This essay forms part of an eight-part ECFR series exploring the regional responses, dynamics and ramifications of the Syrian uprising and civil war. These essays have been drawn together in the ECFR report - The regional struggle of Syria.
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When the wave of popular protests first began in Tunisia in the winter of 2010-2011, before spreading to neighboring Arab countries, Tehran declared its support for the demonstrations. The Iranian leadership portrayed the opposition movements - which largely challenged the authority of conservative, pro-Western regimes - as Islamist. It confidently declared that the Arab Spring would usher in a new pan-Islamic era in the Middle East and North Africa, in which authoritarian regimes would be supplanted by Islamist governments. From Tehran’s perspective, the tide had finally turned against the West and its regional allies. History seemed to favour Iran and its supporters.
All this changed with the eruption of protests in Syria, which caught Iran off guard and put it in an extremely awkward position. Tehran faced Hobson’s choice: if it chose to stand by its most valuable and longstanding Arab ally, it would be viewed as hypocritical and opportunistic by the masses in the Arab-Muslim world; on the other hand, if it stood idly by and refrained from supporting the Assad regime, there was no guaranteed that a new government would cultivate close ties with Tehran. The latter concern quickly trumped the former.
If the Assad government is toppled, it could represent the most significant loss for the clerical regime since at least 1988, when it was forced to end the war with Iraq and sue for peace. Syria has been the only stalwart Arab supporter of Iran. It has served as a major conduit for Iranian arms shipments and material support to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, which has been built up into a formidable force since the end of the 2006 Lebanon-Israeli war. The ability of Hezbollah to strike Israel also serves as an important tripwire for any Israeli military attack against Iran. Syrian support is therefore central to Iran’s ability to project regional influence.
Tehran initially hoped that by assisting Assad’s regime, Damascus would be able to quickly ride out the crisis. Iran provided technical support and expertise to neutralise the opposition; advice and equipment to the Syrian security forces to help them contain and disperse protests; and guidance and technical assistance on how to monitor and curtail the use of the internet and mobile phone networks by the opposition. Iran’s security forces had learned valuable lessons in these areas during the violent crackdown against the opponents of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that followed the disputed presidential elections of June 2009. Specialist personnel and units from the Iranian security apparatus (including the elite Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), police, and intelligence agents) were deployed in Syria to assist in defeating armed opposition fighters from the Free Syrian Army and foreign Sunni Islamist groups. These numbered at most in the hundreds (in the two years that followed), rather than thousands as opposition sources claimed. Tehran also displayed some caution: in 2011 it hedged its bets by approaching some Syrian opposition groups to assess their stance on various issues relating to Iran, Israel, Lebanon, and the United States. Nothing substantive resulted from these overtures.
However, as the Syrian crisis continued into 2012, it increasingly assumed both a regional and international dimension, firmly cementing Tehran’s support for Assad. A proxy war began to emerge involving both regional and international actors. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf Arab, Sunni states intent on pushing back against Iran’s – and Shia - regional influence, began to provide material and financial support to the Syrian opposition. As a result, Iran, Hezbollah, and, to some extent, Iraq felt compelled to throw more weight fully behind the Assad regime. Tehran saw the Syrian crisis as providing its regional rivals with a golden opportunity to deny it an important ally, and diminish its power and influence in the Middle East. On the international level, meanwhile, the US and European Union closed ranks to exert pressure and isolate Damascus. In the UN Security Council, Russia and China consistently thwarted Western efforts to punish Syria and blocked any move that could lay the groundwork for foreign military intervention in support of the Syrian opposition.
Iran increasingly came to view the situation in Syria as a zero-sum game, fearing that the ouster of the Assad regime could pave the way for the emergence of a new regime and a regional order intrinsically hostile towards Tehran. Not only would Iran lose an important Arab ally, but also its ability to provide support for Hezbollah, curtailing its influence in Lebanon and over the Arab-Israeli question. Tehran would face the emergence of a crescent of pro-Western Sunni regimes, stretching from Turkey to Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In essence, Iran now saw Syria as the first line of defence against a concerted effort by its regional and extra-regional foes not only to bring about regime change in Damascus and the end of its alliance with Tehran, but as part of a longer term strategy to isolate and overthrow the Islamic Republic. Iran’s view of the conflict as essentially zero-sum has been reaffirmed by recent statements from the Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers and the US Secretary of State John Kerry, condemning Hezbollah and Iranian involvement in Syria. Calls by the prominent Sunni Egyptian cleric, Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, for Sunnis to join the fight in Syria against Shia Iran and Hezbollah (“the Party of Satan” to use his words) have furthered the wider sectarian nature of the conflict as being between Sunni and Shia Muslims vying for power and supremacy. A nightmare scenario now facing Iran is that the Assad regime is supplanted by a Sunni order that is staunchly anti-Iran and anti-Shia, and closely allied with Tehran’s regional rival, Saudi Arabia. Any developments in this direction would probably imperil Iran’s other key regional, Hezbollah: Sunni forces in Lebanon that are keen to push back against the movement’s grip on power would find themselves backed by a newly empowered Sunni Syria.
To Tehran, regime change in Syria would also have direct security implications for Iraq, which since the fall of Saddam Hussein has arguably become of greater value to Tehran than Damascus. One of the key reasons the alliance with Syria had utility for Iran was that it served to maintain pressure on Saddam Hussein on his western flank. Since his fall the strategic value of Syria has declined in relative terms, with Iraq no longer perceived as a threat, and bilateral relations with Baghdad improving markedly.
Although the current strategy of trying to prop up the Assad regime is partially aimed at preserving Iran’s ability to project its power and influence in the Levant, the strategy also has a defensive component. The Syrian opposition now has the ability to seize control of areas in the east bordering Iraq, and over the past year tensions have heightened between the Shia-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad and Sunni insurgents who continue to carry out attacks within Iraq. The recent announcement of the alliance between Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Nusra Front (Jabha al-Nusra) in Syria only served to reinforce the view in Tehran that events in Syria and Iraq are becoming inextricably linked.
As a result there is now a genuine fear in Tehran that if the Assad regime is toppled it may have a knock-on effect on Iraq. This could lead to greater instability and potentially, though unlikely, even the overthrow of the current government in favour of a Sunni-dominated one. Iran sees this possibility as completely unacceptable. An alternative scenario is that the Syria conflict could fuel Sunni secessionist ambitions in Iraq and lead to the break-up of the country into Shia, Sunni, and Kurdish regions. This would have major security implications for Iran and could produce enormous internal problems, especially in the Kurdish and Arab-inhabited regions of the country bordering Iraq.
Iran’s reading of the situation in Syria has been heavily influenced by both its own internal developments and relations with the West. Since the protests following the disputed presidential elections of 2009, and the decision of the US and its European allies (starting in 2010) to impose harsh sanctions on Iran, a sense of embattlement and paranoia has increased markedly among Tehran’s ruling elites. Any opposition or foreign moves that may directly or indirectly threaten either their survival or interests, are interpreted as part of a grand strategy or conspiracy to topple the Islamist regime. The failure to resolve differences over Iran’s nuclear program through diplomacy - most recently during two rounds of negotiations in Almaty, Kazakhstan - and the continuous imposition of Western sanctions have reinforced Iranian perceptions that Washington’s real ultimate aim is regime change in Tehran.
The Iranian leadership has strong suspicions that no matter what it does to allay concerns regarding the nuclear issue, Western sanctions will never again be fully lifted so long as the Islamic Republic continues to exist. Consequently, the policies pursued by the US and its European and Middle Eastern allies with regard to the Syrian crisis have increasingly been interpreted as part of a broader plan to dismantle “the axis of resistance” in the Middle East, and topple the regimes in Damascus and Tehran. Such declarations are of course, in part, propaganda for consumption by the supporters of the Islamic Republic, but they nonetheless reflect a genuine belief that there has been an ongoing, concerted effort to destroy the Syrian-Iranian nexus. Western moves to shun and isolate Iran have therefore reinforced perceptions among policy makers in Tehran that they must take a stand.
Tehran, however, is not naïve about Assad’s compromised position and the likelihood that he will never again be able to reassert control over all of Syria. As such, while materially backing the regime, Tehran has also welcomed diplomatic moves led by the United Nations and Arab League envoy, Kofi Annan, and his successor, Lakhdar Brahimi. Tehran is keen to be part of any multilateral initiative aimed at ending the current crisis to have a role in determining the political outcome in Syria. Given the current balance of power on the ground in Syria, which has allowed the regime to consolidate its position (partly as a result of increased assistance from Iran and its regional ally, Hezbollah), Tehran increasingly calculates that the regime, if not Assad himself, is capable at least of maintaining a dominant nationwide position, if not of recapturing full authority. Although it might be willing to sacrifice Assad as part of an internationally backed political process, Tehran probably imagines that any negotiated deal will now have to include a strong degree of regime preservation, allowing it to retain ongoing influence. Such a political process would allow Tehran a way to cut its losses and ensure that, irrespective of the outcome of battlefield developments in Syria, an anti-Iranian government backed by hostile regional and international forces cannot come to power in Damascus. Part of its strategy of providing weapons is concerned with strengthening the regime’s bargaining position in the event of a substantive political dialogue with its opponents.
Last autumn Tehran proposed a six-point peace plan to end the crisis. It called for an immediate end to hostilities, the lifting of sanctions, the release of political prisoners, a national dialogue, the formation of a transitional government, and elections (for a parliament, constituent assembly, and the presidency). However, the plan was rejected by the Syrian opposition outright, since it did not fulfill one of their key pre-conditions: the removal of Assad from power. In Munich in February, the Iranian foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, held talks with the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib, to discuss a political solution to the Syrian crisis. On the regional level, Ahmadinejad’s visit to Saudi Arabia last year, Iran’s participation in the quadripartite talks in Cairo last autumn, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, and, most recently, the visit by Salehi to Jordan are part of a diplomatic effort to prevent Tehran’s complete isolation and convey a strong message that any political resolution to the Syrian crisis cannot be attained without Iran’s active presence and participation in multilateral talks. While Tehran may not be intent on maintaining Assad in power at any cost, maintaining its regional interests via Syria is paramount. If Syria cannot continue to be an absolute ally of Iran, Tehran will not allow it to become an enemy.
While Iran’s confidence that the regime can survive may be growing, it has nonetheless also sought ways to contain the damage of a possible eventual regime collapse. In recent months Iran has started to build up a militia force in Syria known as the Jaysh al-Sha’bi (the People’s Army), consisting of regime loyalists, Alawites, and other groups. The force’s prime aim is to help the regime regain ground, although it also helps ensure that any new Sunni regime would not be able to assert control over all of Syria. Report suggest the aim is to build up a force that is at least 50,000 strong, ideally growing to 100,000. In short, Tehran’s objective is to ensure that if it cannot instrumentalise Syria for its own purposes in the Middle East, others should be prevented from instrumentalising Syria against Iran in the broader regional power struggle. Iran therefore has the capacity to act as a long term spoiler in Syria if Assad does eventually fall.
Over the past two years there have been reports that some elements with the Iranian government have voiced concerns and reservations about the policy towards Syria. These include some members of the parliament (Majles), and even the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. According to reports, he was apparently displeased that assurances from the IRGC leadership that the Syrian crisis would be resolved rapidly with Iranian support proved to be wrong. One senior Iranian official talking about the Arab Spring in the context of the US-Iranian rivalry in the region commented: “Bahrain tripped up the Americans, while Syria tripped us up.” The decision to back Assad has not only tarnished the Islamic Republic’s reputation in the Middle East, but also that of its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, which also backed the Syrian government. Furthermore, relations between Tehran and the Palestinian Islamist movement, Hamas, also became strained after the latter eventually declared its support for the Syrian rebels.
Overall though, Iranian policy continues to be driven firmly by the IRGC, most notably by the elite Quds Force that is headed by General Qassem Soleimani. These forces are now doing all they can to ensure that they will have a role in determining the future outcome in Syria, irrespective of whether the fate of the country is decided on the battlefield or at the negotiating table. To a certain extent, however, the IRGC stance of providing assistance to the Assad regime, and the more flexible approach of the foreign ministry which is trying to place Iran in an advantageous position if there are multilateral talks, are not incompatible. These policies are looking to strengthen the Syrian regime militarily, and, in parallel, politically. In so doing, Tehran remains optimistic that it can guarantee its own long-term interests and position in Syria.
Jubin Goodarzi is an assistant professor at Webster University working on the history and international relations of the Middle East. He is the author of: Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.