Iran to Hand Syria over to 5 New Local Proxies. India Is Tehran’s New Partner Vs US
President Donald Trump’s sweeping remarks to his cabinet in the White House situation room on Wednesday, Jan. 2, were not immediately consistent – mainly because he kept key connecting links back. “Iran is no longer the same country,” he said. “They can do what they want in Syria, frankly, but Iran is pulling people out of Syria and Yemen.” He indicated that, due to his sanctions, Tehran no longer has the money to maintain those forces there and has to pull them out from a country that is “all sand and death.”
But the US president did not reveal that, as he spoke, his predictions of Iranian pullouts were playing out in Baghdad, 10,000km away – although for unrelated reasons.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s exclusive sources, the liaison officers of Qassem Soleimani’s Al Qods Brigades were informing heads of Iraq’s pro-Iranian Shiite militias that numbers of Iranian officers and advisers would be leaving their country and returning home. Our sources also reveal that Tehran’s decision in this case was less due to US sanctions than other events:
1. Stories appearing in Iraqi media in the past fortnight accuse senior government ministers in Baghdad of conniving with the two most prominent pro-Iranian militias to steal hundreds of millions of dollars from their departments and handing the money to Qassem Soleimani, commander of Iran’s Middle East forces. The guilty militias are the Popular Mobilization Units (PMU), a private army of 150,000 soldiers under the command of Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis and the Asaib Ahl al-Haq, which is headed by Qais al-Khazali. Both are minions of the IRGC.
Soleimani is accused of using the stolen loot to fund the establishment of five new Syrian militias loyal to Iran, in which he is engaged at the moment, as well as an injection for Hizballah’s operations in Syria and Lebanon.
2. It was decided at the highest government and military levels in Tehran, that the Iraqi militias combined are stronger than the Iraqi government army, and the five new groups taking shape in Syria plus Hizballah are more powerful than the Syrian government army. Therefore, Iran can afford to dispense with its own military presence in Iraq and Syria and pull out thousands of the officers and men deployed there.
Tehran is matching Washington’s troop drawdown, step by step, less because of US sanctions than to escape from the pervasive anti-Iranian atmosphere in Iraq.
Iran’s leaders are also watching Presidents Trump and Putin dance back and forth over terms for a deal in Syria and the roles Israel and Turkey are to play. (See the lead article in this issue). They are waiting to see how it works out.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources have the impression that Iran’s interest in Syria is waning and the Gulf, the Arabian Sea and the Indian subcontinent are gaining in importance. US and Iran have both shifted their focus to the same arena. Tehran has grasped that the USS John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group was deployed last December opposite Iran’s Gulf shores for a multiple mission. It was more than to act as a deterrent against Iran’s repetition of the nuclear-capable ballistic missiles tests conducted on December 1. The American warships have their gaze fixed on the strategic new Iranian Chabahar Port on its southeastern coast of the Gulf of Oman, whose operations were taken over by India on Dec. 24. An Iranian official said that the state-owned India Ports Global Ltd had been granted a temporary 18-month lease followed by a ten-year period.
This event has momentous geopolitical connotations for the region and for US interests.
Inaugurated last year, Chabahar Port on the Indian Ocean is being built largely by India. It will provide a key supply route for Afghanistan while allowing India to bypass rival Pakistan to trade with Central Asia.
President Trump therefore has a large bone to pick with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He did not grant Delhi a waiver from sanctions against Iranian oil only to find him acting behind Washington’s back to build Chabahar Port, through which India would help Tehran beat US sanctions. India’s control of the key port also threatens the US administration’s strategy for Afghanistan. Iran has found in India a partner for disrupting Trump’s plans to pull US forces out of Afghanistan.