In recent days, senior Syrian officials declared that Damascus does not intend to demand the withdrawal of Iranian forces from the country. An adviser to President Assad stated that Syria does not demand the departure of Iran or Hezbollah from the country, and that Russia too can not ask Russia to remove Iranian forces from its territory. At the same time, the Syrian minister of foreign affairs declared that the United States has no right to express opinions regarding the presence of Iranian forces in Syria, which is based on an official Syrian request and is limited to military advisers alone.
Syrian sources reported about an agreement reached between Iran and Russia concerning the deployment of their forces in the Albu Kamal region along the Syrian-Iraqi border. According to these reports, the two countries agreed to transfer a number of areas that were controlled by pro-Iranian militias to the control of Russian forces in Deir Ezzor. Meanwhile, a Turkish news agency reported about the takeover over a number of residential homes in the Deir Ezzor area by members of the IRGC and Iraqi pro-Iranian militia to protect themselves from airstrikes carried out in the region.
In an interview to an Afghan television station, the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, discussed the activities of the Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade, a militia operating under the guidance of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in Syria. Zarif claimed that most of the Afghan fighters dispatched to Syria have left the country, and only about two thousand fighters of the group remain in the country. He suggested to the Afghan government to utilize the Fatemiyoun fighters who have returned from Syria to fight ISIS in Afghanistan.
Following the firing of katyusha rockets at the compound of the American embassy in Baghdad on December 20, the spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that Iran opposes any attacks against diplomatic compounds or residential areas. He suggested that the United States was aware of the incoming attack, implicitly to bring about an escalation in Iraq ahead of the end of President Trump’s term in office. Two days following the attack, the Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Esmail Qa’ani, arrived for a visit to Baghdad and met with the Iraqi prime minister. According to one of the reports, Qa’ani denied in the meeting any connection between Iran and the Iraqi militias it supports and the firing of rockets at the American embassy.
Iranian Involvement in Syria
On December 15, the incoming Syrian Ambassador to Tehran, Shafiq Dayoub, presented his credentials to the President of Iran, Hasan Rouhani. During the ceremony, Rouhani stressed Iran’s support for Syria, and declared that this support will remain in place until the final victory against terrorism, the return of refugees and reconstruction of the country. Rouhani added that Iran will persist in its efforts to obtain stability and de-escalation as part of the ongoing negotiations process concerning the settlement of the war in Syria. The arriving Syrian ambassador stated that the Syrian government strives to preserve all the accomplishments made over the past four decades in its strategic relationship with Iran. He expressed his country’s appreciations for Iran’s support in the campaign “against terror and the occupation,” as well as Iran’s diplomatic activities to bring about peace and stability to Syria (Tabnak, December 15).
The Syrian news website Nahar Media reported (December 16) about an agreement reached between Iran and Russia concerning the deployment of their forces in the Albu Kamal region on the Syrian-Iraqi border. According to this report, the two sides agreed to hand over to Russian control a number of points in the village of al-Heri and the Imam Ali base near Albu Kamal, east of Deir Ezzor city. In addition, the Russian forces in Deir Ezzor assumed control of a number of points along the Syrian-Iraqi border in the Albu Kamal region, which were previously controlled by Iraqi pro-Iranian militias. Following the agreement, the militias supported by Iran began to gradually pull out of the areas agreed upon in the deal, while the Russian forces began deploying forces to these locations, which are located at the front of the campaign against ISIS in the region.
The Turkish news agency Anadol reported (December 17) that in recent weeks, the IRGC and Iraqi militiamen supported by them took over about twenty residential buildings belonging to Syrian civilians in Deir Ezzor governorate, in an effort to shield themselves from aerial strikes against targets linked to Iran and the militias operating under its guidance in the region. According to the report, whose reliability is unclear, the Iranian forces turned the residential buildings into military bases or dormitories for fighters without paying any compensations to the owners of the apartments.
The Political and Media Adviser to the Syrian President, Bouthaina Shaaban, stated in an interview to the Lebanese al-Mayadin Channel that the Syrian leadership has not asked Iran or Hezbollah to leave the country. Shaaban stressed that no one can dictate to Damascus its relationship with Iran, Hezbollah and the “Palestinian resistance,” and that even Russia is not able to ask President Assad to remove Iran or Hezbollah from Syria’s territory (Tasnim, December 19). Meanwhile, the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Faysal al-Miqdad, proclaimed in an interview to the Russian news channel, Russia Today, that the United States has no right to opine about the presence of Iran in Syria. He remarked that the presence of Iran in Syria is legal, based on a Syrian official request, and limited to the presence of Iranian military advisers alone (IRNA, December 20).
In an interview to the Afghan television network Tolo News (December 21), the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mohammad Javad Zarif, discussed the activities of the Afghan Fatemiyoun Brigade, a militia that operates under the guidance of the IRGC in Syria. Zarif claimed that Iran did not send anyone to fight in Syria, and that the Afghan fighters volunteered to leave for Syria of their own initiative, similarly to fighters from other countries, including Iraq. He confirmed that Iran assisted these fighters in the campaign against ISIS. Zarif remarked that if the Afghan government is interested in doing so, it can use the Afghan fighters who fought in Syria, and the combat experience they gained while fighting, for its own goals, such as the campaign against ISIS and terrorism and protecting the country’s security. Zarif stated that as far as he knows, about five thousand Afghan armed men fought in Syria, but most of them have left Syria and returned to Iran or other places, and only about two thousand fighters remain in Syria. He added that Iran assists the families of the Afghan fighters killed in the war in Syria.
A scientific-educational Iranian delegation, headed by Alaeddin Boroujerdi, the Head of the Department on International Affairs in the Azad Islamic University, paid a visit to Syria. The members of the delegation met with the Minister of Higher Education of Syria, Bassam Ibrahim, and with the Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Faisal al-Miqdad, along with other senior Syrian officials. The two sides discussed the scientific and technological cooperation between the two countries, and the implementation of deals in the fields of science and higher education that had been signed by the two countries (IribNews, December 22).
Iranian Involvement in Iraq
Following the firing on December 20 of Katyusha rockets at the Green Zone compound in Baghdad, where the American embassy is located, the Spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saeed Khatibzadeh, declared that Iran opposes any attacks against diplomatic compounds and residential areas. He added, however, that the nature of the attack, its timing and the speed at which the American secretary of state issued a statement following it, are all suspicious, and that it seems that the American response was prepared ahead of time. Khatibzadeh warned the American administration not to ignite any fires at the current moment (Tasnim, December 21). Following the attack on the American embassy, which did not result in any casualties, the American Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, accused Iraqi militias supported by Iran of carrying out the attack. On December 23, U.S. President Trump blamed Iran for the firing of rockets against the embassy in Baghdad and warned in a tweet on his Twitter account that if even one American is killed, he will hold Iran responsible for it.
Last week, the Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Esmail Qa’ani, made a short visit to Baghdad. The Iranian al-Alam network reported that during his consultations in Baghdad, Qa’ani discussed expanding bilateral ties. According to this report, Qa’ani’s visit was pre-planned and was not related to the attack on the American embassy in Baghdad (al-Alam, December 23). On the other hand, the Iraqi news website Shafaq News, reported based on an Iraqi source that Qa’ani arrived to Baghdad for a visit that lasted a few hours to meet with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kazimi, and deny any connection between Iran and the Iraqi militias it backs and the attack on the embassy (Shafaq News, December 23). Prior to this, Iraqi sources reported that Qa’ani told the Iraqi prime minister that Iran opposes attacks on diplomatic stations and supports the efforts of the Iraqi government to maintain order and security and protect Iraq’s national interests (al-Iraq al-Youm, December 23).
In mid-November , Qa’ani visited Baghdad and met with the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kazimi, and with commanders of the Shia pro-Iranian militias. Following that visit, sources in Iraq reported that Qa’ani ordered the heads of the militias to maintain a high level of alert, but avoid an escalation vis-a-vis the United States, so as not to give President Trump an excuse to attack Iranian interests during the last weeks of his term in office. The Iraqi sources reported that the commanders of the Shia militias agreed to maintain the unofficial ceasefire with the United States, as long as negotiations continue between Baghdad and Washington concerning the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq (Shafaq News, November 21, 2020; AP, November 20, 2020).
In an interview to the Iranian reformist paper Shargh (December 20), the commentator on Iraqi affairs, Hassan Royouran, assessed that the efforts of the United States to constrain Iranian influence in Iraq and downgrade the relationship between the two countries will not succeed, regardless of the identity of the Iraqi prime minister. He remarked that it is possible to embolden or weaken the ties between the two countries, but at the end of the day, this relationship is based on common historical, religious and cultural grounds. In addition, forces that support Iran operate in Iraq, and those forces have a wide base of support in Iraqi society, and all efforts to change these underlying conditions have failed. While the United States can attempt to recruit supporters through cash, Iran does not need to do so, since its supporters are loyal to it due to their faith, he claimed.
The Iraqi government announced a ban on the travel of Iraqi citizens to eight countries, including Iran, due to fears of another spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in the country. In addition, the Iraqi government banned the entry of passengers from those countries, except for Iraqi citizens, who will be placed in quarantine for two weeks after returning to Iraq. The new regulations came into force on December 24 (IRNA, December 22).
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
The Israeli Minister of Defense, Benny Gantz, signed a decree ordering the seizure of four million dollars transferred from Iran to Hamas in the Gaza Strip. The Ministry of Defense reported that the sum, originating in Iran, was intended to help develop Hamas’ terrorism infrastructure in Gaza, including the manufacture of weaponry and payment for the organization’s members. The decree was issued against the Gazan businessman Zuheir Shamlakh, and the cash transfer company al-Mutahidoun, which he owns. Shamlakh took over from Hamed al-Khoudari, who previously was tasked with carrying out transfers of cash from Iran to terror groups in Gaza through wire transfer companies and money changers located abroad. al-Khoudari was assassinated by the Israeli Defense Forces in May 2019 (Ynet, December 22).