In a major military development with serious political connotations on the Syrian stage, Tehran — with what seems like Russia’s approval  or at least tolerance of the move — has once again reshuffled cards and calculations regarding its presence in Syria.

The nation has been through a rough decade of conflict and destruction since 2011 when the war broke out with many national, regional and international players under the false banner of the so-called Arab Spring.

Tehran Deploys Air Defense Batteries at Damascus International Airport

The past week has witnessed two major military developments regarding Iran’s presence in Syria. The moves come following repetitive Israeli air and missile attacks targeting Tehran’s RGC (Republican Guard Corps) forces as well as against pro-Iran militias operating alongside the Syrian army throughout the conflict.

For the first time since the conflict erupted in Syria, at least two Iranian cargo planes were reported to have landed at the Russian main airbase of Hmeimeem in the Mediterranean city of Latakia over the past two weeks. It is the first such development and has been interpreted as a move taken by Tehran in agreement with Moscow, in order to avert Israeli attacks on the shipment. Soon after, news came out that Iran has actually deployed some modern air defense batteries inside the parameters of Damascus International Airport, which has come under a series of Israeli air and missile attacks over the past couple of years. These attacks destroyed a number of what are believed to be munition dumps and missile shipments in the area adjoining the airport itself.

A Dramatic Development

Although it is early to speak of a Russian-American and even Israeli agreement regarding this issue, Tehran’s new move, if confirmed, marks a dramatic development in the course of events and the future of Iran’s involvement in the Syrian conflict. Iranian officials have long claimed that their presence in Syria does not exceed the limit of providing military expertise and consultancy to their Syrian ally. Such a step is bound to raise tension with the Israelis, and the possibility of a retaliatory strike could not be completely ruled out.

Both Damascus and Tehran have neither confirmed nor denied the news regarding the up-scaling of Iran’s military presence in Syria, which comes at a time of growing rumors of an eminent US withdrawal from the country.

Deal, Power-struggle, or Change of Roles?

The US maintains a number of small bases in north and north-eastern Syria, mainly around major oil and gas fields in the Syrian desert, as well as their strategic camp base of Tanf on the Syrian-Iraqi borders. Washington also supports Kurdish separatists and their main militia, the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces), wings of which such as the YPG militia are branded a “terrorist” organisation by Turkey. This is significant because Turkey plays a key role in supporting anti-Assad militant groups and occupies or controls vast swathes of Syrian territories along its eastern and southern borders.

Before its recent move, Tehran was reported to have pulled out from certain points in the eastern Deir Ezzor province, handing them over to Syrian  and Palestinian pro-Russian para-military forces such as Desert Falcons and the Jerusalem Brigade, which have played a substantive role in the liberation of many areas around the country as well as a number of vital oil and gas field in the course of almost decade-long Syrian conflict. A limited military operation by the Syrian army has begun in the southern rural areas of Daraa, next to the Jordanian borders, as well as in parts of Idlib countryside. This occurred after terrorist and militant groups repeatedly broke the tentative and fragile truce there, attacking Syrian army units as well as security posts in both regions.

Regardless of the actual scenario or talk of a possible deal of sorts, Iran seems adamant to bolster its presence in Syria and beef it up with the deployment of modern air defense batteries come what may. After all, both Syria and Iran have very little to lose, given the stringent embargo and stifling US-spearheaded sanctions imposed against both nations for decades now.

Secret No More: Lifting the Lid on Iran’s Flights into Hmeimeem

Tehran and Moscow initially kept the lid tight as the first Iranian plane landed at Hmeimeem on May 6. Three days later, however, the Russian Ministry of Defence published a video of the Iranian touching down at the Russian base, claiming it was an emergency change of route due to fear and intelligence reports that Israel was to attack the cargo heading for Damascus International Airport. One week later, a similar flight took place, highlighting a new joint strategy that could continue for some time now

Despite talk of an illicit race for influence in Syria between Moscow and Tehran every now and then, both key players appear to have agreed on Tehran’s new and dramatic move to protect at least its forces operating in Syria. The fact that the Russians have welcomed Iranian planes into Hmeimeem for the very first time also reflects Moscow’s approval of the move. It reminds us of the time when Russian heavy strategic TU-160 bombers used Iranian bases and airspace to attack terrorist targets in Syria over the past few years. The official Russian confirmation of the what was supposed to be secretive Iranian flights into Hmeimeem is itself a message directed mainly towards Tel Aviv and Washington.

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