May 26 (UPI) -- The Iranian regime has begun to withdraw its forces from Syria. This was the news from James Jeffrey, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and current special presidential envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter Daesh.
Jeffrey was addressing an online meeting of the Washington-based think tank, the Hudson Institute, in mid-May. Citing the accomplishment of the Trump administration's "maximum pressure" campaign against the regime, he said: "We have seen the Iranians pulling in some of their outlying activities and such in Syria because of, frankly, financial problems...in terms of the huge success of the Trump administration's sanctions policies against Iran. It's having a real effect in Syria."
Jeffrey went on to outline the range of problems confronting the bankrupt Iranian regime, including the coronavirus pandemic, the management of which has been badly bungled by the mullahs. Tehran continues to insist that it has controlled the outbreak of COVID-19, telling the world that it has recorded just over 7,000 deaths, when in fact, accurate information gleaned daily from resistance units of the People's Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI/MEK), indicate that the real toll is in excess of 44,000 and probably much higher.
The Iranian economy is in freefall, with over 70 percent of the population living under the absolute international poverty line, unable to meet their basic daily needs. But rather than diverting funds to help, the mullahs have continued to spend billions on proxy wars around the Middle East.
Jeffrey's statement was backed on Thursday by U.S. State Department Special Representative for Iran Brian Hook, who claimed the Trump administration believes Iran has growing incentives to pull out of a multibillion-dollar military campaign in Syria as the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the country. He said the United States had seen "tactical displacement" of Iranian troops in Syria, where Tehran-backed militias have provided much of the firepower for the Bashar al-Assad regime's assault on Idlib province, one of the last remaining opposition holdouts in the war-torn country.
The regime's backing for Assad and his bloody civil war has continued for nine years, costing billions of dollars and over 700,000 lives. But the fact that Iranian forces and their proxy militias have been obliged to begin their withdrawal from Syria, proves that U.S. sanctions are effective in obstructing military campaigns. Now the Caesar Act, which will sanction governments and companies that continue to support and assist the Assad regime, will be introduced on June 17, further tightening the squeeze on the Iranian mullahs and their allies.
U.S. President Donald Trump signed the Caesar Act into law just before Christmas. It has been hailed by human rights groups as a great victory in their determined effort to hold the Assad regime accountable for the war crimes it has committed and continues to commit against its own people. The act will impose tough sanctions on the Assad regime and individuals that cooperate with it, as well as, for the first time, on the governments of Russia and Iran for their support for Damascus.
The devastating impact of U.S. sanctions on the corrupt Iranian regime was confirmed in April at a meeting in Damascus between Mohammad Zarif, Iran's foreign minister, and Assad. It was Zarif's first visit to the war-ravaged nation in a year and he admitted that his country was now facing financial difficulties, ludicrously calling for the United States to lift its sanctions against Iran and Syria.
Zarif's plea was made against a background where Iranian proxy forces loyal to the Syrian regime have started shelling villages in southeast Idlib, one of the last outposts of anti-Assad rebels, murdering men, women and children. Zarif seemed oblivious to the irony of his own remarks when he accused America of showing "its inhumane face to the world" by refusing to lift sanctions during the pandemic.
With Israel increasingly targeting missile-manufacturing sites in Syria with repeated airstrikes, the Iranian regime has begun a massive infrastructure project, digging a tunnel at the Imam Ali military base in Albukamal, eastern Syria, west of the Iraqi border. The groundwork, exposed by recent satellite images, revealed bulldozers at the entrance to a 5-meter-wide tunnel being constructed to store advance weapon systems, to keep them safe from Israeli attacks. It is an embarrassing revelation for the mullahs, at a time when they are pleading poverty and asking the IMF for $5 billion in emergency aid. Squandering cash looted from the Iranian people on advanced weapons bunkers in Syria is hardly likely to inspire the IMF to provide emergency coronavirus aid.
Indeed, with its health service overwhelmed by the pandemic and an acute shortage of vital personal protective equipment such as face masks, rubber gloves and plastic gowns, Iran's beleaguered doctors and nurses will be appalled to learn that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the mullah's Gestapo, has sent a humanitarian cargo to its terrorist ally Hezbollah in Lebanon. The Iranian ambassador to Lebanon, Mohammad Jalal Firuz-Nia, said in May, "In addition to masks and personal protective equipment and disinfectants, this aid includes 15 ventilators (artificial respiration devices) and 5,000 diagnostic kits for COVID-19."
The ayatollah's response to the spiraling budget deficit inside Iran has been to increase the price of bread and gasoline, heaping further hardship on its 80 million impoverished citizens.
On May 9, U.S. Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker suggested that Israeli attacks on Iranian assets are making Iran's presence in Syria "increasingly costly." He continued: "Iran has been persistent in its efforts to establish this beachhead basically on Israel's border and to bring in advanced weaponry and assets targeting Israel and moving equipment, of course, through Syria to Hezbollah [in Lebanon] with this sort of land bridge. And we see repeatedly, often times with no claims of responsibility, that these assets are being hit with great regularity, just pounded, and it would make sense at a certain point that Iran would want to cut its losses and downsize its presence there just because it's increasingly costly to them in terms of life and property."
Schenker's predictions appear to be coming true. All the signs are that the theocratic regime's costly foreign adventures are no longer financially sustainable and their malign death grip on Syria is beginning to loosen.
Struan Stevenson is the coordinator of the Campaign for Iran Change. He was a member of the European Parliament representing Scotland (1999-2014), president of the Parliament's Delegation for Relations with Iraq (2009-14) and chairman of the Friends of a Free Iran Intergroup (2004-14). He is an international lecturer on the Middle East and is also president of the European Iraqi Freedom Association.