August 31, 2023
Iran Update, August 31, 2023
The Iran Update aims to inform national security policy by providing timely, relevant, and independent open-source analysis of developments pertaining to Iran and its Axis of Resistance. This update covers political, military, and economic events and trends that affect the stability and decision-making of the Iranian regime. It also provides insights into Iranian and Iranian-sponsored activities abroad that undermine regional stability and threaten US forces and interests. The Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute with support from the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) provides these updates Monday through Friday. To receive Iran Updates via email, please subscribe here.
The Institute for the Study of War (ISW) with support from the Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute launched an interactive map of Iran and the Middle East. The map depicts events in Iran that affect the stability of the Iranian regime, namely anti-regime protests and reported poisoning incidents. It also shows developments in Syria that jeopardize regional stability and pose threats to US forces and interests, including Iranian and Iranian-backed militia positions.
- Iranian-backed militias have continued to deploy into territory held by the US-backed SDF in northeastern Syria to conduct assassinations and fuel tribal disputes. These efforts support the Iranian campaign to expel the United States from Syria.
- Iranian-backed militias have reportedly deployed from Iraq to Damascus for protest suppression. These deployments highlight the capacity of the IRGC to manage multiple efforts in Syria simultaneously.
- The Iranian foreign affairs minister affirmed Tehran's intent to maintain a long-term military presence in Syria.
- A senior Iranian nuclear official downplayed the threat of the Iranian nuclear program during an Arabic-language interview with Al Jazeera, possibly to assuage Saudi concerns about Iranian nuclear activities and discourage Saudi leaders from building their own program.
Iranian Activities in the Levant
This section covers Iranian efforts to consolidate and expand Tehran’s economic, military, and political influence throughout the Levant especially in Syria. This section examines some of the many campaigns that Iran is pursuing to achieve this strategic objective. CTP will update and refine our assessments of these campaigns over time and in future updates.
Armed groups, including Iranian-backed militias, have continued to deploy personnel into territory held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to conduct assassinations and fuel tribal disputes. These armed groups include the Baqir Brigade, National Defense Forces (NDF), and Syrian Air Force intelligence. The Baqir Brigade and Syrian Air Force intelligence have ties to the IRGC Quds Force. These deployments come as clashes have erupted between the SDF and its primary subordinate military force in Deir ez Zor Province—the Deir ez Zor Military Council (DMC)—since August 27. Iranian-backed efforts to stoke instability in SDF-held territory would undermine attempts by the US-led International Coalition to deescalate the situation.[i] These Iranian-backed efforts also support the Iranian campaign to expel the United States from Syria.
- Local Syrian opposition media reported on August 31 that the Baqir Brigade, NDF, and Syrian Air Force intelligence sent militants into SDF-held territory.[ii] The Baqir Brigade sent militias into Kasra on August 31.[iii] The Baqir Brigade leader called for escalation against the SDF and tribal support for the DMC.[iv] The NDF and Syrian Air Force Intelligence sent militants to Dhiban.[v] The IRGC Quds Force previously tasked 25 Iraqi militants on August 28 with conducting sabotage and taking advantage of instability in SDF-held territory, as CTP previously reported.[vi]
- The SDF arrested DMC commander Ahmed Abu Khawla on August 27 and began moving reinforcements into Deir ez Zor Province on the same day.[vii] The arrest spurred major clashes between the SDF and DMC as well as local tribes. Both sides have suffered dozens of casualties in the fighting, making these clashes deadlier and more significant than the previous SDF-DMC fighting in July 2023.
- CTP and ISW have previously assessed that Iran is coordinating Russia and the Syrian regime to coerce the United States to withdraw forces from Syria.[viii] The Iranian-backed militant deployments into SDF-held territory support this campaign by creating an increasingly hostile operating environment for US forces.
Iranian-backed militias have deployed from Iraq to Damascus for protest suppression, according to Syrian opposition media. Anti-Syrian regime protests have erupted in Syria since mid-August 2023 in response to the increasingly dire state of the economy and poor regime governance. The Iranian-backed militias sent to Damascus may be preparing to crackdown on the mass protests planned for September 1. The reported details on the militias, including that they are equipped with sniper rifles, is consistent with how the Iranian regime use their own security services to suppress internal unrest.
- Iranian-backed militias sent three buses of militants from Iraq to Damascus between August 27 and 31.[ix] The militants had training on sniper rifles and urban warfare and were comprised of Iranians, Iraqis, and Afghans. The buses contained Shia pilgrims as well, which is consistent with CTP’s previous reporting that Iranian-backed militias disguise themselves as pilgrims.[x]
- The ongoing anti-regime protests in Syria have centered in Suwayda Province, which is southeast of Damascus, but also are occurring in Aleppo, Daraa, Deir ez Zor, Idlib, Raqqa, and Rif Dimashq provinces.[xi] Disaffected Syrians in all provinces have shown support for the movement on social media and in limited acts of civil disobedience.[xii] Protests have paralyzed economic, political, and social life in southern Syria by blocking roads, closing businesses and government offices, and disrupting countrywide exams.[xiii]
- Protesters have called for mass demonstrations in all Syrian cities on September 1. Thousands of protesters gathered during the previous Friday’s mass demonstrations.[xiv] A local activist in Suwayda Province told local media that the upcoming demonstrations “will probably be the most intense in terms of participation.”[xv]
- The Iranian regime has a long history of using violence to impose social control domestically. Iranian state security services have extensive training in urban warfare and using sniper rifles.[xvi] These services have used snipers against protesters in most major protest waves in Iran in recent years.[xvii]
The deployment of Iranian-backed militias from Iraq to Damascus highlights the capacity of the IRGC to manage multiple efforts in Syria simultaneously. As reported above, Iran is coordinating with Russia and the Assad regime to expel the United States from Syria. This campaign involved Iran surging forces and materiel to the line of contact with the SDF in July 2023.[xviii] The fact that Iran sent militants from Iraq to Damascus highlights how Iran brought additional resources into Syria rather than drawing down its force presence around the line of contact with the SDF. Doing so allows Iran to continue to pressure the United States and SDF while also preparing for a possible protest crackdown around Damascus.
Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian affirmed Iranian leaders’ intent to maintain a long-term military presence in Syria during a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al Assad in Damascus on August 31. Abdollahian stated that Iran will continue to help the Syrian regime combat terrorism.[xix] Abdollahian previously emphasized that Iran seeks to maintain Syrian sovereignty and territorial integrity on August 30.[xx] CTP and ISW have extensively reported in recent months on Tehran‘s continued efforts to entrench its military influence in Syria.[xxi] The Arab League issued a statement in May 2023 rejecting external support for non-state militias.[xxii]
Iranian Domestic and Political Affairs
This section covers factors and trends affecting regime decision-making and stability. CTP will cover domestic politics, significant protest activity, and related issues here.
A senior Iranian nuclear official downplayed the threat of the Iranian nuclear program during an Arabic-language interview with Al Jazeera on August 31.[xxiii] This interview may have been meant to assuage Saudi concerns about Iranian nuclear activities and discourage Saudi leaders from building their own program. Atomic Energy Organization of Iran Chief Mohammad Eslami stated in the interview that Tehran is prepared for “constructive” nuclear cooperation with the Gulf states. Eslami also suggested that the regime is seeking to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which would reimpose constraints on Iranian nuclear activities. This interview comes as Western and Israeli media have reported that Saudi leaders are seeking help from the United States to develop their own domestic nuclear program in exchange for normalizing ties with Israel.[xxiv]
[ii] https://deirezzor24 dot net/en/the-assad-regime-and-iranian-militias-are-planting-cells-in-the-countryside-of-deir-ezzor
[iv] https://eyeofeuphrates dot com/ar/news/2023/08/28/9538
[vi] https://www.understandingwar.org/backgrounder/iran-update-august-28-2023; https://eyeofeuphrates dot com/ar/news/2023/08/28/9540
[ix] https://eyeofeuphrates dot com/ar/news/2023/08/31/9557; https://eyeofeuphrates dot com/ar/news/2023/08/28/9537
[xi] https://www.facebook.com/Suwayda24/posts/pfbid02EfRBqyLX3CSud79rbNWQbLkgzsWH57pVGjZH5cMPp217g1eYGU5H5qhVk1oLjMJel?__cft__=AZX8OW25VmOO4aRCFP8_l6jgG4KmK53MUYHMyQbbbr8YYhTpqrbCa1wq-PRUYtCflrKAPYfCwMQSXc9dKjFOxGtlJCgVhcLze9f3obXy0SxjF1Z0Om-Rw-0-CQh6XtV7vqKuuxgcOKhBGzcYLI_lXw7pYShbNKcZHtDyPJArLJ1UzNTrq0u-1vL8K30smIfLPAg&__tn__=%2CO%2CP-R ; https://www.facebook.com/Suwayda24/posts/pfbid02Z8mZA9HcLzAb7v2JRdp63LiSGxdR4QrJaYVX2ERusEvFSN4nwqkFWKe2hbbNLprul?__cft__=AZUJHtUtxStIzT0ss0qxqQX8nRyve3NhMSvBxBGgU2opoJ3yp4kUOeHEheEO4815j0QMgWYqRcj1L3P6H3YwmdO9EHvXI0MwqkIWqgUcSo4dlLo7WfICTTWc6jRCCHBlTiUfwmPgt3TRW6fH2eQdPfQuxtQJy2a-YGBiDTby-6vlw-ICRVb3mqrHyppSGSLc7Rw&__tn__=%2CO%2CP-R ; https://twitter.com/Sada_AlSharqieh/status/1695047293437653211 ; https://www.facebook.com/Suwayda24/posts/pfbid02GF3a21ZRwVNpH2Gp5dVL6VGRvKsuUV62swVyTzn5poZC3QZm5E1SyPEt8EmCSGtxl?__cft__=AZVf316icnuYCoQ1fG2GkEBwU9mEplqzaJNBvg3DPe-YiF2JvRzXKtvuE2toqg_6rWuIYa3mO9etZLGp9QggtZ3JrJ5Aa-lSLEW1iQBd3Den2FxnCPlGKc7i2NAbTJPQEBqaNd36CR7rKvvqI1xLyQZ5UOJIHgcYey6eG0q61mNTg9G9KmkhdqhoXBGvF8mGSmk&__tn__=%2CO%2CP-R ; https://twitter.com/syr_television/status/1695082761177199083 ; https://twitter.com/EuphratesPost/status/1692549597497806967 ; https://twitter.com/Sada_AlSharqieh/status/1694673110073503942 ; https://twitter.com/ThomasVLinge/status/1692496059405144366
[xii] https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100095524928763 ; https://twitter.com/Sada_AlSharqieh/status/1695035135731564587 ; https://twitter.com/Sada_AlSharqieh/status/1695047293437653211 ; https://twitter.com/syr_television/status/1695082761177199083
[xiii] https://www.syriahr.com/en/308157/ ; https://suwayda24.com/?p=21709 ;
[xiv] https://www.aljazeera dot com/news/2023/8/25/anti-government-protests-in-syria-continue-for-sixth-day
[xvii] https://www.thedailybeast.com/neda-agha-soltans-blood-stained-the-ground-where-iranians-protest-today ; https://www.criticalthreats.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/12/Whatever-it-takes-to-end-it.pdf
[xix] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85216626
[xx] https://www.tasnimnews dot com/en/news/2023/08/30/2949597
[xxiii] https://www.aljazeera dot net/news/2023/8/31/%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B0%D8%B1%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%A5%D9%8A%D8%B1%D8%A7%D9%86%D9%8A%D8%A9-%D8%AA%D8%B4%D8%AA%D8%B1%D8%B7-%D8%B1%D9%81%D8%B9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B9%D9%82%D9%88%D8%A8%D8%A7%D8%AA
[xxiv] https://www.wsj.com/articles/saudi-arabia-seeks-u-s-security-pledges-nuclear-help-for-peace-with-israel-cd47baaf ; https://www.jpost dot com/breaking-news/article-754159 ; https://www.timesofisrael dot com/gallant-said-to-press-us-for-clarifications-on-proposed-saudi-nuclear-program/