October 2, 2015
TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Role in a Syrian Endgame
Iran has several interests in Syria that drive at the heart of Iran's role as a major regional power and patron and protector of the region’s Shi’a Muslims. Iran’s relationship with the Assad family in Syria is longstanding, and goes beyond the fact that Assad’s Alawite community practices a version of Shi’a Islam. Under the Assad dynasty, Syria has been Iran’s only consistent major Arab ally—and even went so far as to shut down a key oil pipeline from Iraq in the early stages of the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Iran and Syria have numerous longstanding defense pacts, and Iran served as the financier of Syria’s North Korea-supplied nuclear reactor at al-Kibar that Israel destroyed in 2007. Iran also financed North Korea’s provisions of many of Syria’s Scud-B and Scud-C ballistic missiles. Iran’s alliance with the Assad regime is so extensive that Iran has muted its criticism of Assad’s use of chemical weapons against the Syrian opposition—even though Iran has criticized U.S. and international silence over Saddam Hussein’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian forces during the Iran-Iraq War.
Syria is also the guardian of Iran’s interest in the military and political strength of Lebanon’s Hizballah organization. Iran views Hizballah as a crowning ‘success' of its 1979 Islamic Revolution. Hizballah was formed by Lebanese Shi’a clerics in the early 1980s, many of whom had studied under the leader of Iran’s revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. Syria has served as the main transit route by which Iran has armed and strengthened Hizballah, making Damascus International Airport available for shipments of rockets and missiles that have been pivotal to Hizballah’s challenge to Israel—a common nemesis of Hizballah, Iran, and the Assad regime. Direct flights between Tehran and Lebanon, or shipments by sea, are insecure because of Israel’s navy presence in the Mediterranean and its routine overflights of Lebanon. Without Syria’s protective envelope, Hizballah might wither from isolation from its Iranian patron.
These core interests explain why Iran has gone to great lengths to keep Bashar al-Assad in power. Iran has sent several hundred advisers from its Islamic Revolutionary Guard-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) to organize Assad’s National Defense Forces militia and to orchestrate the participation of over 5,000 Hizballah militiamen and Iraqi and Afghan Shi’as to fight on Assad’s behalf. UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura estimates that Iran is providing about $6 billion per year in military and economic aid to the Assad regime. This year, Iranian leaders have become alarmed that their enormous interests and investments in the Assad regime might be at risk from Assad’s battlefield setbacks. Not only has Iran become concerned about the potential fall of the Assad regime, but it is worried about Hizballah’s heavy losses in Syria—reported to exceed 1,000.
The centrality and vulnerability of Iran’s interests in Syria explain why Iran has started to implement a Plan B—securing its own interests whether Assad stays in power or not. Iran has advised Assad, without success to date, to withdraw his forces from outlying areas such as Daraa and Aleppo and husband his forces to defend the core areas such as the Lebanon-Syria border regions, Damascus, Homs, Hama, and the Alawite heartland on the coast. In September, Iran brokered an agreement with Syria’s Sunni rebel forces that, when implemented, would remove some rebels from the Syria-Lebanon border while relocating vulnerable besieged Shi’a populations from northern Syria. Iran has also welcomed Russia’s military buildup in Syria, not only because Russian intervention might ensure Assad’s survival, but because the Russian intervention could enable Iran and Hizballah to reduce their increasingly costly involvement in the conflict.
Nonetheless, if Assad’s battlefield fortunes continue to deteriorate, it is conceivable that Iran might consider President Obama’s overture in his September 28 U.N. General Assembly speech that Iran (and Russia) work with the United States on a political solution in Syria. The July 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran and the P5+1 (United States, UK, France, Russia, China, and Germany) has made cooperating with the United States more palatable than at any time since the 1979 revolution in Iran. Syria was a central focus of discussions between Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on the sidelines of the UN sessions—their first meeting since the nuclear agreement was announced—indicating that the U.S.-Iran dialogue is broadening to regional issues. However, it is not immediately evident that the differences between the United States and Iran can be bridged. Iran might be willing to help the United States sideline Assad if a trusted alternative figure can be found—presumably a pro-Tehran Alawite who will continue to facilitate Iran’s resupply of Hizballah. However, the likelihood of Iran finding a suitable replacement has been lessened by Assad’s strategy of purging any potential competitor. Whatever the result of U.S.-Iran discussions, an open question is whether Russia will be persuaded that Assad must be removed.
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