Iran said to cut Syria presence after strikes blamed on Israel

War monitor and source close to Hezbollah say forces pulled from south of country, but remain in other areas; Iraqi and Lebanese fighters said to take their place

Emergency personnel extinguish a fire at the site of strikes that hit a building next to the Iranian embassy in Syria's capital Damascus, April 1, 2024. (Louai Beshara/AFP)
Emergency personnel extinguish a fire at the site of strikes that hit a building next to the Iranian embassy in Syria's capital Damascus, April 1, 2024. (Louai Beshara/AFP)

Iran has reduced its military footprint in Syria after a succession of strikes blamed on Israel, a source close to Iran-backed terror group Hezbollah and a war monitor said Wednesday.

Iran has provided military support to Syrian government forces through more than a decade of civil war, but a series of strikes targeting its commanders in recent months has prompted a reshaping of its presence, the sources said.

“Iran withdrew its forces from southern Syria,” including both Quneitra and Daraa provinces, which abut the Israeli-held Golan Heights, the source close to Hezbollah said.

But it still maintains a presence in other parts of the country, the source added.

Recent months have seen a series of strikes on Iranian targets in Syria, widely blamed on Israel, culminating in an April 1 strike that leveled what Iran said was a consulate in Damascus and killed seven Revolutionary Guards, two of them generals.

That strike prompted Iran to launch a first-ever direct missile and drone attack against Israel on April 13-14 that sent regional tensions spiraling. Israel allegedly responded with a missile strike on an Iranian air defense unit inside Iran.

But Iran had already begun drawing down its forces after a January 20 strike that killed five Revolutionary Guards in Damascus, including their Syria intelligence chief and his deputy, the source close to Hezbollah said.

People and security forces gather in front of a building destroyed in a reported Israeli strike in Damascus on January 20, 2024. (AFP)

A Britain-based war monitor, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said Iranian forces had withdrawn from Damascus and southern Syria.

Iran-backed Lebanese and Iraqi fighters had taken their place, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said.

Iran has said repeatedly that it has no combat troops in Syria, only officers to provide military advice and training.

But the Observatory, which is of unclear funding, says as many as 3,000 Iranian military personnel are present in Syria, supported by tens of thousands of Iranian-trained fighters from countries including Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Abdel Rahman said that many of Iran’s advisers had left Syria in recent months, especially after a strike in March killed a Revolutionary Guard and two others — although some remained in Aleppo province in the north and Deir Ezzor province in the east.

People check the damage on a building reportedly hit in an alleged Israeli air strike in the Kafr Sousa district of the Syrian capital Damascus on February 21, 2024. (Louai Beshara/AFP)

People who have recently traveled to Damascus told AFP Iran’s presence had become less visible in the Syrian capital, with several Iranian army offices in its Old City now closed.

The Iranian flags and portraits of Iran’s leaders that hung in parts of Damascus have mostly disappeared, they added.

Now, the Iranian presence was visible only in Sayyida Zeinab, an important Shiite pilgrimage destination in the city’s southern outskirts, they said.

Iran and Israel’s decades-long shadow war burst into the open after nearly six months of war in the Gaza Strip, where Israel launched an unprecedented offensive after thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed the country’s south on October 7 to kill nearly 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and take over 250 hostages.

Since October 7, Iran’s proxies in Lebanon and Yemen have targeted Israel as well, which they say is in support of Gaza’s Palestinians. Gaza’s Hamas rulers also receive financial and logistical assistance from Iran.

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