Skip to main content

Iran's hold on Syria strong despite 'withdrawals' after Israeli attacks

While Tehran has been withdrawing some military commanders from Syria in response to Israeli targeting, reports of a large-scale drawdown in Iranian forces in the country are exaggerated, analysts say.
Iranians attend the funeral procession for seven Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members killed in a strike in Syria, which Iran blamed on Israel, in Tehran on April 5, 2024.

Iran has pulled some of its forces out of bases in Damascus and southern Syria, according to various media outlets and war monitors, as a precautionary measure in the wake of the Gaza conflict and the corresponding escalation in Israeli attacks on Iran and its allies. The reports have in turn spurred speculation over a shift in Iran’s broader Syria policy that may create opportunities for the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to revive normalization with fellow Arab states. Many analysts, however, say that the reports are exaggerated and that Iran has merely pulled out top Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders who are being targeted in Israeli precision strikes.

If anything, Iran’s dependence on its Shiite militia allies in Syria has increased, and Assad shows few signs, if any, that he can afford an Iranian withdrawal, and as such, the potential for a wider conflagration of the Gaza conflict that would suck in Syria cannot be discounted.

The reports of a thinning of the Iranian presence, notably around Daraa and Quneitra close to the Golan Heights, follow the suspected April 1 Israeli attack in Damascus on what Iran said was a diplomatic compound that was therefore protected by the Vienna Convention. Iran’s top military official in Syria, Brig. Gen. Mohammad Reza Zahedi, was killed in the attack along with two other senior commanders and four other personnel, prompting Iran to attack Israel directly for the first time with multiple missiles and drones. While the move was calculated to avoid casualties and a Bedouin girl was the only person injured, it sent a clear message that Iran had the will and capacity to strike the Jewish state. At the same time, it exposed Iran to further retaliation by Israel, notably in Syria, which serves as a critical bridge for the flow of men and weapons via Iraq to Iran’s Hezbollah allies in Lebanon.

Same old, same old?

Access the Middle East news and analysis you can trust

Join our community of Middle East readers to experience all of Al-Monitor, including 24/7 news, analyses, memos, reports and newsletters.


Only $100 per year.