September 20, 2023

Iran Update, September 20, 2023

The Iran Update covers provides insights into Iranian and Iranian-sponsored activities abroad that undermine regional stability and threaten US forces and interests. It also covers events and trends that affect the stability and decision-making of the Iranian regime. The Critical Threats Project (CTP) at the American Enterprise Institute and the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) provides these updates weekly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. For more on developments and in Iran and the region, see our interactive map of Iran and the Middle East.

Key Takeaways

  1. Wagner is vacating its positions in Syria to comply with a Russian Ministry of Defense ultimatum. Iran may assume control of some of the positions to secure military assets and expand its economic operations.
  2. Syrian President Bashar al Assad will travel to China for a “Syrian-Chinese summit” on September 21, very likely to pursue bilateral economic ties.

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.

Wagner is vacating its positions in Syria to comply with a Russian Ministry of Defense (MoD) ultimatum. Iran may assume control of some of the positions to secure military assets and expand its economic operations.[1] The Russian MoD instructed Wagner forces in Syria on August 27 to leave the country or join the Russian armed forces by September 20.[2] Approximately 1,500 Wagner militants are in Syria, and over 3,000 Syrians work for Wagner.[3] Russian milbloggers claimed on August 27 that from the Wagner point of view the better option is to transfer assets to Iran rather than to the Russian MoD.[4]

  • The Russian Armed Forces are helping the Syrian regime backfill positions near oil and gas fields from which Wagner is leaving.[5] The regime deployed its Military Security Shield militia, units from the Syrian Armed Forces, and National Defense Forces from Sukhna and Homs to oil fields and wells in the central Syrian desert, according to a report on September 20.[6] Russian leaders in Syria agreed to the regime reinforcements, which will replace Wagner-held positions over an unspecified period.[7]
  • The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force expressed interest in poaching Wagner-trained Syrians, notably the ISIS hunters, after the attempted Wagner coup on June 24. The Wall Street Journal reported that Wagner’s severed chain of command in Syria following the attempted coup left the ISIS hunters in “limbo.”[8] Unspecified Iranian officials met with Wagner after the Russian MoD issued the ultimatum to discuss occupying Wagner territories and deposits.[9]
  • Wagner’s withdrawals from Syria present Iran with an opportunity to secure a permanent and profitable presence there. Iran uses the central Syrian desert area to transfer weapons and military equipment to its proxies across the Levant. Syria has some of the largest known reserves of phosphate, which is a key fertilizer ingredient. Serbia, Ukraine, and four European Union states have imported over $80 million worth of Syrian phosphate since 2019, according to a report from June 2022.

Syrian President Bashar al Assad will travel to China for a “Syrian-Chinese summit” on September 21, very likely to pursue bilateral economic ties.[10] The Syrian foreign affairs minister and the economy and foreign trade minister will accompany Assad to China, which suggests that the visit will focus on securing Chinese assistance with Syrian reconstruction and initiating Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in Syria.[11] Syria joined the BRI in January 2022; however, there is no evidence that Syria has initiated a BRI project.[12] No Syrian military personnel are slated to accompany Assad to China, which indicates that military cooperation is not the purpose of the trip. The Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry declined to comment on the trip.[13]

  • China maintained diplomatic relations with Assad throughout the Syrian civil war when many states cut ties with the regime. China has not significantly invested in Syrian reconstruction but has repeatedly expressed willingness to help.[14]
  • Assad last visited China in 2004.[15] He has rarely left the Middle East since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war and usually conducted state visits to his military and political backers, Iran and Russia.[16] The exceptions were his visits to Qatar in March 2022 to pursue normalization of ties with the Arab states and Saudi Arabia in May 2023 after Arab states voted to re-admit Syria to the Arab League.[17]
  • Assad has signed agreements with both Iran and Russia in 2023 focused on collaboration and reconstruction.[18] Several of those projects have not made progress, however, despite several follow-up meetings.[19] Iranian-led reconstruction contracts have been cancelled due to Assad‘s inability to pay for the services.[20]  Russia and Iran have struggling economies and are poorly positioned to further invest in Syrian reconstruction.[21]  Assad downplayed the importance of relations with the Arab states relative to Iran and Russia in August, which suggests that he is deemphasizing Arab states as a potential source of investment.[22]





[5] https://orient-news dot net/ar/news_show/205648

[6] https://orient-news dot net/ar/news_show/205648

[7] https://orient-news dot net/ar/news_show/205648



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[11] https://sana dot sy/?p=1966852

[12] https://sana dot sy/en/?p=260411

[13] https://www.fmprc dot

[14] http://sy dot

[15] http://www.chinadaily dot

[16] ; ; https://www.themoscowtimes dot com/2021/09/14/syrias-assad-meets-putin-in-unannounced-russia-visit-a75035

[17] https://www.tasnimnews dot com/en/news/2022/03/19/2684717/syria-s-assad-meets-qatari-emir-in-1st-trip-to-arab-state-since-2011 ;

[18] https://ria dot ru/20230316/asad-1858224485.html ;

[19] https://www.irna dot ir/news/85138298/%D8%A2%D8%AB%D8%A7%D8%B1-%D8%B3%D9%81%D8%B1-%D8%A2%DB%8C%D8%AA-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%84%D9%87-%D8%B1%D8%A6%DB%8C%D8%B3%DB%8C-%D8%A8%D9%87-%D8%AF%D9%85%D8%B4%D9%82-%D8%AF%D8%B1-%D8%B3%D8%B7%D8%AD-%D8%B1%D9%88%D8%A7%D8%A8%D8%B7-%D8%AF%D9%88%D8%AC%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%A8%D9%87-%D9%88-%D9%85%D9%86%D8%B7%D9%82%D9%87

[20] https://www.enabbaladi dot net/archives/633311; https://shaam dot org/news/syria-news/shrkh-iyranyh-trfdh-msuwl-ykshf-tfasyl-tathr-tahyl-mhth-mhrdh

[21] ;

[22] https://sana dot sy/?p=1946384