Iran's stake in Syria
By Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
In recent weeks and in tandem with the Russian air campaign to salvage the regime of Bashar Assad, Iran has been further deepening its involvement in the Syrian combat. In 2013, Hojjat al-Islam Mehdi Taeb, one of the shapers of Iran's Syrian policy, stated that "Syria constitutes the 35th and the strategic province of Iran." Although it sounded like an exaggeration at the time, the remark now takes on new resonance.
Taeb went on to say that if the enemy attacks us and wants to conquer Syria or Khuzestan (a province with an Arab minority in southwestern Iran on the Iraqi border), Iran's priority would be to defend Syria first. Clarifying the point, he said that if Iran succeeded to safeguard Syria, it would then also be able to guarantee the integrity of Khuzestan; whereas if Iran were to lose Syria it would then be unable to protect Tehran itself. Taeb added, still with a sober perspective on the situation in Syria at the time (and today as well), that while Syria indeed has an army, it does not have the capacity to wage war in built-up areas. In his view, Iran's line of defense passes through Syria, and that is why the Iranian government proposed creating battalions of Basij volunteers – which were, indeed, established in the form of 60,000 Hizbullah fighters who replaced the Syrian army in waging the war in the cities.
In the time since Taeb's statement, Iran has indeed injected Hizbullah into the Syrian fighting, and the organization keeps paying a heavy and daily price to protect Assad's regime, including the loss of senior commanders. It was the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Hizbullah that planned and carried out the offensives in the Syrian areas of Aleppo in the north and Daraa in the south. The price that Iran is paying to protect Assad's regime is increasing as well. The number of IRGC forces and Shiite volunteers from various countries has continued to rise, and recently senior IRGC commanders have also been killed on Syrian soil. The latest commander to be killed was General Hossein Hamadani, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War who fell in the Aleppo area.
Within Iran itself, criticism of the Syrian involvement with its ongoing cost in lives and funds is almost nonexistent. If necessary, Iran, in coordination with Russia, will send additional forces to Syria, which it views as a strategic asset with or without Assad. Iran and Russia have apparently been coordinating at the highest level via Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, who visited Moscow at least once despite the restrictions imposed by the international sanctions (and with a faint American protest heard).
The crisis in Syria, which began with the upheavals of the Arab Spring, is gradually turning from a protracted regional crisis into an international one in which regional (Iran, Saudi Arabia) and international (Russia, the United States) powers are involved. However, whereas Iran and Russia, which are working hand in hand, demonstrate resolve and a clear political direction, the West, led by the United States, has continued to display hesitancy and confusion, abandoning the Syrian arena (and other arenas in the Middle East still reeling from the Arab Spring) to Iran and, recently, Russia as well.
A number of American spokespersons have weakly condemned the Russian intervention, claiming that it detracts from the campaign against Islamic State. For example, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Christine E. Wormuth said: "Russian and Iranian support to Assad and his regime has prolonged the conflict in Syria. Both have continued to support, politically and militarily, a regime that has systematically murdered its own people, creating the conditions for the current conflict and the rise of ISIL."
Meanwhile Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, head of the United States Central Command, acknowledged during a hearing at the Senate Armed Services Committee that only four or five individuals who were trained by the U.S. Army to fight the Islamic State are continuing to fight. Other than that, a half-billion-dollar program to build an army of Syrian soldiers has reached a dead end, and the United States will not meet the goal it had set of training 5,000 Syrian soldiers anytime soon.
Whereas U.S. policy (if there is one) keeps treading water in the Middle East and struggles to cope with the pace of dramatic changes in the region, Iran, greatly encouraged by the signing of the nuclear deal and its entry into force on Adoption Day (October 18), keeps steadfastly pursuing its Middle Eastern agenda. The implementation of the nuclear deal and particularly the gradual lifting of the sanctions should increase the flow of funds for supporting Assad's regime in particular, and for reshaping the post-Arab-Spring Middle East according to Iran's template in general.
Iran has identified the potential that lies in the Middle Eastern changes, and sustains Syria and Assad's minority regime because it serves its strategic interests on the national-ideological-religious level. For Iran, Syria constitutes the first line of defense against Israel, and also a line of defense for the Shiite population in Lebanon against Islamic State incursion. Syria is also one of the main theaters of the war Iran is waging against Islamic State. It is fighting this war in Iraq as well (with U.S. cooperation), so far forestalling any possibility of the war making its way to Iran's own territory. In Yemen, the Iranian-backed Houthis have scored many achievements and most of all the takeover of Sana'a (though recently, countered by the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, they have retreated from some of the areas they had conquered).
Iran's campaign to expand its influence in the region is multidimensional and being pursued in different theaters. Iran cooperates with and influences the regional and international actors operating within the vacuum that the Arab Spring created in many parts of the Middle East. In many of the places (such as Yemen, Iraq, Libya, and Syria) a new power center has not yet emerged, and political, tribal, and religious struggles are being waged to fill the void. In some places Iran plays a major role by using "assets" it has cultivated since long before the Arab Spring erupted. In other locations, such as the Gulf states (particularly Bahrain), such "assets" await an apt moment and a green light from Tehran before taking action. Iran's use of these forces depends on its assessment of the extent to which the United States and Saudi Arabia will react. In the past Iran tried to ignite Bahrain, which has a Shiite majority and which it considers an Iranian province, but encountered a staunch Saudi response. Iran will, however, await a further opportunity to bring about a change in the kingdom.
At present Iran is focused on the campaign in Syria (and also on stabilizing Yemen). It views Syria as a critical component of the old regional order and as a key to building the new order in the Middle East. Tehran continues to regard Syria as the "golden strand" connecting and tying together various elements of the anti-Israel resistance camp. As Iran sees it, this camp is found at various fronts of the battle against "imperialism" and "arrogance" – against Israel (in Gaza and the West Bank in the form of the Palestinian organizations) and in Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt and other contexts. On all of these fronts Iran, via Lebanese Hizbullah, is acting either directly or through local proxy organizations.
The protracted nature of the crisis in Syria and its occasional dramatic developments such as the deep Russian intervention reflect both the severity of the crisis besetting the Arab world in general and how distant the region still is from the emergence of a new order. Iran and Russia are striving to fill the void that the United States has left. The mounting Iranian involvement in different parts of the Middle East further intensifies the distrust that prevails between Iran and the Arabs, between the Persian and Turkish empires (at least as they see it), and between Sunnis and Shiites. Those will be the main components of the Middle East in the years to come. All are active at once in the Syrian crisis, which constitutes a kind of microcosm of the regional and international system.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and at Foresight Prudence.