Iran’s involvement in Syria after Sulaimani: confusion, redeployment and anticipation. Resentment and anger among Iran supporters; ISIS poised to take advantage. The SOHR appeals to all concerned parties to spare Syrians new scourges

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights,

January 2020

Only several hours passed after the United States announced that it assassinated the commander of “al-Quds Force” of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qassem Sulaimani in drone attack on his convoy at the southern entrance of Baghdad’s airport in Iraq. It appears that the death of Sulaimani is a sign for a new change in the map of the Iranian forces and its backed militias’ deployment in Syria, triggering anticipation and caution on both the US and Iranian sides, for fear of retaliatory attacks amid a state of internal discontent and resentment among the Iranian’s loyalists. Also, signs of worsening popular anger are increasing daily, as the residents of regime-held areas are refusing the Iranian presence in various Syrian regions. The recent developments have led to a series of changes pushing Iran against the wall and limiting its role in the Syrian crisis after years of involvement and penetration into the fabric of Syrian society, aiming to reap the largest possible influence within Syrian society at the political, decision-making and popular level through centers that encourage belonging to the Shiite community in exchange for money and other inducements to attract the largest number of Syrians to join the Shiite community and  the ranks of the Iranian-backed militias.

Since the beginning of the new year, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitored closely those developments, and their repercussions on the situation in Syria, especially since the Iranian role of supporting the Bashar al-Assad’s regime was not an easy matter throughout the years of the Syrian crisis; may the recent developments will be a reason for neutralizing Iran’s role in Syria, which has been fueling the crisis and causing the death of thousands, not to mention  Iran’s and the Russia’s full control over the Syrian decision in which the head of the regime Bashar al-Assad has become a mere front for strengthening Iranian influence and promoting its interests on the one hand, and implementing  Russian orders on the other hand.

Redeployments, withdrawals and constant anticipation, Iranian militias and their affiliates await a US decision to end their involvement in Syria

As soon as the United States announced assassination of Qassem Sulaimani, a new phase of the Iranian-US tensions began, amid cautious anticipation on both sides, fearing a new escalation and reprisals. This anticipation and caution was clearly evident a day after the announcement of the Sulaimani’s assassination, as unidentified drones circled the airspace of Albukamal city, the stronghold of the Iranian forces and its loyal militias in Deir Ezzor’s countryside on January 5, while the Iranian-backed militias deployed in the vicinity of the city shot at those unidentified drones. On January 6, Iranian militias began a series of precautionary measures in anticipation of additional steps the United States might take in the series of mutual escalation between the two parties. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights was informed that the Iranian-backed militias evacuated their headquarters in Albukamal fearing US strikes and began to redeploy in other areas such as the Al-Basateen on the Euphrates’ banks, leaving behind just personnel to guard the vacated headquarters.

On January 7, SOHR sources monitored Iranian-backed militias and the “Iranian Revolutionary Guard” seizing homes of civilians in Al-Mayadeen city in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, where 3 villas were taken in the area between the water station and the modern medicine hospital. “These homes have been converted into headquarters for the leadership figures of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Iranian-backed militias in general. The Iranian measures to redeploy its forces in anticipation of  new US measures did not stop there, but all the farms bordering the Euphrates River in the area between the ‘pharynx’ and ‘Nazlet al-Mashrou’ were also seized,” reliable sources told the Syrian Observatory.

On January 8, Iranian-backed militias and Lebanese “Hezbollah” continued to transfer their heavy weapons and armored vehicles from several headquarters in “Al-Gam’eyat” neighborhood of Albukamal to new positions and headquarters in the “Green Belt” area in the city, as precautionary measure against possible US strikes against Iranian forces. What indicates the growing Iranian concerns about any US moves is that the Iranian forces have changed their positions and moved to new areas near the Euphrates bank in Deir Ezzor.

Likewise, Iranian militias launched a series of military drills in those areas to train their forces to counter any possible US attacks on the Iranians and on their own supporters. According to reliable sources, Iran was cautious of the US escalation well before Sulaimani’s assassination. Iranian forces conducted such defensive and precautionary military drills and maneuvers between 15 to 30 December.

These developments and the state of mutual escalation and cautious anticipation between the two parties came against the backdrop of an important Tehran meeting (of which the US was aware and SOHR was informed by reliable sources) that was held on the December 26 which included a number of Arab tribes and aimed at directing and uniting forces against US forces. “The meeting was held in Tehran under the supervision of the late Quds Force’s leader, according to a formal invitation to Faisal Al-Azel of the ‘Al-Ma’amra” tribe, the National Defense headquarter’ of Qamishli Director Khatib Al-Telib, the Shiekh of “Al-Sharayeen” tribe Nawaf Al-Bashar, and the sheikh of ’Harb’ tribe Mahmoud Mansour al-Akoub,” reliable sources told the SOHR, “The meeting discussed attacking US forces and the SDF”. Within a series of mutual escalation between the US and Iran, the head of the Syrian National Security Office Ali Mamlouk met with the security committee and about 20 figures of Arab tribal leaders and elders in Al-Hasaka province at Qamishli Airport on December 5 2019 and demanded Arab tribes to withdraw their children from the Syrian Democratic Forces.

Within the mutual escalation, anticipation and caution among the Iranian-backed militias, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitored unknown planes targeting “Al-Galaa” town and “Al-Abass” village on January 9, just one day after another shelling on “Al-Mujawada”, targeting palm-trees farms in the countryside of Albukamal. On January 10, further strikes hit Iranian-backed militias on the Syria-Iraq border resulting in the death of at least 8 non-Syrian nationals, when unknown drones pounded warehouses and vehicles belonging to the Iranian-backed “Popular Mobilization forces” in Albukamal.

In what appears to be a US decision to end Iranian presence in Syria and eliminate the dream of land corridor linking “Tehran” to “Beirut” to supply Lebanese Hezbollah with weapons, ammunition and logistical equipment, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights learned that Russian President Vladimir Putin informed the head the Syrian regime, Bashar Al-Assad, of the US intention of closing the “Tehran-Beirut” road that passes through Albukamal.

On January 5 2020, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitored shelling targeting the headquarters of the “47th Brigade” of the Iranian-backed militias in the center of Albukamal city. “The bombing also targeted other positions in the same area, resulting in the death of 5 members of this militia,” sources told the SOHR. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has also documented several explosions within the areas where Iranian militias are positioned in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor near the Iraqi border. Sources told the SOHR that these explosions originated from unknown source or location targeted the headquarters of the Iranian militias in “Al-Gam’eyat” neighborhood.

Resentment and popular anger, Sulaimani’s assassination confuses Iran and puts it in trouble

Only days after the information about the US intention to end the Iranian presence in Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitored the defection of more than 20 of pro-Iranian militiamen belonging to “Al-Quds Brigade”, all of them from Al-Mayadeen. The militiamen defected because Iranian forces were pushing them to deploy in Al-Badia region, which is witnessing frequent attacks by the “Islamic State”, and is possible target for US forces.

In an attempt to confront these defections and the decrease in the popularity of the Iranian-backed militias, and in light of the popular anger in various areas where the Iranian forces and the militias loyal to them are present, these militias have distributed a book glorifying the commander of the Iranian Quds Force, who was assassinated by the United States. “Copies of that book were distributed to its local personnel in Al-Mayadeen,” according to reliable sources, “the book includes Sulaimani’s biography and the positions he assumed since joining the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, up to his leadership of the Quds force and the Iranian-backed militias deployed in a number of countries. The book also included speeches by Sulaimani”.

At the same time, the popular anger against the Iranian forces and their presence in the countryside of Deir Ezzor is escalating, as activists of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitored several demonstrations rejecting Iranian and regime presence, amid calls for the “International Coalition” and the international community to expel these militias. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitored several demonstrations in Deir Ezzor, namely in the industrial area, the roundabout of factories and the towns of Al-Shaheil and Abu Hamam, demanding services and reconstruction, the toppling of the regime and the expulsion of the Iranian militias from the countryside of Deir Ezzor. On January 6, paper leaflets were distributed in “Kiswah, al-Muqilbiyya, Zakia and al-Deir Khabiya” in western Ghouta. Those leaflets welcomed Sulaimani’s assassination and demanded the improvement of the living situation within the regime-held areas and the departure of Russian and Iranian forces from Syria. Some of those leaflets, which the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights obtained copies of, says: “To preserve the chair, the Assad house sold the country”, “we want electricity, diesel, petrol and gas” and “May every occupier fall, May Russia and Iran fall”, in addition to “Our children are drawn to the army to die in order to defend the chair of the criminal Bashar, Syria is Free. Iran and Russia, get out of the country”, and” Sulaimani died, shall the rest of the infidels die”.

It appears that this state of discontent had begun even before Sulaimani’s assassination, as on December 27, reliable sources told the SOHR that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard militia in Deir Ezzor arrested 13 of its affiliates from Al-Mayadeen, after they refused to deploy in Al-Badia, which is witnessing an increase in the activities of the “Islamic State’s cells” in recent times. “All the arrested militiamen were transferred to the headquarters of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in Deir Ezzor, without information about what happened to them”.

ISIS’ cells, Iranian confusion is an opportunity to intensify activity and revenge

The death of Sulaimani marked the beginning of a new stage for the “Islamic State”, as the cells of the group in Deir Ezzor worked to exploit the vacuum in light of the Iranian confusion. According to reliable sources, ISIS operatives carried out an attack on the positions of regime forces and loyalist militias in Al-Badia that extends from the village of Al-Duwair to the town of Al-Galaa in the countryside of Deir Ezzor. Regime forces responded by targeting Al-Badia area with heavy artillery and luminous bombs in “Al-Abbas” village in the countryside of Albukamal. Also, a bus of the 11th Division of regime forces was ambushed on the international road near “Sabikhan” town in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor, resulting in the death of at least 7 people and wounding 14 others.

On January 13, ISIS cells infiltrated Al-Badia and targeted positions of regime forces and Iranian-backed militias in Al-Abbas village with mortar shells. Also, two consecutive explosions hit “Al-Ramadi” village, which is under regime control. On January 4, several explosions hit the “Deir Ezzor-Palmyra” highway, near Al-Sukhna in Homs countryside, as a result of planted IEDs by ISIS to target the military vehicles of regime forces and Iranian militias that use this road to reach Damascus.

The few days before Sulaimani’s assassination and the events and developments that followed, indicate that the United States is determined to end the Iranian presence and eliminate the dream of the land route linking the Iranian and Lebanese capitals via “Damascus”, which means that the coming days will witness more tensions and mutual escalation on the Syrian territories. These tensions threaten more complications in the Syrian scene, which is nearing its ninth year in a row. These developments, which are going on very fast, only mean that more innocent lives will be wasted in the chain of the struggle for influence within the Syrian territories, without having anything to with the ongoing struggle for power and influence. Although Iranian confusion necessarily means diverting the attention of “Tehran” from penetrating the fabric of Syrian society, spreading Shiism and attracting the largest possible number of loyalists; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights warns of the repercussions that could result from such movements, as Iranian forces and militias may intentionally increase material temptations and promoting more conversion to Shiite, in order to attract the largest possible number of Syrians, to compensate for any shortfall that may occur in its ranks as a result of the defections.

Once again, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights calls on the international community to find and implement a political solution to the Syrian crisis and compel all parties to respect the rights of the Syrian people, of which hundreds of thousands have died in a conflict in which they have had no choice but to demand freedom and democracy and topple the regime that has worked for decades for its own benefit. The SOHR also calls on the international community to limit the Iranian penetration into the fabric of the Syrian society and to stop the sectarian change processes carried out by Tehran in order to increase its influence in Syria. Finally, if the United States took its decision to end the Iranian presence in Syria and eliminate its dream of establishing a land route between Iran and Lebanon, then the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights calls on the United States and other concerned countries and organizations, to spare the people of Syria the scourge of a new conflict that will surely result in more innocent victims and the destruction of whatever is left of the Syria, its infrastructure and the fabric of its society.

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