Iran’s growing presence in Syria’s al-Hasakah poses a direct threat to US forces

اقرأ باللغة العربية
 

During February and early March 2022, the militias of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) located in Syria’s al-Hasakah Governorate brought in several shipments of weapons and military equipment in an effort to strengthen their military and security presence in the governorate, which is considered the richest in Syria in terms of oil and agricultural wealth.

“Three Iranian shipments arrived at the airport during February and March,” one of the employees of the Qamishli Airport in al-Hasakah stated. “Two of them were loaded with various weapons and ammunition, while the third shipment was logistical equipment and about 50 small drones to be used for training in collecting espionage images and information.”

“All shipments of weapons were transported by Ilyushin planes, coming from Deir ez-Zor Province. They were transferred from the airport to the Tartab Regiment, which is controlled by the IRGC militias alongside forces from the 4th Division of the regime’s army. The regiment is located in the southeastern side of the city of Qamishli, near the Znoud neighborhood,” the source confirmed.

Since early 2022, the Iranian militias in al-Hasakah Governorate have been increasing their  military and logistical capabilities. Earlier, however, their presence was limited to small military groups and some Iranian-backed local militias. Recent events have since paved the way for those militias to penetrate local communities, taking advantage of the decline in Russia’s role in the region and the discord between Arab tribes on one side and the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES) and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other.

The beginning of the Iranian presence in al-Hasakah

The Iranian presence in al-Hasakah dates back to the beginning of 2013. It all started with the arrival of field commanders from the Lebanese Hezbollah. Those commanders were responsible for training regime forces and the militias of the National Defense Forces (NDF) in guerrilla warfare, in addition to taking over the security of the Qamishli Airport, which was the only available means of transport connecting the governorate to Damascus, after the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Islamic factions took control of large parts of Deir ez-Zor Governorate and the al-Hasakah countryside, thus isolating the regime forces on the ground.

Following Hezbollah, military commanders from the IRGC arrived in 2014. They maintained their existence in the governorate and inside the Qamishli Airport until 2015, when Hezbollah withdrew from al-Hasakah to Deir ez-Zor. There the regime came under intense attacks by ISIS, which took control of all the areas that were under the authority of FSA and al-Nusra Front factions.

In 2018, after the SDF expelled ISIS from the countryside of al-Hasakah, and as the battles crept toward Deir ez-Zor, Iran sent some IRGC officers to al-Hasakah, under the banner of “advisory missions.” Those officers were stationed inside the Qamishli Airport, where they maintained their presence until fall 2019.

The Iranian presence in the Qamishli Airport ended after Turkey’s “Peace Spring” operation inside Syria, which concluded with Russian-Turkish understandings under specific conditions, including the presence of Russian forces at the Qamishli Airport. Consequently, Iranian control over the airport came to an end. Moreover, Russia provided support to the Syrian regime’s security services in al-Hasakah, especially the Air Force Intelligence, to clamp down on the Iranian presence in the governorate.

The Russian-Turkish agreement and Russia’s support for the regime’s security services forced the Iranians to withdraw and be stationed within the Tartab Regiment, which was under the control of the Syrian army’s 4th Division. However, during the past year and early this year, the Iranians managed to renew their expansionist efforts and gain control over several vital points inside al-Hasakah — both directly, through its military presence, and indirectly, through local militias now backed by Iran, made up of tribal components from the governorate.

Iran’s current presence

The Iranian military presence in al-Hasakah Governorate can be found in four main locations, all of which are concentrated in the southeast of the governorate.

First, there is the Tartab Regiment, also known as the 54th Regiment, located in the southeast part of Qamishli. Containing forces from the Syrian army and others affiliated with Iranian militias, it is considered the largest military base in the governorate.

Iran has recently begun an expansion project inside the regiment, building housing units in order to accommodate its increasing number of members and affiliated militias. Iran assigned the Syrian Military Construction Corporation the task of implementing the expansion plans. This expansion is the first of its kind within the regiment.

Second, there is the livestock center, which has been used by the Iranian militias as their headquarters and armory. The center is located between the Tartab Regiment and the Qamishli Airport, in addition to the grain building near the livestock center.

Third is the Military Security branch in the city of al-Hasakah, which is under Iranian control. It is the only Iranian-controlled station inside the city center. The Military Security branch is located in the so-called “security square” of the city center, which is controlled by the Syrian regime.

The fourth and final center of the Iranian presence in the province is located within the transportation office on the M4 road, on the south side of Qamishli. This site is considered the nerve center of Iranian activity in al-Hasakah, as several leaders of the Iranian and Lebanese militias operate from there.

In 2021, Iran lost its most important center in Qamishli, after the SDF captured the Tayy neighborhood. Before that, Iran had managed to buy the loyalty of the NDF militias that controlled the Arab-majority area of the Tayy tribe, making the NDF one of Iran’s most important allies in the region.

More than 1,000 elements

During the past two years, Hajj Ali “the Iranian” and Hajj Mahdi “the Lebanese” have been working on building bridges with the leaders of the NDF brigades, launching training camps for those brigades in the 54th Regiment, as well as providing them with light and medium weapons such as 14.5-mm machine guns and 23-mm autocannons. Moreover, some elite elements from the region have been trained in Iranian camps, where they are supervised by leaders from Hezbollah in Deir ez-Zor or in the Dimas area in Damascus. After three months of training, they return to their stations.

Upon returning, those elements exhibited a clear change in their behavior and dress, wearing the Shi’a insignia on their military uniforms and even engaging in the Shi’a custom of slapping their own chests. They are divided between Hezbollah and the Zainebiyoun and Fatemiyoun militias located in the governorate. The official number of affiliates is estimated at about 250. As for the elements who were trained in the Qamishli camps and then returned to the ranks of the NDF but are still loyal to Iran, their number may exceed 900. Some of them constantly and routinely participate in operations in the areas west of the Euphrates. Others, however, are considered sleeper cells, whose mission is to further build up grassroots support for Iran in the region.

Iran’s attempt to forge an alliance with the Tayy tribe

In April 2021, the Tayy neighborhood in the city of Qamishli, which is inhabited by the Arab Tayy tribe, witnessed intense tensions between the NDF militia formed from the tribe’s members and the SDF. Soon afterward, the tensions turned into an outbreak of military clashes between the NDF in the neighborhood and the SDF.

The NDF in the area were affiliated with the Syrian regime. However, as the Syrian regime began to abandon them during their confrontation with the SDF, the NDF militias, in addition to leaders of the Tayy tribe, started looking for someone to back them in their war against the SDF — especially considering the balance of power between the two parties was not in their favor.

For Iran, these developments were seen as an opportunity. Iran soon began supporting some of the dignitaries of the Tayy tribe, as well as providing military and political aid to the NDF formed from members of the Tayy tribe in their fight against the SDF. That in turn strengthened the relationship between the Iranians and the Tayy tribe. Despite the SDF succeeding in gaining control of the neighborhood after days of fighting, Iran managed to establish an alliance with the tribesmen, preparing them to be an important source of members for the Iranian militias.

Iran’s relationship with the notables of the Tayy tribe, however, is not simply the result of the clashes in the Tayy neighborhood. In 2019, a delegation of the tribe’s notables visited Tehran, the Iranian capital, at the official invitation of the Iranian government. On that occasion, Iran wanted to coordinate work with the tribe’s members, whose loyalties were divided internally between Iran, the Syrian regime, and Russia. However, the battle of Tayy, in which the regime and Russia abandoned the tribe’s elements in their confrontation with the SDF, resulted in the tribe’s total loyalty shifting toward Iran, as it proved itself to be the only supporter of the Tayy during that critical time.

This relationship with the Arab tribe of Tayy in al-Hasakah encapsulates Iran’s policy of winning over the loyalty of local communities, especially the Arab tribal component in al-Hasakah. It is based on exploiting Arab-Kurdish disputes and the refusal of Arab communities in al-Hasakah, and in other territories under AANES authority, to acquiesce to Kurdish dominance over the region.

Currently, by investing in its alliance with the Tayy tribe and the rest of the tribal components in the governorate, Iran is attempting to supplement its militias with fighters from those tribes and clans. Additionally, it aims to give its presence in the governorate a legitimacy derived from being accepted by the local community as one of its most important backers.

Iran incites against the US presence

Iran has been utilizing its military presence in al-Hasakah on several levels. It seeks to consolidate its power within the region, which it has recently done to a remarkable degree. Through such a presence, it aims to expand eastward in the governorate to impose its hegemony over Syria’s entire border with Iraq, particularly the Yarubiyah border crossing. Such a development would be of critical significance, as Iran now controls the al-Bukamal crossing and the entire border separating the Deir ez-Zor Governorate from Iraq, as well as parts of the border along the Homs Governorate to the east.

Securing control over the Yarubiyah crossing is one of Iran’s eventual goals — an accomplishment that would yield many advantages. First, doing so would give Iran total control over the border crossings between Syria and Iraq. Second, it would facilitate the transfer of its militias between the borders, especially those coming from Iraq. Third, it would enable Iran to control customs duties for cross-border trade as well as trading drugs and tobacco, which are the most important sources of income for the militias apart from the support provided by the Iranian government.

On another level, Iran is working to incite and provide support to local communities in fighting against the U.S. presence in northeastern Syria. Such support is no longer limited to the incitement and interception of U.S. patrols; rather, it has recently escalated into bombings targeting U.S. bases in al-Hasakah, which are often attributed to Iran and its loyalists in the governorate.

In 2021, some SDF military posts in al-Hasakah governorate came under missile attacks that seem to have targeted, but missed, the U.S. base in al-Shaddadi. On Jan. 1, the international coalition thwarted a missile attack directed at the U.S. base in the al-Omar field in Deir ez-Zor.

In turn, on Jan. 6, U.S. forces targeted a missile launcher belonging to the “Iraqi Hezbollah” militia near al-Mayadin, using artillery to strike several sites affiliated with the IRGC near al-Bukamal in the countryside of Deir ez-Zor.

Notably, the escalation that Iran began against the U.S. forces coincided with the second anniversary of the assassination of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the former commander of the IRGC-Quds Force, in an airstrike near Baghdad Airport in early 2020. This in turn reflects Iran’s determination to reserve the option to respond and to expand the scope of eligible targets, which was previously limited to Iraq, to include Syria.

Apparently, Iran also wants to emphasize its ability to use the military option and dial up the intensity if it is subjected to greater U.S. pressure in Syria and Iraq. This is in addition to renewing its refusal to include the topic of its military presence in the region as part of its nuclear negotiations with the U.S.

Moreover, Iran arguably wants to push the U.S. to further redeploy its military presence in Syria and Iraq, in order to ultimately lead to a complete withdrawal, similarly to what occurred in Afghanistan.

 

Mohammed Hassan is a university student at the Faculty of Law, Department of International Law. His writings focus on the regions of northern and eastern Syria, especially extremist Islamic groups and tribal societies. 

Samer al-Ahmed is a Syrian journalist and researcher. The views expressed in this piece are their own.

Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

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