Iran Continues Entrenchment efforts in Deir Ezzor area
By OMAR ABU LAYLA
The Iranian nuclear scientist Muhsen Fakhri Zadeh’s assassination on November 28,, 2020, dealt a severe blow to Iran. The assassination was not the first recent blow to the Iranian regime, following on from the killing of al-Quds Corps’ former Commander Qasem Suleimani by the US on January 3, 2020.
Zadeh’s assassination also followed a series of strikes and fires in Iranian facilities over the recent period. It was widely reported that the reason for these fires were sabotage actions.
Embarrassed by the successive strikes, Iran has initiated a media campaign to preserve its national “pride”; however, Iran is expected to respond directly to these strikes only in a minor way. Tehran’s economic and internal situation do not permit a conflict on Iranian soil.
Given this consideration, it is expected that Iran will resort to mobilizing its proxies for strikes abroad. Iran controls proxies in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. In this regard, particular attention should be paid to current Iranian activity in Deir Ezzor in Syria’s south west. Intense Iranian activity in this area has been largely ignored by western media.
Despite Iran’s sustaining of severe blows by Israeli airstrikes in Syria, Tehran still preserves an entrenched existence in certain areas - for example, the Syrian-Iraqi border. Iran has sent reinforcements to the al-Bukamal and al-Mayadeen areas in the recent period, in a way that has provoked a change in deployment by American forces and the allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF.)
Iran and U.S heightened alert
Iran accused Israel of responsibility for Zadeh’s assassination, and subsequently raised the alert significantly in the Iranian controlled-al-Bukamal and al-Mayadeen areas of south east Syria, also in the face of recent intense airstrikes, probably by Israel, on Iranian
Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)’ and supporting militias’ outposts in the eastern Deir Ezzor countryside in November, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, and other local websites. The IRGC sent military reinforcements from the city of Palmyra and the eastern Homs countryside to the eastern Deir Ezzor countryside. The IRGC fortified outposts and checkpoints in cities, towns, and villages, in eastern Deir Ezzor.
Iran’s raising of the alert coincides with Tehran’s constant attempts to present itself as the controller of these areas and entrench a strategic existence in Syria despite all attacks against Iranian forces and militias in the country, amidst Russian complicity. In response, the International Coalition forces recently raised the alert east of the Euphrates, especially in the Conoco gas field base.
Coalition forces strengthened American-backed and trained SDF-linked units guarding oil facilities. The United States (US) and International Coalition emphasized that they will continue to support the SDF with weapons and logistics. The SDF oil facilities guard unit’s flag was raised over the al-Omar field after removing the SDF and YPG flags. The aim of this step could be the preventing of Iran’s potential attempts to attack the SDF and provoke the US in its controlled areas.
The Deir Ezzor 24 Network reported that the International Coalition patrolled front lines facing the Assad forces and Iranian militias in the towns of Khasham and Marabeit. The patrols passed by an outpost on the front lines. This was the first time the US forces approached such outposts. The International Coalition patrolled the front lines following Iranian militias’ military maneuvers in al-Mayadeen and western Deir Ezzor in west of the Euphrates.
Iran cautious re direct response, fans the flames abroad
Joe Biden’s victory has revived Iranian hopes regarding the possibility of a return to the JCPOA, which President Donald Trump suspended. Should sanctions be lifted as part of a renewed negotiation, this would mean the acquisition by Iran of billions of dollars and a chance to rescue Iran from the current economic disaster – which is increasing day by day. Amid the short time left for Trump as president, Iranian concerns are rising regarding possible upcoming strikes against Tehran, especially as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Trump may now regard themselves as in a ‘race against time’ to win points in attacking and weakening Iran.
Iran is nevertheless likely to be patient and to carefully consider the extent of its potential response following the assassination of Fakhri-Zadeh, given the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Biden.
Iran supports its militias and tries to win loyalty by recruiting young men from tribes in Deir Ezzor
Iran’s cautious overt stance is accompanied, however, by Iranian-affiliated militias’ fanning of the flames of the situation in Syria and Iraq to attack US interests in Iraq and incite Iraqis against the US presence. In Syria, Iran is entrenching its presence in Deir Ezzor on the military, cultural, and doctrinal levels. Iran is aiming at a long-term presence in Syria and is trying to create a pro-Iran society that plays a role now and in the future. Courses to teach children Farsi language, proselytizing for conversion to Shia Islam, and seeking to build support for Iranian policies are all part of Tehran's strategy in Deir Ezzor.
Iran supports its militias and tries to win loyalty by recruiting young men from tribes in Deir Ezzor, and affiliating them with Iran’s military and political frameworks, so as to form a force that is strong on both military and political levels, as currently exists in Iraq, in the form of the pro-Iran Shia militias.
Iran may discover, however, that the situation in Deir Ezzor is different from that pertaining in Iraq. Despite tribal intersections between eastern Syria and western Iraq, there are major political differences in that the people of Deir Ezzor are almost uniformly not Shia Muslims and thus do not have the doctrinal and sectarian loyalties that could incline them to respond positively to Iranian efforts in this regard.
The author is a Syrian expert who focuses on security and governance dynamics in northeast Syria. CEO @DeirEzzor24, which has a group of researchers inside the country.