Analysts believe that the reach of influence by Iran over Syria is changing its emphasis, as shown by the withdrawal of Iran’s proxy militia Hezbollah pulling out most of its forces from the embattled country, but being replaced instead by local militias acting in Tehran’s interests.
These militias are now spread over at least four important Syrian regions, namely the Rif-Dimashq, Aleppo and Daraa governorates, and the Syrian desert.
Overall the presence of foreign militias, backed by Iran, has been sizably reduced in the Syria theatre of war, at one point the clerical-led regime in Tehran operated some 30 militias, whilst now it controls less than ten.
Most Iran-tied militias are concentrated in the country’s east, where battles are being waged against terror group Isis in the Syrian desert. Elsewhere the distribution of forces has been strategically intertwined with regime troops.
But Iran did not take the decision to downsize its arms in Syria of its own accord, it was forced by international pressure which demanded the removal of Iranian forces from the Syrian south, particularly from the south-western city of Quneitra.
However, it is worth noting that a few Iran-tied forces still maintain a presence in the northern Aleppo governorate.
But even the Iranian presence, which overwhelmed the Syrian south last year, especially in the southern Daraa countryside, “has been greatly reduced and there are no longer any manifestations of Iranian soldiers who were present in the region,” Syrian opposition activist, Youssef Al Khateeb, told 7Dnews.
Despite retreating from the Syrian south, Khateeb noted that: “Iranian influence there has been shifted from Iranian agents to affiliated Syrian militias.
They have the support of both the clerical regime in Tehran and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and are mostly composed of sectarian militias. They replaced the Iranians who carried out withdrawals and whose direct presence gradually began to shrink since summer 2018,” said Khateeb.
In the south-western province of Daraa, according to Khateeb, the Iranian presence is limited to an armed Syrian faction self-branded as the National Defence Forces (NDF).
Now NDF fighters are mainly positioned in one area north-west of Daraa, near a strategic hotspot. Militants, however, are not present in the western countryside near Quneitra, where Russian military police have control. The Al-Sanamayn city in southern Syria, which is administratively part of the Daraa Governorate, also is populated by the Iranian-backed unit, as well as Hezbollah militia.
According to Khateeb, these militia concentrations are deployed to areas where regime forces fought Isis, in the Syrian desert stretch between as Suwayda and Daraa districts, and the south-eastern part of the Rif Dimashq countryside.
The Syrian south has long been a magnet for Iranian militia, who considered it to be strategically important, especially as it is close to front lines near to the occupied Golan Heights.
International parties eventually reached an agreement to demilitarize the zone stretching 40 kilometres from the border, with the Russians pressing for the removal of Iranian proxies and forces in the area. The withdrawal delivered a severe blow to Iranian outreach in Syria, with activists saying that the cleric-led country’s Revolutionary Guards, who once overtly roamed Syrian streets, have disappeared from the public eye.
But it goes without saying that the trend of lowering deployment in the south has not yet spread to the Damascus countryside, where Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are openly located at a point near the capital.
The Iran-affiliated Syrian militias also maintain a wide spread in the capital and its countryside, with the exception of the eastern Ghouta region.
As for foreign militias in Syria, opposition activist Khalid Al Shami said: “foreign militias, namely Hezbollah, have kept their control in the southern suburbs of Damascus and large areas near borders with Lebanon, such as in Qalamoun and Al Qusayr, both of which are located in southern Homs, where it operates a large military base.”
“Home-grown militias such as the ‘Imam Hussein Brigade’ and the NDF are concentrated inside Damascus neighbourhoods and in the south,” Shami noted.
Recent developments have led to foreign paramilitaries, including the Iraqi Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade and other similar groups, such as the Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, to downscale their overall presence, and redeploy to areas where Popular Mobilization Forces are set up. This has limited their presence to arid stretches of land around Iraqi-Syrian borders.
Even though Iranian forces do not seem to retain significant influence in the north, activists say that they do still operate small-scale formations south of Aleppo, namely in the Al-Hader and Al-Eis areas.
Iran’s overall strategy has shifted from tasking its own forces or foreign militias to hiring local proxies to promote Tehran’s influence.