Overview –Against the backdrop of President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, Iran welcomed the announcement by the spokesman of the Syrian Arab Army claiming that the Syrian military entered the city of Manbij, currently under control of the U.S.-backed Kurds, and raised the Syrian flag there. Meanwhile, the former Iranian Minister of Defense, Ahmad Vahidi, declared that whether the U.S. remains or withdraws from Syria, its decision does not matter, since it is clear that the American have been defeated in Syria.
- Iran is expanding its efforts to entrench its economic and civilian influence in Syria. In late December, the joint Syrian-Iranian economic committee convened in Tehran to discuss expanding cooperation between the two countries. The head of the joint economic committee announced the opening of an Iranian trade center in Damascus in the near future, as well as the establishment of a joint transportation company operated by Iran, Syria and Iraq. In addition, a Syrian website reported that Iran recently established two associations in southern Syria to provide financial assistance to needy families and relatives of pro-Iranian militiamen killed while fighting in Syria. It appears that due to the challenges Iran faces, particularly from Israel, in trying to establish strategic military infrastructure on Syrian soil, Iran is striving to preserve and even expand its influence in Syria by increasingly relying on Syrian manpower and on pro-Iranian Shi’ite militias, as well as by expanding economic and non-military activities.
- The increasingly close cooperation between Iran and militant Palestinian organizations manifested in the visit to Tehran in late December of a delegation headed by the Secretary General of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziad al-Nakhla. The delegation met with senior Iranian officials, chief among them the Supreme Leader, the president, the minister of foreign affairs, the secretary of the Supreme National Security Council and the commander of Iran’s law enforcement forces, who all emphasized Iran’s commitment to continue supporting the Palestinians. The Iranian officials also reiterated that “resistance” is the only way to achieve the goals of the Palestinians. The growing cooperation between Iran and the Palestinian factions stem from a desire of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad to increase their deterrence vis-à-vis Israel and boost Iran’s reputation for the military and financial aid it offers them. Iran, for its part, wishes to portray itself as the main supporter of the Palestinian organizations to increase its sway in the Gaza Strip.
Iranian Involvement in Syria
- Iran welcomed the announcement of the Syrian Arab Army claiming that the Syrian military entered the town of Manbij, east of the Euphrates, and raised the Syrian flag there. The town is currently under the control of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which are dominated by the Kurdish YPG militia. The Spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Bahram Qasemi, stated that Iran welcomes the raising of the Syrian flag in the city and sees it as an important step in reestablish the sovereignty of Syria’s legitimate government over all of Syria’s territory and a step toward resolving the crisis in the country (Tasnim, December 28, 2018).
- The former Iranian Minister of Defense, Ahmad Vahidi, who heads the Supreme National Defense University, stated during a conference in Tehran that it is still unclear if the United States will indeed withdraw from Syria, but it makes no difference whether the decision is implemented or not, since it is clear that the American have been defeated in Syria. He asserted that the United States is unable to implement its regional policy due to the clout of the “Resistance Axis” (Tasnim, January 7, 2019).
- In late December, the joint Iranian-Syrian economic committee met in Tehran. At the helm of the committee were the Iranian Minister of Transportation, Mohammad Eslami and the Syrian Minister of Economy and Foreign Trade, Mohammad Samer al-Khalil. The delegates discussed expanding economic cooperation between the two countries. The Syrian minister of economy declared that the two countries are determined to develop the economic ties between them and that Syria trusts Iranian companies to play a central role in its reconstruction and economic rehabilitation. Al-Khalil emphasized that Syria will give priority to Iranian firms – from the public and private sectors – in awarding development projects in Syria.
- The Iranian minister of transportation reported that an Iranian economic delegation will leave for Syria in the next month to hold talks concerning the reconstruction process in Syria. He invited Iranian businesspeople to participate in the delegation. He commented that the signing of the strategic economic cooperation agreement between the two nations during the conference in Tehran will make it easier to Iranian businesspeople to take part in economic projects in Syria (Mehr, December 30, 2018; al-Nashra, December 30, 2018).
- During his visit to Tehran, the Syrian minister of economy met with the Iranian Central Bank Chairman, Abdolnasser Hemmati, who reported that Tehran and Damascus agreed to expand banking ties between the two countries. He stated that the Syrian and Iranian delegates discussed various matters, including money transfers between the two countries, bolstering ties between commercial banks and establishing joint banks (Fars, January 1, 2019).
- The chairman of the joint Iranian-Syria economic committee, Keyvan Kashefi, announced the opening of an “Iranian commercial center” in the near future in Damascus. Kashefi reported that the preparations for the establishment of the center were carried out during the recent visit to Syria of a delegation of economists and businesspeople. He added that during the delegation’s visit, the representatives of the two countries also discussed establishing a joint transportation company operated by Iran, Syria and Iraq to ferry Iranian goods to Syria via Iraq. The delegations also discussed the possibility of executing financial deals through foreign reserve bureaus and banks of the two countries (ISNA, January 5, 2019).
- On the occasion of the Gregorian New Year, the Representative of the Supreme Leader of Iran in Syria, Ayatollah Seyyed Abolfazl Tabatabaei Ashkezari, met with Christian pastors, most prominent among them the Greek-Orthodox Patriarch of the Levant, Yohanna al-Yazeji, and declared that there is no contradiction between Islam and Christianity, arguing that the two religions complement each other. He claimed that since its establishment, the Islamic Republic strove to create a unified nation, comprised of different faiths and religious, which can serve as a united front against the enemies. According to him, Israel fears this unity and solidarity. He argued that the activities of the enemies in Syria in recent years harmed not the Shi’ite alone but also the Christians (Aleph, January 2, 2019).
- The Syrian opposition website, Suriya Net, reported on growing efforts by Iran to expand its influence in the civilian sphere in southern Syria. The report on the website (December 31, 2018) stated that following a visit to southern Syria in September 2018 of the representative of the Supreme Leader to Syria, Abolfazl Tabatabaei Ashkezari, Iran established the al-Zahraa Association, which operates in Daraa and provides financial assistance to needy families as well as relatives of fighters of pro-Iranian militias killed in the war in Syria. According to this report, in recent months, Iran disbursed a total of 35 million Syrian liras through the new association, which is supervised by senior officials and clerics in Daraa, including a high-ranking commander in the pro-Iranian Syrian militia “Saraya al-Areen.” Following the success of the activities of this association, Iran established another association in the Daraa countryside, which is supported by the “Martyr Institute” and assists families of Hezbollah fallen fighters.
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
- The Adviser to the Iranian Deputy President and former Iranian Ambassador to Baghdad, Hassan Danaeifar, reported that export of good from Iran to Iraq rose over the past Iranian year (which started on March 21, 2018) by 40% compared to the previous year. He detailed that 14 border crossings currently operate between Iran and Iraq, most of them for economic activity, which attests to the importance Iran sees in trade with Iraq. Meanwhile, the head of the Department on Arab and African Affairs at the Iranian Trade Promotion Organization announced that the joint Iranian-Iraqi economic committee will convene in the coming months to discuss commercial cooperation and problems in the border crossings between the two countries (IRNA, January 6, 2019).
- The Iraqi cleric Hashem al-Haydari stated in a conference held in the city of Hamadan that the establishment of the Shi’ite militias in Iraq, with Iran’s assistance, prevented ISIS from precipitating a major civil war in Iraq. Haydari, who serves as the Deputy for Cultural Affairs at the Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashd al-Shaabi) called the Islamic Revolution in Iran “a great miracle” and emphasized its great influence on the “Resistance Front.” He addressed the major role played by Iran in ISIS’ defeat in Syria and Iraq, arguing that without Iran’s intervention, ISIS would have been able to achieve its goals. He added that although Iran faces several domestic challenges, when the Islamic Revolution succeeds beyond Iran’s borders, it can succeed within it as well (Tasnim, January 8, 2019).