Syrian regime media reported airstrikes across a wide area around Damascus on Thursday morning. Incidents took place near Marj al-Sultan Airport, about 8 km. north of Damascus International Airport, at a key interchange of the M5 northeast of Damascus and south of the city near Kiswa and Izra.
Meanwhile, Damascus is distracted by a major battle in northern Syria against Turkish-backed Syrian rebels and extremists. Iran may be maneuvering to increase its role in southern Syria amid the tensions as the Syrian regime focuses on fighting in northern Syria's Idlib.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force has a new commander, Esmail Ghaani. He took over after Qasem Soleimani was killed in a US airstrike. Soleimani had raged against Israel and, along with IRGC leader Hossein Salami, had vowed to confront and destroy Israel.
Ghaani wants to fill the big shoes left behind. The US says Ghaani will continue the role of the force. He met with the heads of Iraq-based Shi'ite militias. Ghaani has been designated by the US as a terrorist since 2012. He was responsible for financial disbursements to Hezbollah in Lebanon and "Quds Force weapons shipments intended for The Gambia," the Pentagon said in a recent report.
Ghaani has elevated Mohammed Hejazi, the man behind transferring precision-guided munitions to Hezbollah. This indicates that Ghaani will want to use his existing networks and knowledge to challenge Israel.
Iran's role in Syria is well known. It has sent members of the IRGC to Syria to support the Assad regime, and it has recruited tens of thousands of fighters, mostly Shi'ites, to go to Syria and fight. Reports indicate that more than $30 billion has been spent by Iran in Syria and 80,000 fighters recruited and trained by the IRGC have travelled to Syria. However, the overall numbers of IRGC members in Syria may be under a thousand. Tens of thousands of the recruited fighters are said to be from other countries.
The fighters are only one layer of the Iranian role. Iran uses roads and airports to move weapons and people to Syria and to Hezbollah. One route is via the Iraqi border crossing at Albukamal. Iran has built a base called Imam Ali there over the last two years, complete with storage warehouses and tunnels. Arms can flow from there toward Deir Ezzor and Mayadin or via the road that links Albukamal to a network of bases and airstrips nicknamed T2, T3 and then Tiyas, or T4. Iran has hangers for drones at Tiyas and has sought to bring in weapon systems like the 3rd Khordad air-defense system. This is part of Iran's attempt to bring in its own air defense.
Iran is doing all this in southern Syria because it is not only where it has a network of militias and bases but also where the Assad regime in Damascus is less focused. After the Syrian regime retook southern Syria's Dara'a in July 2018, the area was supposed to remain quiet while the regime focuses on fighting extremists and opposition groups in the north.
Iran exploits this to entrench in Syria and threaten Israel. Last year, for instance, there was rocket fire in January, September and November from Syria aimed at Israel. This coincided each time with rising tensions and Syrian regime claims that Israel carried out airstrikes. Iran's IRGC also had a Hezbollah "killer drone" team attempt to launch a drone at Israel in August 2019.
This must be seen as part of the wider context of Iran's use of drones and rockets. Between October and December 2019, Iran's militias in Iraq carried out more than 10 attacks on bases in Iraq where US forces are housed. Iran fired cruise missiles and 25 drones at Saudi Arabia's Abqaiq facility in September and sought to transfer more dangerous missile technology to Yemen's Houthis in October.
When looking at Iran's plans in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen between August and December, it clearly was escalating in each area against both Israel and the US. For instance, reports in early December indicated Iran was moving ballistic missiles to Iraq. On December 27, Iranian-backed Kataib Hezbollah fired rockets that killed a US contractor. The US retaliated with airstrikes against five targets in Syria and Iraq. Pro-Iranian groups protested at the US Embassy, and the US killed Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a commander in the Popular Mobilization Forces.
It can be understood in retrospect how Iran was seeking to pressure the US in Syria and Iraq and also target Israel. Israel revealed Hezbollah's attempts to acquire precision guidance for its missile arsenal in August. Hezbollah was planning an advanced missile construction facility in Lebanon last year.
The Syrian regime media reports of airstrikes come in this context. Israel struck 54 targets in Syria last year, according to data released by the IDF in early January. That comes on top of the "thousands" of targets Israel reportedly struck in Syria. In mid-January, the Syrian regime also accused Israel of a strike in Homs at or near the T4 airbase, according to Al Jazeera.
Ghaani was already in charge of the Quds Force at that time. Iran believes it can use regional opposition to the US "Deal of the Century" to leverage support for its work in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. That is why pro-Iranian groups in Iraq, such as the Badr Organization, have sought partnerships to push for a new prime minister to try to get the US to leave. They have also apparently blocked the US from deploying Patriot missiles.
Iran wants to have a free hand in southern Syria. While the Syrian regime – which lacks soldiers and has fought an exhausting nine-year war against rebels that has seen 10 million people driven from their homes – focuses on the north, Iran will run its weapons through southern Syria.
Seth Frantzman, a Middle East Forum writing fellow, is the author of After ISIS: America, Iran and the Struggle for the Middle East (2019), op-ed editor of The Jerusalem Post, and founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting & Analysis.