What Iran Really Wants in Syria – Foreign Policy
The commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's Quds Force, It readily assumes Syria has no say in how it manages its relations with. Russia's alliance with Iran to buttress embattled Syrian President Bashar Al- Assad is approaching a critical phase, as pro-government forces. A Syrian man holds the Iranian flag as a convoy carrying aid provided by Iran . chanted slogans decrying Iran's involvement in the conflict.
Over the last seven years, the Iranian investment in Syria has escalated to billions of dollars in military and economic pursuits, sometimes intertwined. Iran has recruited and trained militia recruits from across the Middle East and South Asia deployed to Syria, and provided for the families of those killed. Either figure would be politically controversial at a volatile moment when Iranians at home are demanding accountability and fiscal prudence.
Along with about a dozen other Iran-linked organizations, the Iran-backed Jihad al-Binaathe Islamic charitable foundation that financed and organized the reconstruction of southern Beirut after the summer war, is already working on large projects to rebuild schools, roads, and other infrastructure in Aleppo and other towns, as well as providing aid for the families of slain Iran-backed Syrian militiamen.
In recent months, Iranian companies won Syria deals that include providing tractors, mining phosphate, repairing electricity networks, and refining sugar. Iran and its Syrian and Iraqi allies also control much of the Iraq-Syria border, the transit area for construction materials and energy imports, giving Tehran a key say in much of future of the country, and a way for Iran to recoup its extraordinary investment.
Still, the segment of the regime that holds its nose at the Iranian partnership with Assad has little power or say over the Syria intervention, which is overseen by Iranian deep state figures such as Qassem Suleimani, head of the Quds Force division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Not in terms of bases necessarily, but personnel and some militias, and the economic investments.
Ali Ansari, a scholar at St. Andrews University, suggested that Iran could be bought off if both Moscow and Damascus pressure it to leave. I do not seek to gaze into the future, or offer policy recommendations or potential scenarios. Finally, because of the very immediate nature of the subject, I have had to make use of current awareness, news and sources that give an insight into the views of key figures where necessary.
This is a relationship based on a long-held, common strategic outlook in the region. It is an alliance that has strengthened and acquired greater institutional depth over the last 37 years, as both states face similar threats from Israel and the United States, and see themselves as constituting a so-called Axis of Resistance in the Middle East.
For this reason, the alliance has been characterized by scholars as primarily defensive in nature. Although Assad had established limited relations with the Pahlavis, it was the Lebanese context that helped provide the initial impetus for relations between the Syrian regime and those who were to become key figures in post-revolutionary Iran.
Lebanon has long provided a key link between the two countries, and, while the religious element has arguably not been a determining factor in the Iran-Syria alliance,2 it does play a significant role via the shared value that both place on Lebanon's Shii community.
As Von Maltzahn notes,3 Musa al-Sadr, the prominent Iranian-born cleric who was to become vital in the awakening of Lebanese Shii political consciousness, developed a close alliance with Assad. Al-Sadr knew the value of having a powerful external ally, while Assad viewed Lebanon's Shia as an important tool in his bid to maintain influence over Lebanon.
Furthermore, Al-Sadr conferred religious legitimacy on Assad's Alawite community,4 recognizing them as Shii, and acted as a key go-between with Iran's revolutionary leader Khomeini. Assad saw the birth of the Islamic Republic as a positive development, especially in light of its sympathy towards the Palestinian cause, the similar stances held on key regional developments and relations with other Arab states,8 most notably, Saddam Hussein's Iraq. To this end, the burgeoning Iran-Syria alliance can be seen as a classic form of "hard balancing" against Iraq, Israel and United States.
Finally, a relatively underexplored element of the Iran-Syria relationship, significant in reinforcing the foundational links between the two, is the cultural diplomacy Iran has practiced towards Syria. Von Maltzahn ably explores how cultural exchange and Iranian religious tourism to Shii shrines helped foster closer bilateral relations. While they are all interlinked, some disaggregation of these key issues helps shed light on how the alliance has developed and why it endures, despite early analyses deeming the Iran-Syria relationship purely an alliance of convenience.
It is in the foundation of these shared outlooks that one can discern much of the rationale for Iran's current involvement in Syria. Iraq Throughout the s, Iraq and Lebanon acted as key geopolitical pivots where Iranian and Syrian interests converged. Perhaps the most pragmatic theater for cooperation initially, and one that no doubt helped shape the "alliance-of-convenience" argument being advanced during the s,13 was towards Saddam's Iraq. Realpolitik predominated in Assad's thinking as he sought to maintain a position of strength against his rival neighbor, Saddam's Iraq.
Cognizant of the dangers of siding with Iran against the majority of the Arab world, who had thrown their weight behind Saddam, Assad pitched his support in terms of Iran's position against Israel and support for the Palestinian cause. For him, it was the "wrong war against the wrong enemy at the wrong time" detracting from what should be the real unifying cause in the region. In return for its support, Syria received Iranian oil and gained a crucial check on the power at its eastern border.
For Iran, having an Arab ally in a conflict that was so often pitched as Arab versus Persian was also vital. It gave the war and wider regional aims greater legitimacy, in harmony with the universal pretensions of Khomeini's revolutionary message.
The alliance shaped in the heat of the Iran-Iraq War thus gave Iran greater access to the Arab-Islamic world, helping to counter claims of uniquely Shii and Persian interests. The common opposition to Saddam's Iraq persisted after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, through the first Gulf conflictand into the new century, which saw the ouster of their erstwhile regional foe. In the post-Saddam era of chaos and conflict that has plagued Iraq sinceIran and Syria have again found common cause there.
Though some analysts sought to emphasize how Tehran-Damascus ties stagnated as Iran's ties with Iraq expanded after ,17 the arrival of the so-called Islamic State onto the world scene further deepened the impetus for cooperation. This will be discussed further in the next section in terms of how it relates to Iran's involvement in the Syrian conflict.
However, as far as both states' relations with Iraq are concerned it is also vitally important. In its quest to challenge the very normative foundations of the world order, the Islamic State group does not recognize international borders. Consequently, Iran-Iraq interdependence has increased due to the Syrian crisis, with Iraq acting as a potential bridge between the two. The roots of this relationship are key to understanding why Iran is so heavily invested in the current Syria conflict and also helps shed light on Hezbollah's role.
Indeed, many scholars have argued that Iran's desire to protect Hezbollah is perhaps the main reason for its continued involvement in Syria. With both Syria and the Islamic Republic shaping their worldviews in the context of such resistance, the Lebanese theater provided a prime location to deepen their cooperation.
The Syrian view of Lebanon as constituting an errant province of its own,21 which fueled its decades-long involvement in the country, and the newly founded Islamic Republic's desire to support and extend its revolutionary message to Lebanese Shia, helped set the scene for increased collaboration.
Also, as noted previously, Lebanon provided a common ground for nascent contacts between the Assad regime and Iranian opposition activists prior to Both states had an interest in mobilizing Lebanese Shia against the pro-U. As such, Iran and Syria coordinated policies to expel Israeli and Western forces from Lebanon between and However, both took longer-term strategic considerations into account.
Iran calculated that even a minor foothold in Lebanon was useful at the time,23 and this was to become significant in future years as Hezbollah grew into the key Shia group there. Hezbollah's prominence in Lebanon increased following the Taif Accords that ended the Lebanese civil war, as it transformed from a guerrilla organization into a political force. Despite its growing political role, Hezbollah's utility as a front in the axis of resistance against Israel has been one of its key strategic uses for Iran and Syria.
This was particularly evident after the Israel-Hezbollah war; the popularity of Hezbollah and by association Iran in the Muslim world was at an all-time high due to the perceived victory over Israel. Syria has historically acted as a conduit for Iranian arms deliveries to Hezbollah, hosting important transhipment points, such as one at the Adra facility near Damascus,24 and has also acted as an arms supplier to them in its own right.
For Iran, the benefit is clear: With this thinking in mind, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah see themselves as constituting an Axis of Resistance against Israeli and, by extension, U. Until the current conflict, Israel and the Untied States had also been the two existential threats to both Syria and Iran; a common front against them naturally reinforced their defensive alliance.
Both states have also historically used the Palestinian cause to their advantage in this regard, but it is in Lebanon where they have scored notable success through Hezbollah. This has further deepened the institutional ties between Syria and Iran.
The Iran-Syria-Hezbollah relationship began to be regularly referred to as a formal Axis of Resistance following the war against Israel,27 and the ties among the three were further reinforced during a publicized dinner and meeting of Bashar Assad, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Damascus in February Maintaining a foothold in the region was particularly useful for Iran at a time when its nuclear program had set world powers against it via an increasingly punitive sanctions regime.
Iran's Syria predicament
As will be noted in the following section, the commitment to upholding the resistance has since been repurposed to have a broader remit than just Israel and provides a continued narrative justification for the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict. Israel traditionally served as the vector for this, often via Lebanon, but it also manifested itself in rhetorical and logistical support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine.
Iraq was also a venue for common aims, as neither Iran nor Syria wanted to see a U. Ties grew stronger, and there was an increase in top-level meetings during the Bush era, as both states faced explicit U. Syria's relationship with Russia goes back to the Soviet era; Russia has a long-established naval presence at the Mediterranean port of Tartus.
Meanwhile, Iran has benefited from ever-closer relations with Russia since the end of the Cold War. Moscow has been a key arms supplier, and Iran has been ever-mindful of Russian concerns about its own attempts to cultivate relations with former Soviet states in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Omelicheva has argued that this enables Russia once again to be viewed as an "architect of international relations,"31 preventing the United States from gaining a firmer foothold in the Middle East.
Indeed, one could argue that Russia has been relatively successful in this regard, particularly with its current position as perhaps the key power broker in the Syrian conflict, in concert with Iran. For Iran, these unprecedented changes were viewed through the prism of an "Islamic Awakening.
However, in the case of Syria, the Iranian perception of the uprising took on a different hue; Tehran was fully cognizant of the need to maintain one of its most important alliances in the region. As a result, the Islamic Republic has sought to present the Syrian conflict as part of a wider fight against terrorism, something that has gained traction with the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq ISIS. Militarily, it has gone from vague acknowledgment of an advisory role of providing rhetorical support to Assad early in the conflict, to one of open military involvement in recent times, particularly in the organization and training of multinational Shii militia groups.
To understand what is at stake, the current strategic predicament and Iran's active involvement need to be outlined.
Iran–Syria relations - Wikipedia
As will be discussed below, Iran has added a religious overlay to justify its involvement in the conflict. This is essential to securing legitimacy among the Islamic Republic's core domestic base of support. The mutual skepticism towards the United States and Israel has helped the alliance endure,32 and the immediate geopolitical concerns of securing Iraq and maintaining the strength of Hezbollah have been key strategic reasons for Iran's continued support of a country that shares its desire for "resistance.
This was particularly useful for Iran during the confrontation over its disputed nuclear program, when the threat of Israeli pre-emptive action loomed large. Arguably this threat is now reduced due to the nuclear deal with Iran; however, it is necessary for the Islamic Republic to maintain a powerful deterrent on Israel's borders.
Tehran's claim to be a champion of anti-Israeli activism would also lose a significant amount of credibility without the cooperation of Syria. According to Slim,34 Iran also relied on Hezbollah operatives to track evolving military developments in Syria and was involved in training Syrian paramilitaries in the early days of the uprising.