent Russian military regrouping, according to Israeli news outlets and Syrian opposition groups, may in fact tip the scales in favor of Iranian forces on the ground in Syria. According to these sources, the Syrian army and Iranian militias have in fact immediately stepped in to advance their spheres of influence in territories previously controlled by Russian forces.
Russia first dispatched its military forces to Syria in September 2015. But the outbreak of the conflict in Ukraine this year signaled that a reshuffling of the Russian armed forces operating abroad was bound to happen. As a result, as early as January 2022, while international tensions over Ukraine increased, Iran reportedly tried to fortify areas in the Deir Ezzor Province controlled by Russia in order to construct a land corridor to move advanced weapons into Syria from Iraq. The corridor would also grant Iran direct land access to the Mediterranean Sea and Lebanon.
The number of Russia’s military troops present in Syria stood at more than 63,000 at the time of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, compared to the nearly 150,000 estimated Russian forces deployed in Ukraine by late March. There are no accurate figures to indicate how many of Russia’s troops in Ukraine have come from its deployments in Syria, but with the vacation of military bases in Syria, there is a strong Iranian belief that more Russian troops will withdraw, thus opening up further space to be occupied by Iran and its militias.
In response, in March 2022, Iran’s Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian paid a visit to Damascus to strengthen strategic ties. Iranian forces subsequently fortified positions alongside Syrian government forces in the Aleppo area by taking over the Al-Nayrab military airport, thus raising concerns among international observers and Syrian activists that they were taking advantage of Russia’s military preoccupation in Ukraine. Until the capture of the airport,Russia had controlled almost all the skies across most of Syria.
More signs that Russian forces in Syria had withdrawn emerged in early April, when large reinforcements from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) reportedly arrived in central Syria. Then in early May, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a rare visit to Tehran for a few brief hours. Although Tehran did not release full details about the purpose of the Syrian president’s trip, Iranian news sources said it intended to reinforce the depth of the strategic partnership between Damascus and Tehran.
When Moscow finally publicly announced that it had started withdrawing its forces from Syria in May, news reports released by Syrian activists and Israeli sources claimed that Russian-held military bases in the Arab country had been occupied by Iranian forces and Hezbollah fighters.Then again, in late May, Jordanian authorities revealed that groups linked to Iran along the Jordanian and Syrian border were stepping up efforts to smuggle drugs worth millions of dollars to the Gulf States in order to fund the purchase of weapons. This border area was previously controlled by the Russians. Combined with Iran’s economic outreach into Syria, its military expansion and further involvement in illicit activities has raised international concerns of rising Iranian influence in the Arab country.
Iran-based analysts and websites dismissed the aforementioned claims, by arguing that the withdrawal of Russian forces would only serve to offer Israel a free hand to attack Iranian targets in Syria.
It is possible that some of Russia’s troops in Syria were in fact redeployed to the Arab country’s Mediterranean port in the area of Hmeimim Air Base, where Russian and Israeli forces had previously attempted to keep Iran out, as well as in the eastern areas of Deir Ezzor and the T4 Air Base in Homs which is Syria’s largest military airbase.
Interestingly, these are all also areas of primary geostrategic value to Iran in its competition with the Russians. Back in 2021, for example, Iranian forces evacuated the T4 Air Base in eastern Homs after a reported dispute with Moscow over the control of the airport. But with the current repositioning of Russian forces in Syria, Iran could once again regain control over these disputed areas.
Not surprisingly, a growing number of analysts in Iran claim that Russia plans to keep Iranian forces in Syria on its side now, in light of its preoccupation with Ukraine, and Iran’s growing influence in the Arab country. This also suggests that the rivalry in Syria between Russian and Iranian forces may still persist, and carry security implications, the dimensions of which are not yet fully known. But, what is known is that for now, Iran is thriving amid Syria’s continuing chaos as Russian military forces shift their positions. In the absence of a clear Russian strategy to win in Ukraine or consolidate its influence over Syria, this means that Iran may have more of an open hand to operate in the Arab country.