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Iran after Russia’s withdrawal from Syria

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

Published: Updated:

No one could have guessed that Iran would gain the most from the Ukraine crisis, which is forcing Russians to retreat from Syria today.

Russia’s ambitions in our region are not too grand: better its trade and investment balance, use the Tartus port, and play a significant role in the Middle East. Its military presence in Syria in support of the Syrian regime helped balance Iran’s influence and keep it under control, despite the alliance of the two countries in Syria. For this reason, Russia’s presence in the country was welcomed, as it tranquilized regional powers worried about the spread of Iranian militias in Syria.

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Today, this theoretical foreign balance in Syria is about to be tipped in favor of Tehran. In the last few weeks, reports said Russian forces were leaving Syria bound for their homeland, or maybe Ukraine, where Russia is waging its very own war. Further Russian retreats will likely follow, paving the way for Iran to wield complete influence over Syria.

Some may not see the significance of the Russian withdrawal, since the war in Syria is virtually over and internal strife in the country has calmed, with the regime gaining back control over most regions. Still, I find it very unlikely that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps will leave Syria once the fighting stops completely. However, the withdrawal of Russia coupled with the continued military presence of Iran could rekindle the flames of conflict inside and around Syria, as the objectives of Iran’s presence in Damascus go far beyond protecting the Syrian regime.

In fact, Tehran’s continued military presence in Syria will lead Iran straight to complete control over Iraq. After all, Syria was a passageway to Iraq, as evidenced by Iran’s use of the former during its war with the latter’s Saddam. For this reason, too, the US failed to exercise complete control over Iraq during its occupation, after militants of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and Iraqi opposition forces crawled from the south of Syria and flooded into Iraq.

Iran is advancing in slow but steady steps, from Basrah to Erbil and Sulaymaniyah, to control Iraq and its decisions. From Syria, the IRGC also controls neighboring Lebanon, which it has turned into a center of operations for its regional activities in Yemen and Palestine. With the Russians gone, Iran faces little resistance now, only having to fend off Israel, which may consider Iran’s presence in Syria a strategic threat to its security but is not willing to be dragged into a war there.

Russia’s presence constituted a regional guarantee that Syria will not be turned into an advanced military base for the IRGC, and that Iran and its militias will leave as soon as the curtain falls on the civil war. Instead, it was Russia who left, only keeping a few symbolic troops to roam the borders and make appearances every now and then in Syrian cities. The other powers have also shrunk their military presence.

Most US troops have retreated from the east bank of the Euphrates, as did most Turkish forces and militias from the north of the country. And now with Russian forces out, Iran and its militias – Iraqi and Afghan groups, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and Syrian pro-Iran militias – are left alone to expand their presence and influence.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

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Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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