Is Iran’s Role in Syria Changing?
Recent remarks by US President Donald Trump regarding the Syrian government elicited strong reaction from Iran. Accompanying the King of Jordan, Trump pointed out to reporters during a news conference at the White House “When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, babies, little babies, with a chemical gas that is so lethal … that crosses many, many lines, beyond a red line. Many, many lines.”
The “red lines,” that Trump was implying, also referred to former president Obama’s red lines which were crossed several times while his administration did not act to hold the Syrian government accountable.
Iran feared increased US engagement in the Syrian war, which could be the only force to significantly change the direction of the war and tilt the domestic balance of power against Iran and Assad’s forces, if and only if, the US conducted a large scale and full-fledged military war. Trump’s remarks were followed by 59 Tomahawk missile strikes authorized by Mr. Trump against the Shayrat air base in central Syria.
Although Tehran was aware that such strikes, conducted far away from the Syrian capital Damascus, were cosmetic moves and would not endanger Assad’s power, Iran reacted forcefully to push the US and its allies back from any other military involvement. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, pointed out “The Americans’ action is a strategic mistake, as they are repeating the mistakes of their predecessors.”
For Iran, Syria is the crux of Tehran’s regional hegemonic strategy; hence, Syria is a grave matter of national security for the Islamic Republic. Syria is the main weapons’ conduit to Hezbollah, and a convergence of interests exists between Syria’s and Iran’s foreign policy- specifically with respect to their stance towards the US, Israel, and other states in the region.
In other words, any fundamental change in Syria’s political establishment will reverberate across the region, significantly impacting the political chessboard of the Middle East. If the change involves removing Assad from power, the regional balance of power will significantly tilt against Tehran.
Strategically and geopolitically speaking, this is the reason Iran will not abandon Assad or the Syrian Alawite-dominated state at any point in the near future.
In fact, Tehran’s role has been increasingly active. Iran began by providing advisors to the Syrian government. Later, Tehran provided technological, financial and intelligence assistance. Afterward, Iran engaged in assisting and training Assad’s forces militarily.
Iran dispatched soldiers from Quds Force, an elite branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) which conducts extraterritorial operations. When the dispatched soldiers proved to be insufficient, IRGC forces were sent to fight in Syria. Tehran also sought the help of its Shia proxies, primarily Hezbollah, to fight in major battles in favor of Assad’s forces. When the numbers of Syrian rebel groups and opposition groups increased, Tehran hired Shia fighters from other countries including Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Iran is hemorrhaging billions of dollars to maintain Assad's presidency. One of the major reasons that Iran has been capable of successfully keeping Assad in power- as well as countering the opposition groups, other regional powers and the West with regard to Syria- is that Tehran’s Syria policy is pro-active.
On the other hand, the US, the EU, and other anti-Assad group’s policies are anchored in a “wait and see” foreign policy. This means Iran’s rivals are always one step behind with regard to major developments happening on the ground in Syria. Iranian forces orchestrate, design, and plan long-term strategic and military moves in Syria. Iran’s policy is based on an articulated agenda, while anti-Assad group’s foreign forces are mainly reacting to events.
Will offensive tactics such as the recent strikes from the US drive Iranian forces to retreat from Syria? The answer is negative based on several reasons. These strikes are isolated acts; they are not changing the direction of the military war; they are not targeting vital centers; they are not part of a larger, clear, articulate, and multifaceted Syria policy.
Similar strikes were previously conducted by a coalition of states and did not change Iran’s role in Syria. Additionally, unlike prior to 2015, the Iranian government is not in a difficult financial and economic situation. The nuclear agreement allowed Iran to rejoin the global financial system and significantly increase its revenue by ratcheting up oil exports. Since Iran’s economy is primarily a state-controlled economy, the two major beneficiaries of these additional revenues are the Supreme Leader and IRGC.
In addition, the IRGC is skilled in irregular and asymmetric warfare capabilities as well as combating through proxies. Consequently, even if the West increases these types of strikes in Syria, Iran will continue to use third parties to impact the direction of the war in Syria. A more comprehensive agenda and larger multi-dimensional military strategy are required to tackle Iran’s increasing role in Syria.
Finally, recent developments suggest that the Islamic Republic will most likely increase its military, financial, intelligence and advisory assistance to Assad in order to preserve one of its top national security interests.
The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect IRAM's editorial policy.