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Is Iran Retreating From Syria?

My friend and terrific reporter, Eli Lake, has reported that American and other Western defense experts believe that Iran is withdrawing troops from Syria. The Saudis’ London outlet says the same, with feebler sources (some FSA guy who says he was listening to Iranian communications).

I have my doubts. An Iranian retreat would be a watershed event, because it would mean that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had done a 180 on a fundamental principle of his regime: doing whatever it takes to save Bashar al-Assad’s tyrannical rule in Syria.

Our eyes in the skies are very keen, and no doubt some Iranian ground forces, spurred by the significant loss of life they have suffered in the past couple of years, are returning to the Islamic Republic. On the other hand — if you follow Emanuele Ottolenghi’s tweets (@eottolenghi) — you’ll see significant air traffic between Iran and Syria. As Emanuele says, those airplanes are carrying weapons, ammunition, and fighters. It doesn’t look as if this resupply operation is diminishing.

My own sources in Iran insist that there is no retreat from Khamenei’s long-standing insistence that Iran do everything necessary to ensure the survival of the Assad regime. He has given his military commanders unlimited funds and unrestricted freedom of action. To be sure, the fight hasn’t been a great success thus far — the Russians’ bloody bombing spree proves that. And the reports of grave injuries to the Revolutionary Guards leadership, including General Qasssem Suleimani, suggest there is undoubtedly intense rancor within the country’s fractious elites. I am told that Suleimani is in the same Tehran hospital suite where Khamenei himself was treated when he was in a coma a couple of years ago. Suleimani is said to have three bad wounds: one to the back of his head, one to his neck, and the third to an arm/wrist.

So what’s going on?

The Quds Force includes thousands of foreigners, primarily from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Iraq. It wouldn’t be surprising if such foreign fighters were replacing Iranian cannon fodder on the Syrian battlefield. The four allies fighting for Assad — Iran, Iraq, Russia, and Syria — have scheduled a high-level strategy meeting in Baghdad later this week to review the situation.

Finally, there is always the possibility that the intelligence is either wrong or manipulated. The Pentagon’s inspector general is investigating complaints from CENTCOM analysts that their reports and analyses from Afghanistan have been systematically and deliberately suppressed or doctored to conform to the policy preferences of the White House and military appointees. Maybe there is an element of such politicization in this story.

Pending further enlightenment, color me dubious.