Intel: US sanctions squeezing Iranian forces in Syria, says US envoy

al-monitor Jim Jeffrey, the US special envoy for Syria and to the global coalition to defeat the Islamic State, speaks during a news conference at the State Department in Washington, Nov. 14, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Yara Nardi.

May 12, 2020

Cash-strapped Iran is reining in some of its forces in Syria as a result of American sanctions, US envoy James Jeffrey said today. 

“We have seen the Iranians pulling in some of their outlying activities and such in Syria because of, frankly, financial problems ... in terms of the huge success of the Trump administration’s sanctions policies against Iran. It’s having a real effect in Syria,” said Jeffrey, the US special envoy for Syria policy and the fight against the Islamic State. 

Speaking at a virtual panel hosted by the Washington-based Hudson Institute think tank, Jeffrey acknowledged reports that Iranian-supported forces have scaled back their presence in Syria, part of which he chalked up to the lack of ongoing fighting. 

A cease-fire brokered in early March by Russia, which backs President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey, which supports some of the opposition groups seeking to oust him, is largely holding in the country’s embattled Idlib province.

But Jeffrey also linked the apparent drawdown to the Donald Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign on the Islamic Republic. The coronavirus pandemic, plunging oil prices and tough economic sanctions imposed by the United States have crippled Iran’s economy.

“We do see some withdrawal of Iranian-commanded forces. Some of that is tactical because they are not fighting right now, but it also is a lack of money,” Jeffrey said.

Why it matters:  In addition to ensuring the lasting defeat of the Islamic State, the Trump administration says it’s keeping American troops in Syria to counter Iranian expansion that could pose a threat to Israel. 

Jeffrey’s comments today come amid reports in Israeli media outlets that Iran is significantly reducing its military footprint in Syria and closing its bases across the country following a recent escalation of Israeli airstrikes. 

But in a briefing with reporters last week, Jeffrey largely dismissed those reports, stressing the recent troop movements don’t represent a major strategic change for Iran and its allied forces in Syria.   

“What we have not seen — and I want to underline this — is any strategic Iranian commitment not to try to use Syria both as a second launching pad for long-range weapons against Israel and as a conduit — the famous Shia Crescent — on to provide Hezbollah more lethal and more modern precision-guided missiles, again, to threaten Israel,” he said during a May 7 briefing. 

What’s next: Sanctions-hit Iran could face another round of economic penalties under the so-called Caesar Act. The law sanctioning governments or private companies that lend support to the Syrian regime will come into effect June 17, and administration officials hope the financial pressure will force Assad’s allies to reevaluate their continued presence in Syria.  

“My recipe is more of the same,” Jeffrey said, adding that the United States must “work with the Arab world and Europe to ensure nobody goes wobbly — as Margaret Thatcher once famously said — on sanctions.” 

Know more: Ben Caspit takes a closer look at Iranian military investments in Syria, and Congressional Correspondent Bryant Harris examines the implications of the Caesar Act on Syria’s long-term reconstruction. 

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