Iran is on track to achieve its objectives in Syria
The kinship between Iran and Syria dates back to the dawn of the victory of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. The unfailing relationship between the two states was formed not because Iranians were Shia Muslims and the Alawites, an offshoot of Shia Islam, were the dominant power in Syria.
Rather, it was because the two states had similar strategic security interests. They were both hostile toward, and threatened by, three powerful arch enemies: the United States, Israel and Iraq. In fact, the Syrian Baathist government was completely secular in nature, basically founded on Arab nationalism and pan-Arabism.
Perhaps the factor most responsible for the strategic bond between Iran and Syria was the two states’ hostility toward Israel. Syrians under the rule of Hafez al-Assad, the father of current Syria President Bashar al-Assad, were humiliated during the Six-Day War in 1967 and lost territory - the strategic Golan Heights - to Israel, which to this date remains under Israeli occupation. And since its inception, the Islamic Republic of Iran has, for a number of reasons, defined hostility toward Israel as one of the pillars of its foreign policy.
In the 1980s, the Hezbollah of Lebanon militia emerged. It was funded by Iran, and its forces were trained and organised by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. Iran sought to change the balance of power in favour of the minority Shia in Lebanon and keep Israel’s unchallenged hegemony in the area in check.
Most importantly, Iran sought to utilise Hezbollah as a proxy force that would threaten the security of Israel in the context of a deterrence doctrine. This development gave Syria supreme strategic importance in its relationship with Iran, as Syria was able to provide safe passage through which weapons could be supplied to Hezbollah.
Iran’s doctrine of the creation of Hezbollah proved a success. During the so-called 33-Day War of Israel against Hezbollah in 2006, the militant group emerged as the only Arab military power able to counter and defeat Israeli aggression.
Then came the March 2011 pro-democracy protests that erupted throughout Syria. The Syrian government used violence to suppress demonstrations, and by 2012 the conflict had expanded into a fully fledged multi-sided armed conflict. The struggle drew numerous actors ranging from secular and jihadi Syrian opposition groups to foreign jihadists, as well as regional and international states.
As the war evolved in Syria, Iranians found themselves faced with major security threats: the rise of the anti-Shia Salafist group, Daesh (also known as ISIS, ISIL, and IS), and the involvement of its Sunni regional rivals, led by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, in the war, seeking wholeheartedly to topple Iran’s ally, President Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s collapse could be a monumental blow to Iran’s aforementioned deterrence doctrine against Israel which took them more than two decades to establish.
As the situation deteriorated and Assad lost grip on power and territory in Syria, Iran developed a two-fold strategy. The first aim was to prevent the establishment of an anti-Iran government – be it supported by the West or its regional rivals – that would rule the whole of Syria.
Iran’s support of Assad’s regime must be viewed in this context. In other words, by fiercely propping up Assad’s regime, modelled after what they accomplished in Lebanon and Iraq, Iran seeks to convince the world that it cannot be ignored in any future power-sharing in Syria through the participation of its allies. The second aim is to establish its own stronghold in Syria, given that Assad’s fall is an inevitability.
To materialise the first strategic objective, Iran heavily invested in Syria. Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy to Syria, has been quoted as saying that he estimates that Iran spends $6 billion annually on Assad’s government. Some researchers estimate that “Iran spent between $14 and $15 billion in military and economic aid to the Damascus regime in 2012 and 2013.”
To achieve the second objective, Iran organised the paramilitary National Defence Forces (NDF), which, according to some reports, is by far the largest militia network in Syria. IRGC officials are explicit about their active role in the creation of the NDF. According to some independent reports, there are an estimated 100,000 National Defence Force fighters under arms in Syria.
In this respect, Iran primarily counts on two groups. The first is the Alawites, whom Iran has supported during this bloody multi-actor war. Given that 74 percent of the Syrian population is Sunni, the Alawite religious group logically became the natural client of Iran, as Iranians are seen as their sole protector against the Sunni majority and their backers.
The second group includes a number of smaller but highly religiously motivated militias that fight wars in defence of the Shia ideology, chief among them The National Ideological Resistance in Syria (NIR - in Arabic: al-muqawama al-wataniya al-'aqa'idiya fi Souria.) This group is considered a Syrian version of Hezbollah of Lebanon.
Iran’s strategic goals have almost been achieved. Although they were ignored in the Geneva I and Geneva II peace conferences on Syria, they now participate in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) talks to bring the Syrian war to an end. They are now recognised as a key player both on the ground and in the diplomatic struggle over Syria. It is inconceivable that Iran will not have a representative similar to Hezbollah in Lebanon or the Badr Organisation in Iraq in the future power-sharing that will unfold in Syria.
On the other front, i.e., establishing a militia proxy, Iran knows well that Assad will not remain in power forever. By following the model of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, and its proxies in Iraq, Iran has been able to create a large paramilitary base in Syria that aims to hold a few key areas, primarily Damascus. It now seeks to expand into Aleppo.
In addition to helping Iran dictate its presence and influence regardless of what sort of government may appear once the Syrian civil war ends, this militia base could play a double role. First, to appear as another deterrent force against Israel. And second, to keep a corridor open for supplying weapons to Iran’s Lebanese ally, Hezbollah.
To achieve its objectives, Iran does not require a Bashar al-Assad or a pro-Iranian government to rule the whole of Syria.
- Shahir Shahidsaless is a political analyst and freelance journalist writing primarily about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs. He is also the co-author of “Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace”.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Iranian soldiers from the Revolutionary Guards march during a military parade in Tehran on 22 September, 2015 (AFP).