Iran has bolstered its military, economic and charitable presence along Syria’s coast, revealed a report compiled by Syrian opposition experts and politicians.
The National Liberation Front, headed by Fateh al-Hassoun, accused Tehran of seeking naval and land routes to circumvent US sanctions and counter the increased Russian influence at the Latakia and Tartus ports.
Prior to 2011, said the report, Iran did not boast strong military presence on the Syrian coast. Its role was limited to establishing schools and charities. With the eruption of the uprising, Iran sought to infiltrate the coast through many forms and agents.
Russia’s establishment of a base at Hmeimim dramatically reduced Iran’s military expansion towards the coast. Tehran at that point limited itself to infiltrating Syria through civilian and social means. In recent months, however, Iran once again stepped up its efforts to establish a foothold on the coast.
A recent document surfaced in which Latakia port manager ordered the formation of committee to discuss with the “Iranian side” the possibility of transferring the port administration over to it. This was confirmed by The New York Times, which revealed that an agreement to hand over control of the port to Tehran was reached during Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad’s visit to the Iranian capital on February 25.
Indeed, companies affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards have started to ship goods through Latakia port, which is being used as an alternative arms smuggling route. The National Liberation Front report said Iran wants to seize control of Latakia port to evade American economic sanctions. Moreover, it will garner major influence by controlling Syria’s largest port, “while totally disregarding the deteriorating economic conditions in areas under regime control.”
The nearby coastal city of Baniyas has started to look more like an Iranian military base with the arrival of an Iranian oil tanker to its port on May 5. The National Liberation Front said that should Tehran assume control of this port, it would come to control two out of three outlets on the Mediterranean.
Baniyas is significant because it lies between Russia’s Hmeimim air base and its sea port in Tartus. Oil pipelines from Iraq stretch all the way to Baniyas. Iran’s control of the port could be related to its efforts to circumvent US sanctions through exporting Iranian oil from Baniyas through Iraq. This is backed by reports that two oil tanker companies had shipped a million barrels of Iranian crude to Syria during the first week of May through Baniyas.
Iranian charities along the Syrian coast limit their activities to offering financial and relief support to families and relatives of deceased members of militias affiliated to the regime and Iran. The report said charities with Persian names were operating in the Syrian coast. They are dedicated to helping foreign fighters in Syria, such as Afghans, Iraqis and Lebanese.
Close proximity to Turkey
The report added that since the beginning of the year, Iranian forces have sought to redeploy in many coastal regions, especially those close to Turkey. The Iranians are seeking to expand beyond Baniyas and further away from Russian forces in Tartus, Latakia and Hmeimim and looking further north.
Tehran has set its sights on controlling the Kasab border crossing with Turkey. This route is safer than the long coastal road that is under international supervision.
Tehran had considered an alternate route through Iraq, the Syrian desert, then Homs before reaching the coast. The report said that this route is not yet viable to the Iranians due to the presence of the international coalition to defeat ISIS forces in the Tanf base and the presence of ISIS remnants in the desert. The report compared the desert to a “black hole” that has swallowed Iranian and regime convoys that traverse the area.