Iran’s IRGC has reduced the presence of its senior officers in Syria due to a spate of deadly Israeli strikes and will rely more on its militia proxies, Reuters quoted five sources as saying.
The Guards have suffered one of their most bruising spells in Syria since arriving a decade ago to aid President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian war. Since December, Israeli strikes have killed more than half a dozen of their members, among them one of the Guards’ top intelligence generals.
As hardliners in Tehran demand retaliation, Iran’s decision to pull out senior officers is driven partly by its aversion to being sucked directly into a conflict bubbling across the Middle East, three sources told Reuters.
Iran International reported last week that some in Tehran suspect an Israeli infiltration in tracking and pinpointing the whereabouts of senior IRGC officers in Syria.
Moreover, after a January drone attack by an Iranian-backed Iraqi group in Jordan that killed three US soldiers, Washington has vowed to retaliate against unknown targets, that could include IRGC assets in Syria.
While the sources said Iran has no intention of quitting Syria – a key part of Tehran’s sphere of influence – the rethink underscores how the consequences of the war ignited by Palestinian militant group Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel are unfolding in the region.
Iran, a backer of Hamas, has sought to stay out of the conflict itself even as its proxy groups that have entered the fray from Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq and Syria – the so-called “Axis of Resistance” have intensified attacks on US and Israeli targets, as well as international maritime traffic in the Red Sea.
One of the sources – a senior regional security official briefed by Tehran – said senior Iranian commanders had left Syria along with dozens of mid-ranking officers, describing it as a downsizing of the presence.
The source did not say how many Iranians had left and Reuters was unable independently to determine that.
Iran has sent thousands of fighters to Syria during the Syrian war. While these have included members of the Guards, officially serving in the role of advisors, the bulk have been Shi’ite militiamen from all over the region, specially from Afghanistan.
Three of the sources said the Guards would manage Syrian operations remotely, with help from ally Hezbollah.
Another source, a regional official close to Iran, told Reuters those still in Syria had left their offices and were staying out of sight. “The Iranians won’t abandon Syria, but they reduced their presence and movements to the greatest extent.”
The sources said the changes so far had not had an impact on operations. The downsizing would “help Tehran to avoid being pulled into the Israel-Gaza war,” one of the sources, an Iranian, said.
In one of Israeli attacks, on Jan. 20, five members of the Guards were killed, Iranian state media reported, including a general who ran intelligence for the Quds Force, which is responsible for the Guards’ overseas operations. The strike flattened a Damascus building.
Another, on Dec. 25 outside Damascus, killed a senior Guards adviser responsible for coordinating between Syria and Iran. Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei led prayers at his funeral.
Three of the sources told Reuters the Guards had raised concerns with Syrian authorities that information leaks from within the Syrian security forces played a part in the recent lethal strikes.
Another source familiar with Iranian operations in Syria said the precise Israeli strikes had prompted the Guards to relocate operational sites and officers’ residences, amidst concerns of an “intelligence breach”.
The prolonged presence of Iranian forces in Syria has cemented a zone of Iranian influence stretching through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean, creating a considerable threat to Israel and other countries.
Three of the sources said the Guards were once again recruiting Shi’ite fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan to deploy to Syria, echoing earlier phases of the war when Shi’ite militias played a part in turning the tide of the conflict.
The regional official close to Iran said the Guards were drawing more on Syrian Shi’ite militias.
Gregory Brew, an analyst with Eurasia group, a political risk consultancy, told Reuters the failure to protect Iranian commanders had “clearly undermined Iran’s position” but Tehran was unlikely to end its commitment to Syria to preserving its role in Syria.