Senior Iranian officials avoided publicly commenting on the reports about Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) strikes on eastern Syria on the night between January 12th and 13th against targets linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and the pro-Iranian militias. As opposed to reports by Syrian pro-opposition outlets about Syrian and foreign casualties in the strikes, senior officials in the ranks of the IRGC and the Fatemiyoun Brigade, an Afghan militia operating under IRGC guidance in Syria, reported that they did not incur any losses in personnel. This is not the first time that senior Iranian officials have tried to downplay the extent sof damage caused by Israeli strikes in Syria, so as to avoid the need to retaliate to the strikes.
The former commander of the artillery force of the IRGC in Syria stated in an interview to Iranian TV that Iran’s involvement in Syria, which was intended to prevent the collapse of the Assad regime, started before ISIS began its entrenchment in Syria. He remarked that the Supreme Leader of Iran instructed the former Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Qasem Soleimani, to intervene in Syria in order to defend the Assad regime from the armed rebels who were operating against it. The statements of the senior Iranian official contradict prior Iranian claims that its military involvement in Syria was targeted at ISIS.
The fourth conference of the joint Iranian-Iraqi economic committee was held in Tehran, in the presence of senior state officials, and public and private sector businessmen to discuss expanding the cooperation between the two countries in the energy, transportation, tourism, construction, water and electricity sectors. At the helm of the Iraqi delegation to Iran was the minister of trade and industry.
The American magazine Newsweek reported that recently, Iran stationed in Yemen unnamed aerial vehicles armed with explosives, which can operate against targets in a range that includes much of the Middle East, including Israel.
The Secretary General of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziad al-Nakhleh, and the Head of Hamas’ Politburo, Ismail Hanniyeh, participated at a virtual conference held in Tehran. Meanwhile, the Iranian Ambassador to Yemen, Hassan Irlou, met with representatives of the Palestinian factions in Yemen and stressed Iran’s unyielding support for the Palestinians and the struggle against normalization of relations between Israel and Arab countries.
Iranian Involvement in Syria
Senior Iranian officials avoided officially commenting on the reports about Israeli strikes on the night between January 12th and 13th. According to these reports, the IDF struck targets linked to the IRGC and pro-Iranian militias in Deir Ezzor, in southeastern Syria, and Albu Kamal, on the Iraq-Syria border. Iranian Arabic language TV channel reported (January 13) about one Iranian casualty and 14 men who were wounded in the strike. Prior to this, pro-opposition Syrian outlets claimed that dozens of Syrian and foreign fighters were killed in the strike, the fourth such raid attributed to Israel in Syria in the span of two weeks.
The commander of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, an Afghan Shia militia that operates under IRGC command in Syria, told in an interview to the Tasnim news agency (January 14) that the IDF strike damaged a number of positions of the Syrian Army and that several Syrian officers were killed. He denied the reports that the strike also killed fighters from the Afghan militia. The Deputy Commander of the Qods Force for Political Affairs, Ahmad Karimkhani, also addressed the effect of the strike, claiming in an interview to the Fars news agency (January 14) that no casualties were sustained in the attack. He asserted that contrary to “their false propaganda, the Zionists do not dare to strike headquarters or positions of Iran and the resistance groups in Syria,” adding that these are “blind strikes without any strategic goals,” intended to divert public attention away from the domestic protests against Prime Minister Netanyahu.
The Syrian pro-opposition news agency, Step News, reported (January 18) that the pro-Iranian militias in eastern Syria received a new batch of supplies of weaponry and logistical equipment through the new crossing in the Deir Ezzor region on the border between Syria and Iraq (implicitly, after the strike attributed to Israel on the Syria-Iraq border). According to this report, trucks carrying flour, cotton, ammunition, logistical equipment and medical supplies were sent to the IRGC-backed militias in the region. According to the report, the new crossing, located near the city of Albu Kamal on the Syrian-Iraqi border, is operating under the supervision of Shia Iraqi militias.
In an interview to Iranian television, Mahmoud Chaharbaghi, who served as the Commander of the IRGC’s artillery forces in Syria, stated that the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, instructed the former Commander of the IRGC’s Qods Force, Qasem Soleimani, to protect Assad’s regime and prevent its collapse. Chaharbaghi remarked that when this order was handed down, there was still no presence of ISIS in Syria, only of Syrian rebels. He added that he first met Soleimani in Syria in November 2012, when the commander of the Qods Force came to examine the situation in the country following the fall of large swaths of Syria into the hands of the anti-Assad rebels.
The former commander of the IRGC’s artillery force in Syria in an interview to channel 5 of Iranian TV (January 4, 2021)
Iran condemned the decision of the European Union (EU) to sanction the Syrian Foreign Minister, Faysal al-Miqdad. The Spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saeed Khatibzadeh, labeled the decision “unreasonable and unwise,” and declared that it would escalate the situation in Syria, make it even harder to reach a compromise in the country, and will exacerbate the lack of trust between Syria and the EU. He called on the EU to reconsider its decision, particularly at a time when it would have been expected the EU to condemn the acts of aggression of the “Zionist regime” against Syria, while violating the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity (Tehran Times, January 17).
On January 14, the Iranian Ambassador to Syria, Javad Torkabadi, met with the Syrian Speaker of Parliament, Hammouda Sabbagh, and discussed bilateral relations with him. During the meet, Torkabadi invited Sabbagh to participate in the conference in support of the Palestinians, set to be held virtually by the Iranian parliament in Tehran.. The Iranian Ambassador stressed Iran’s support for Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity, adding that Iran and Russia share a strong, unified and clear position with regards to the Palestinian question (al-Alam, January 15).
The meeting between the speaker of the Syrian parliament and the Iranian ambassador to Damascus (al-Alam, January 15, 2021)
The Syrian Prime Minister, Hussein Arnous, updated that since early July 2020 and until the end of December, Syria imported about 1.2 million tons of oil from Iran, worth 456 million dollars. Arnous claimed in a speech before the Syrian parliament that in recent months, seven oil tankers, which were on their way to Syria through the Red Sea were intercepted en route (ISNA, January 18).
Iranian Involvement in Iraq and Yemen
On January 12th and 13th, the fourth conference of the joint Iranian-Iraqi economic committee gathered in Tehran to discuss expanding cooperation between the two countries in various sectors, including energy, transportation, tourism, construction, water and electricity. In attendance were senior officials , as well as prominent public sector and private sector businessmen.
During the meetings of the committee, the Iraqi Minister of Trade and Industry, Alaa’ Ahmad al-Jabouri, met with the Iranian Minister of Industry and Trade, Alireza Razm-Hosseini, and discussed expanding trade between the two countries, and particularly carrying out barter trade. The Iraqi minister remarked that Iraq is Iran’s second most important trade partner, following China. His Iranian counterpart called for expanding the volume of trade between the two countries to $20 billion per year and remarked that the Iranian goods make up about 25 percent of the Iraqi market. During his visit to Tehran, the Iraqi minister of trade and industry also met with the First Deputy to the Iranian President, Eshaq Jahangiri (IRNA, January 13).
The American magazine Newsweek reported (January 13) that Iran recently placed in Yemen explosive-laden UAVs that can operate against a range of targets that includes Israel. According to this report, backed up by satellite imagery, Iran provided to the Houthi rebels Shahed-136 UAVs, which has a range of up to 2,000 to 2,200 kilometers (1,243 – 1,367 miles), which were stationed in al-Jawf in northern Yemen, an area under the control of Iran’s Yemeni allies.
The Iranian military affairs commentator, Hossein Dalirian, published on his Telegram account (January 14) a post denying the information detailing in the Newsweek report, claiming that a Shahed-136 type drone of Iranian manufacture does not exist. He also mentioned that the UAV seen in the footage in the Newsweek article does not look like any Iranian suicide UAV and that it seems similar to the Hazem UAV of the Aerial Defense Forces of the Air Force of the regular Iranian Armed Forces, which is not a suicide drone. Dalirian added that the only Iranian suicide UAV that can reach a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,243 miles) is an Arash type UAV.
The Spokesman of the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Said Khatibzadeh, condemned the decision of the outgoing U.S. administration to include the Ansar Allah organization (the Houthi rebels) of Yemen in the list of foreign terrorist organization. He asserted that the American step would exacerbate the worst humanitarian crisis in the 21st century and will harm efforts to reach a political solution for the conflict in Yemen. Khatibzadeh called to halt the political and military support, including the sale of weapons, to Saudi Arabia and members of its Coalition in Yemen, sales that are being carried out by a number of countries, including the United States (Tasnim, January 20).
Iranian Involvement in the Palestinian Arena
On January 14, the Iranian Ambassador to Yemen, Hassan Irlou, met with representatives of the Palestinian factions in Yemen. The meeting was attended by Ahmed Baraka, the Representative of Palestinian Islamic Jihad in Yemen, Moaz Abu Shamala, the Deputy Representative of Hamas, Omar Ghanim, the Representative of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and Khaled Khalifa, the Representative of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP). The meeting focused on the importance of Iran’s ongoing support for the Palestinians in the struggle against the normalization of relations between Arab countries and Israel. The Iranian ambassador stressed that Islamic unity is the only opinion in light of the normalization of relations with the “Zionist regime”, adding that the Zionist regime, which attacked the Palestinian people, is now attacking Yemen too and is exacerbating the problems of the Yemenite people. The representatives of the Palestinian factions thanked Iran for its support to the Palestinian struggle in all circumstances (IRNA, January 15).
The Secretary General of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Ziad al-Nakhleh, and the Head of Hamas’ Politburo, Ismail Hanniyeh, delivered speeches at a virtual conference held in Tehran. Ziad al-Nakhleh declared that even after prior rounds of escalation against Israel, the “resistance” continued to develop its capabilities, with Iranian assistance, until it was able to develop a “balance of terror” vis-à-vis Israel. According to him, the southern front poses a real threat to Israel. Ismail Hanniyeh remarked in his speech that the Palestinians are facing a threat that affects not only them but harms the entire region and Muslim umma. He addressed the sanctions placed on a number of countries in the region, and particularly Iran, which according to him were intended to disrupt the supply lines of the “resistance” (Filastin al-Yawm, January 18).