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Editor’s Note: Syria's civil war has many losers, but Iran is not one of them. Tehran backed its ally in Damascus to the hilt from the start of the civil war, and its ally survived in large part because of Iran's aid. Ariane Tabatabai of Georgetown explains the reasons for Iran's involvement and the strategic and economic benefits Tehran has gained.
Seven years ago, in March, Syria descended into chaos when President Bashar al-Assad undertook to crush the popular protests challenging his rule. Iran quickly became involved on the dictator’s side and, covertly, at first, provided assistance to him and his forces. By 2014, Iran’s presence in Syria was undeniable and the Revolutionary Guards were spotted in theater. Since then, Tehran has committed money and troops to propping up Assad while supporting him politically on the international stage—even as the international community has decried mass atrocities, including the use of chemical weapons, by Assad’s forces. Although the exact scale of Iranian commitment to Syria remains contested, it is estimated that the country has deployed thousands of troops, dozens of military advisors, and millions (maybe even billions, by some accounts) of dollars to protect Assad’s rule. But while Iran has paid a cost for its involvement in Syria, today it is beginning to reap its fruits of its investment.
Iranian authorities were reluctant to publicize their country’s involvement in the Syrian conflict at first. Tehran had grappled with internal challenges of its own just two years before. In summer 2009, then-president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad won a second four-year term in a hotly contested election. Ahmadinejad’s deep unpopularity and the questions surrounding the health of the elections sparked what has since become known as the “Green Movement,” a series of large-scale protests throughout the nation calling for a recount of the votes. The regime responded to the unrest by crushing the movement quickly and fairly effectively. When the Arab Spring started in 2010, Iranians watched the events closely and saw other dictators fall one by one. Envy quickly turned into horror as they, and the rest of the world, watched the Arab Spring take a sour turn and Syria descend into chaos. And when Assad began to employ chemical weapons against his own civilian populations in December 2012, Iranians were further horrified, having experienced the use of such weapons by Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). Given this recent political context, Iran initially decided to keep its involvement in the conflict under the radar.
But the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in 2014 changed Iranians’ view of the conflict. That summer, Iranians watched ISIS declare a “caliphate” next door in Iraq and wondered when and how, not if, the group would target their own country. This threat perception was shaped by ISIS’ geographical proximity and its ideology. Iranians were acutely worried by the advent of another adversarial force in Iraq, which could threaten the Iranian state, as Baghdad had under Saddam Hussein, combined with ISIS’ anti-Shia and anti-Iranian ideology and brutality. As ISIS spread in Iraq and Syria, Tehran saw it as both convenient and critical to increase its presence in both countries, and to do so visibly.
Soon, body bags began to return to Iran and the Revolutionary Guards were joined by the country’s conventional military, the Artesh. Iran also began to deploy militias composed of Afghan and Pakistani fighters, the Fatemiyoun and Zeynabiyoun. What had initially seemed like a quick intervention on the side of an ally—which during the Iran-Iraq War had provided significant support and had since allowed Tehran access to its preferred non-state ally, Hezbollah—became a long civil conflict, leading to one of the worst humanitarian crises in the world. Against this backdrop, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif presented his “four-point plan” for ending the Syrian civil war to his foreign interlocutors. “The gist” of the plan, as he put it, “is a national-unity government, a ceasefire, fighting terrorism, constitutional reform, and creation of a permanent government based on the new constitutional institutions that have been created.” In private, Iranian officials would also note that they weren’t married to Assad, but that they also did not see any viable alternatives to him. As they viewed it, Assad was the only thing standing between the region and even more chaos.
But while Tehran was gaining prominence on the battlefield and in international fora aimed at addressing the Syrian crisis, Iran began to pay greater costs for its involvement there. Domestically, the Iranian populace and regime insiders alike were torn on their country’s presence in Syria. They believed containing ISIS was critical, but also saw Assad as a horrifying figure whose forces were leaving hundreds of thousands displaced, wounded, and killed. The Guards and Artesh were beginning to see their death tolls rise, with the number of killed troops repatriated surpassing 1,000 by 2016. And as the country was struggling to reap the economic benefits of the 2015 nuclear deal and subsequent sanctions relief, it was also dedicating millions of dollars to supplying Assad and his forces with funds, advisors, weapons, and other equipment. According to reporting by Haaretz, “Iranian state-owned banks set up credit lines for the Syrian government of $3.6 billion in 2013 and $1 billion in 2015 to let the regime buy oil and other goods from Iran.” And this amount doesn’t include Iranian-supplied arms to various groups in the region.
Internationally, many saw Tehran as supporting a brutal dictator whose days would have been numbered without Iranian backing. Iran’s support for Assad also projected the image of a sectarian player throughout the region, tarnishing the country’s image on the Arab street and fueling the concerns of neighboring governments. Matters became more complicated when Moscow joined the fight, often providing air cover to Iranian and Syrian ground forces. Despite this cooperation, Russian officials have at times butted heads with Tehran—in particular, over Russia publicizing its use of an Iranian airbase for refueling purposes, a controversial matter in Iran which many deemed contrary to the constitution. Other regional conflicts have made matters even more complicated. The Saudi-Iranian rift widened in 2016, when the two countries severed ties and escalated proxy wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen—and Syria.
The Islamic Republic did not anticipate when it became involved in Syria that the conflict would last seven years and that Assad would preserve his tenure. Iran may have signaled in the middle of the war that it would have been willing to drop Assad for another friendly presence in Damascus, but that view changed as it became clear that the international community, chiefly the United States and its European allies, were at least tacitly willing to live with Assad.
Today, Iran sees an end in sight in Syria. And although it has paid a high price for its involvement in that theater, it is now beginning to see its efforts pay dividends. First, Iran’s military has gained significant battlefield experience, with its armed forces becoming much more cohesive. And this experience isn’t limited to Iranian troops, but also the militias Iran has deployed from other parts of the region, including approximately 14,000 Fatemiyoun and 5,000 Zeynabiyoun. Iran is now able to redirect these trained and experienced fighters to other significant theaters, including Afghanistan and Yemen. And, as some Western military officials told me, it may have started doing so already. Second, Tehran’s been able to project power beyond its means through its strategic deployment of militias in Syria. While the country lacks a seat at the UN Security Council, a nuclear arsenal, or conventional military capabilities able to challenge the world powers, Iran has affirmed its place as a significant regional force. Third, the country has increased its strategic depth and preserved its lifeline to its chief non-state ally. Hezbollah’s ability to preserve its stronghold in Lebanon and to thrive is vital to the Islamic Republic because of the ways it increases Iran’s strategic depth, provides intelligence and counterintelligence benefits, and assists with Iran’s power projection, including by providing a deterrent against the United States and Israel. From its perch in Syria and with its proxy in Lebanon, Iran is now able to deter one of its primary adversaries in the region, Israel, from its own backyard—and the Jewish state’s lack of strategic depth, combined with the Islamic Republic’s anti-Israeli rhetoric and stance, growing missile capabilities, and support for terrorist groups targeting Israelis, fuel its concerns about the increased Iranian presence and capabilities at its borders. Fourth, Iran has been able to contain ISIS in Syria, allowing it to minimize the threat posed by the group against its own territory and population.
Another significant benefit of the Syrian conflict for Iran may still be yet to come. As Tehran has seen the nuclear deal challenged by President Trump and been frustrated by the slow pace of economic recovery post-sanctions relief, it has increasingly turned its attention to its neighborhood for investment and business. And while war-torn Syria may not seem like an obvious economic El Dorado, Tehran is preparing the grounds for increased cooperation with Damascus.
In recent months, Iranian officials and civil society have started to assess their role in Syrian reconstruction efforts. Iranian companies seem to have received “priority” over others in these plans. Importantly, the Revolutionary Guards will continue to be involved in the security sector in Syria and have already made agreements with Assad. Iran is now involved in rebuilding Syria’s infrastructure, including in the energy sector. And the Guards are a natural candidate for these efforts, given their presence in Syria and experience in the Iranian oil and gas sectors. At home the Iranian government is trying to scale back the Guards’ economic activities, so they may see investment abroad as a natural next step. There have also been talks of joint transportation projects between Damascus and Tehran, which would facilitate bilateral trade. Iran hopes to become a key exporter of goods to Syria. Iranians are also eyeing the public health and education sectors as possible arenas for future involvement. Lastly, the Islamic Republic hopes to become a key arms supplier in the region and Syria is a natural market for its weapons and defense equipment.
Ever since the Syrian conflict started, analysts have argued that the United States and its allies should contain and counter Iran in that theater. As the conflict has dragged on and Assad has remained in place, Tehran has solidified its position there. Today, it’s virtually impossible to imagine reconstruction without Iranian involvement—and Tehran is making sure that it remains indispensible. Tehran’s efforts to cement its role in Syria has regional implications. The sustained Iranian presence in Israel’s backyard and tensions between Jerusalem and Tehran render possible escalation between the two Middle Eastern powers probable. The international community has failed to counter Iran in Syria.
Both policies presented and pursued by the Trump administration—ad hoc responses to the Assad regime or pulling out of Syria altogether—would only strengthen Iran’s hand in Syria. On the one hand, more ad hoc attacks on Syria without a clear and comprehensive policy will escalate the conflict, allow Tehran to further justify its presence on the battlefield, and bring Iran and Russia closer together, forcing them to put their differences concerning military operations aside to tackle the common U.S. adversary. On the other hand, if President Trump pulls out U.S. troops out of Syria, Iran will enjoy a free hand in the country and will be able to move ahead with its post-conflict reconstruction plans. Instead, the United States must formulate a comprehensive policy that takes Iranian activities in Syria into account. Such a policy must include a multi-layered approach, one that continues to contain Iran and Russia in Syria, tackles the threat of ISIS, and engages key stakeholders through a multilateral process rather than unilateral ad hoc responses conducted by the Untied States.