Iran Trims Military Presence in Syria

File photo of Iranian military leaders in eastern Syria (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)
File photo of Iranian military leaders in eastern Syria (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)
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Iran Trims Military Presence in Syria

File photo of Iranian military leaders in eastern Syria (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)
File photo of Iranian military leaders in eastern Syria (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights)

Iranian forces have pulled out of bases in Damascus and southern Syria, moving away from the border with the Golan Heights. This suggests Iran might be stepping back from its confrontation with Israel, but it's not clear if this is a temporary move or part of a bigger regional shift.

The withdrawal follows strikes targeting key figures in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. Iran says it’s a precautionary move after recent attacks it blames on Israel.

In early April, a missile attack, which Tehran accuses Israel of mounting, hit the Iranian consulate, killing seven Revolutionary Guard members, including senior commander Mohammad Reza Zahedi, the highest-ranking Iranian military official in Syria.

Iran responded with a drone and missile strike on Israel, its first direct assault. Israel reportedly retaliated with strikes inside Iran.

This shift marks a change in Iran’s military presence in Syria, potentially signaling a new approach to the region’s dynamics.

Recent reports, some citing Iranian sources, suggest Iran is reducing its presence in Syria. However, Iraqi politicians, including a key Shiite leader, reject the idea that Iran is giving up on Syria’s strategic importance in its conflict with Israel.

One politician suggests that Iran’s presence in Syria has always been limited, despite talk of Iraqi militants filling the gap left by Iranian forces.

Speaking to Asharq Al-Awsat under the conditions of anonymity, the Iraqi politician said that “despite Iraqi militants’ readiness to fill the void left by Iranian military personnel, the operation could be a camouflage.”

They also pointed out that “Iran's presence – in the commonly understood field sense – has been limited from the start.”

According to a source close to the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, fighters from the group and Iraq have replaced Iranian forces in areas around Damascus, Daraa, and Quneitra.

Two other sources familiar with Iraqi factions say Iran has asked for fighters with Syrian experience, but it’s unclear if they’ve been sent yet.

“Kataib Hezbollah and the Popular Mobilization Forces have received requests from Tehran to send fighters with previous field experience in Syrian territories,” the sources, who requested anonymity, told Asharq Al-Awsat.

These discussions raise questions about Iran’s intentions in Syria.

A former Iraqi official, familiar with Syrian affairs and who had met Syrian President Bashar al-Assad several times between 2015 and 2019, says Iran suspects that Syrian security officers collaborated against Iranians and leaked their movements to others.

The official told Asharq Al-Awsat that “Iran is investigating, and tis close to a conclusion,” but “is taking precautionary measures,” noting that “the reduction in military presence only involves high-ranking figures openly linked to the Revolutionary Guard.”

On April 13, Iranian media quoted Gen. Morteza Qorbani, a senior advisor to the Revolutionary Guard commander, saying that an investigation was ongoing into whether the whereabouts of Zahedi had been leaked.

“Spies are rampant in Syria and Lebanon, and enemies can track individuals through satellites and communication networks (...) It only takes one infiltrator to pass information to enemies,” said Qorbani.

Iran’s suspicions focus on 18 commanders assassinated in attacks attributed to Israel.

According to Bloomberg, a Syrian defector claimed to have spoken with an Iranian official about this.

The defector’s statement suggests that Iran and Syria are jointly investigating security breaches. At one point, Iran conducted a separate investigation with Hezbollah to avoid dealing with Syrian intelligence.

An Iraqi official told Asharq Al-Awsat that Iran admits to facing challenges in Syria. Iraqi groups have been advised by Tehran to enhance phone security or shut them down completely, a tactic also used by Lebanon’s Hezbollah.

Despite suspicions of Syrian security betraying Iran, it’s not prompting Iran to leave Syria.

“Assad offers little strategic value except Syria’s position, crucial for affecting Israel’s security. Iran won't give that up, even if Assad asks them to leave,” revealed the official.

Reports suggest Assad was unaware of security breaches targeting Revolutionary Guard leaders. Iranian forces started withdrawing from Syrian provinces earlier this year, with recent acceleration.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Iranian advisors left various areas, including Baniyas, in March.

Iran still has forces in Aleppo (north) and Deir Ezzor (east), key areas of its influence in Syria.



Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
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Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

The soldiers came before daybreak, singling out the Syrian men without residence permits from the tattered camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. As toddlers wailed around them, Mona, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon for a decade, watched Lebanese troops shuffle her brother onto a truck headed for the Syrian border.

Thirteen years since Syria's conflict broke out, Lebanon remains home to the largest refugee population per capita in the world: roughly 1.5 million Syrians - half of whom are refugees formally registered with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR - in a country of approximately 4 million Lebanese.

They are among some five million Syrian refugees who spilled out of Syria into neighboring countries, while millions more are displaced within Syria. Donor countries in Brussels this week pledged fewer funds in Syria aid than last year.

With Lebanon struggling to cope with an economic meltdown that has crushed livelihoods and most public services, its chronically underfunded security forces and typically divided politicians now agree on one thing: Syrians must be sent home.

Employers have been urged to stop hiring Syrians for menial jobs. Municipalities have issued new curfews and have even evicted Syrian tenants, two humanitarian sources told Reuters. At least one township in northern Lebanon has shuttered an informal camp, sending Syrians scattering, the sources said.

Lebanese security forces issued a new directive this month shrinking the number of categories through which Syrians can apply for residency - frightening many who would no longer qualify for legal status and now face possible deportation.

Lebanon has organized voluntary returns for Syrians, through which 300 travelled home in May. But more than 400 have also been summarily deported by the Lebanese army, two humanitarian sources told Reuters, caught in camp raids or at checkpoints set up to identify Syrians without legal residency.

They are automatically driven across the border, refugees and humanitarian workers say, fueling concerns about rights violations, forced military conscription or arbitrary detention.

Mona, who asked to change her name in fear of Lebanese authorities, said her brother was told to register with Syria's army reserves upon his entry. Fearing a similar fate, the rest of the camp's men no longer venture out.

"None of the men can pick up their kids from school, or go to the market to get things for the house. They can't go to any government institutions, or hospital, or court," Mona said.

She must now care for her brother's children, who were not deported, through an informal job she has at a nearby factory. She works at night to evade checkpoints along her commute.

A sign that reads "The return of the displaced is a right and a duty", is placed along a highway in Jounieh, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

'WRONG & NOT SUSTAINABLE'

Lebanon has deported refugees in the past, and political parties have long insisted parts of Syria are safe enough for large-scale refugee returns.

But in April, the killing of a local Lebanese party official blamed on Syrians touched off a concentrated campaign of anti-refugee sentiment.

Hate speech flourished online, with more than 50% of the online conversation about refugees in Lebanon focused on deporting them and another 20% referring to Syrians as an "existential threat," said Lebanese research firm InflueAnswers.

The tensions have extended to international institutions. Lebanon's foreign minister has pressured UNHCR's representative to rescind a request to halt the new restrictions and lawmakers slammed a one billion euro aid package from the European Union as a "bribe" to keep hosting refugees.

"This money that the EU is sending to the Syrians, let them send it to Syria," said Roy Hadchiti, a media representative for the Free Patriotic Movement, speaking at an anti-refugee rally organized by the conservative Christian party.

He, like a growing number of Lebanese, complained that Syrian refugees received more aid than desperate Lebanese. "Go see them in the camps - they have solar panels, while Lebanese can't even afford a private generator subscription," he said.

The UN still considers Syria unsafe for large-scale returns and said rising anti-refugee rhetoric is alarming.

"I am very concerned because it can result in... forced returns, which are both wrong and not sustainable," UNHCR head Filippo Grandi told Reuters.

"I understand the frustrations in host countries - but please don't fuel it further."

Zeina, a Syrian refugee who also asked her name be changed, said her husband's deportation last month left her with no work or legal status in an increasingly hostile Lebanese town.

Returning has its own dangers: her children were born in Lebanon and do not have Syrian ID cards, and her home in Homs province remains in ruins since a 2012 government strike that forced her to flee.

"Even now, when I think of those days, and I think of my parents or anyone else going back, they can't. The house is flattened. What kind of return is that?" she said.