Reports this week say that Russia is transferring units from Syria to aid its efforts in Ukraine. Claims that Iran might benefit from this by somehow moving its units, or partner forces, to backfill areas the Russians are leaving would appear to underline Iranian benefits from Russia's movements. But it is not entirely clear if Iran can move units into areas the Russians are leaving, or if the Russians really are moving units out at all, or merely rotating units around.
Another possibility is that reports Russia is moving units is leaked information designed to make it look like it is failing in Ukraine, or to cause other informational chaos regarding Syria and Iran. Even if Moscow is moving out of areas in Syria, this may not benefit Iran because while Tehran prefers to use Syria as a launchpad for its threats, it prefers to hide behind the Russian role there, which had conferred some supposed legitimacy and security for the Syrian regime. With less Russia in Syria, Iran could be more exposed, even if it takes short-term advantage.
What is known is that Syrian regime leader Bashar Assad met with the Iranian leadership on Sunday, the same day as the reports emerged. The report at the Moscow Times said that "Russia has begun the process of withdrawing its military forces from Syria and is concentrating them at three airports before being transferred to the Ukrainian front."
This is supposed to "speed up" the Russian campaign in Ukraine, which has faced many setbacks. Russia held its May 9 Victory Day celebrations on Monday. "The abandoned air bases of the Russian Federation are transferred to the Iranian military-political formation 'Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' and the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah," the Moscow Times report said.
A report at the Alma Research and Education Center on May 8 noted that "until the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, Syria was the most extensive arena [where] the Russian military was deployed permanently." The report said that the "Russian military force in Syria consisted of around 10,000 soldiers in 12 bases (two main ones: Tartus and Hmeimim, and ten smaller ones) and various assorted field outposts.
"As of now, it is not clear whether, in light of the war in Ukraine, Russia has substantially reduced the number of troops in Syria and transferred them to fight in Ukraine," it said. "It is clear [however] that Russian forces have been transferred from Syria to Ukraine, but the extent of the forces redeployed is not clear to us."
The reports that Russia could be moving some forces would also appear to show that its balance of power with Iran in Syria could shift. This means Assad had a good reason to go to Tehran this week, rather than go to the Victory Day events in Moscow. He wasn't invited to Moscow, apparently because foreign leaders did not attend this year like they have in the past. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the Victory Day events in 2018.
What matters here is the perception that Russia might be moving troops. In this world, perception can be as important as reality. Iran perceives an opening as well. It could use this as leverage and could indeed move more forces to parts of Syria. It could try to use what remains of Russian bases and posts to shield its units from threats.
Iran has usually operated in a corridor in Syria, from the Imam Ali base in Albukamal on the Iraqi border to the T-4 base near Palmyra, to other locations near Homs and in the mountains between Lebanon and Damascus, and directly in Damascus and south of Damascus. Beginning in 2018, Iran attempted to move more Hezbollah units toward areas near the Golan as the Syrian rebels were defeated there.
In the past, Tehran has also operated near Aleppo; in 2021 pro-Iranian militia members were killed there and in May 2020 airstrikes allegedly hit some kind of Iranian warehouses and other sites east of the ancient city. Iran also has proxies in the Mayadin and Deir Ezzor areas. This is the Iranian octopus in Syria, which may grow new tentacles. Iran knows that Russia's main bases are in Tartus and Khmeimim which are in northwestern Syria, near Latakia. This is the area that Russia cares about.
Why would Russia hand over bases or posts to the IRGC or Hezbollah? It would appear that this would risk those sites and also lead to tensions. Moscow may have had some brief tension last week due to Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's comments, but it likely doesn't want to open up new files dealing with problems with Israel or Syria. It therefore makes little sense for Russia to give up much space to the IRGC. That being said, smaller Russian posts or areas Russia once used might be sponged up by the Iranian octopus.
The question is whether Iran really benefits here. If Russia does move out of some places, then Iran can't use them for cover or plausible deniability. It likes the fact Russia is in Syria because Russia shields the Syrian regime and lets Iran hollow out Syria from within.
This is also how Iran does business in Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen. It sets up shop, hollows out and bankrupts, backfills with religious extremist proxies, and then leaves a shell country. It is like a robber baron or corporate raider that leaves shell corporations saddled in debt. Iran is a kind of mafia/empire/corporate raider all wrapped into one, guarded by drones and missiles that it exports.
So how can Iran really benefit if Russia begins to move forces out of Syria? Iran would be more exposed; it would have to "own" more Syrian real estate. This brings us back to the old maxim, "if you break it, you buy it." Supposedly then-US secretary of state Colin Powell told this to president George W. Bush: "If you break it, you fix it. Now, if you break it, you made a mistake. It's the wrong thing to do. But you own it."
Either way, does Iran really want to "own" a broken Syria, or merely to use it? The Islamic Republic prefers to use the embattled country; it wants the best of both worlds, with Russia propping up the Syrian regime and giving it legitimacy, while it uses Syria to move weapons and knit together Hezbollah and the Hashd al-Sha'abi in Iraq – and then use these as leverage against Israel; even flying drones from the bases in Syria, Iraq and Iran to threaten Israel as it has done in recent years.
Less Russia in Syria could actually backfire on Iran. In the near-term of course, Tehran can benefit because of the shadow of conflict and lack of knowledge about whether the Russians really did move forces out. But if they did or are moving them, then the evidence will come to light – and the Iranians will be seen at these new locations and will then be exposed.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.