Iran’s Involvement in Syria: Asset or Burden?

Left: Front-page of Ghanoon with the headline “Uninvited Guest” upon Assad’s visit to Tehran, February 2019. Right: Assad relegated to the third row in Al-Quds Day poster

Dr. Ehud Eilam*

ACIS Iran Pulse No. 111 |  September 2, 2020


Iran’s continued involvement in Syria following the civil war there is a matter of great concern because of its wide-ranging implications for the region, and because of relationships with other actors there, including Russia, Hezbollah, Turkey, Israel and the Gulf States. Even domestically, it is clear that this involvement does not enjoy sweeping political support. In February 2019, when Bashar Assad paid an official visit to Tehran, the daily newspaper Ghanoon published a picture of the Syrian president smiling and hugging Iranian supreme  leader Ali Khamenei on its front page under the headline “Uninvited Guest.” This headline caused publication of the paper to be suspended, while other media in Iran extensively quoted Khamenei, who hailed Assad as the “hero of the Arab world” and extolled him because “resistance in the region has gained more power and prestige thanks to him” (Radio Farda, Feb. 16, 2019). However, in May 2020, when Khamenei’s office released several propaganda posters in a show of support for the Palestinians on Al-Quds Day, observers and commentators noted that Assad was demoted from the front row of leaders in an illustration showing the axis of resistance that the Islamic Republic is promoting in the Middle East (Al-Arab, May 26, 2020).


The relationship between Iran and Syria is not self-evident. Superficially, one country is an Islamic theocracy, and the other relies on secular rule of the Ba’ath party. Yet Iran has done much to help and actually save the Assad regime, paying a high price in blood and treasure. Beyond the long-standing alliance between the two countries, which has strengthened since the 1980s, many consider involvement in Syria a stepping stone towards Iran’s aspirations for hegemony in the Middle East. There are several key reasons for this.


One reason is Syria’s geographical location, and the perception that it is part of Iran’s strategic depth, or a member in the “axis of resistance” opposing the United States and its allies that Iran is cultivating, not only in Syria but also in Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen. This was expressed by Mehdi Ta’ab, the head of Supreme Leader Khamani’s think tank, who claimed as early as 2013 that Syria is the 35th province of Iran and “if we lose Syria, we will not even be able to maintain Tehran.” (Neria and Shapira, 2019). That said, over-investment in Syria could cost the regime in Tehran dearly.


Syria’s position is strategically important in the northern Middle East because of its borders with Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. Moves made by Turkey, under the leadership of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has similar aspirations for regional hegemony and seeks increased influence in Syria, do not go unnoticed by the regime in Tehran. The Iranian presence along Syria’s long border with Turkey could potentially allow Iran to act against Turkey without coming into direct conflict. This presence simultaneously strengthens Iran’s position for future cooperation with Turkey against the Kurds, in order to prevent the latter from establishing an independent entity in Iraq and/or Syria.


Syria also serves as an important component of the Shiite bridge/crescent stretching from Iran to the Mediterranean, and also includes Iraq and Lebanon. However, in both Arab countries there is anti-Iranian unrest opposing Tehran’s deep involvement in their affairs. After the colossal disaster in the Port of Beirut, there may be increasing public momentum against Hezbollah in Lebanon, and as a result against Iran, too. In 2005, strident protests in Lebanon forced Assad to withdraw his forces from Lebanon. If Lebanon and/or Iraq succeed in significantly reducing the Iranian presence in their territory, that will undermine the Shiite crescent, and also affect Syria’s importance to Iran.


Syria also serves Iran as another base, in addition to Lebanon, against Israel. From Syria, it can deploy a military array capable of launching rockets and missiles against Israel, and also mount attacks including ground incursions in the Golan Heights. Iran would further like to gain a foothold in Syrian ports and maritime outlets that would increase its strategic capabilities in the region, and  might facilitate future deployment of dwarf submarines. Operated by six-person crews and capable of launching torpedoes, mines and short-range of the 704-C model missiles, they could serve varied tactical needs. It is not for nothing that Israel seeks to uproot the Iranian hold on Syria, and has mounted a series attacks against Syria in recent years. Although the losses and damage Iran has suffered to date are “tolerable,” it considers the situation an ongoing humiliation. Its response capabilities depend on overcoming operational difficulties, stopping Israeli bombardments. However, comprehensive retaliatory actions could lead to an escalation on its Israeli front, which Iran apparently wishes to avoid in the current circumstances.


Iran’s cumulative losses of in Syria and the sensitivity of the Iranian public to them have long caused the Iranian regime to intensify its public relations efforts at home. Special emphasis is placed on the war’s importance as part of the effort to protect Islamic pilgrimage sites in Syria that are sacred to Shiites, in addition to its importance for Iran’s national security (Zimmt, 2018). Iran’s losses in Syria are immeasurably smaller than its tremendous losses in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), but they still influence Iranian public opinion and decision-making regarding Syria.


Apart from the human price, the Islamic Republic has also expended extensive economic resources. The Syrian economy has been shattered by the civil war, and is now surviving thanks to external life-support, mainly from Iran. For example, since 2011 Iran has supplied Syria with goods and fuel. In return for investing more than $20 billion in Syria, Iran hopes to be repaid through Syrian reconstruction projects (Calcalist, February 12, 2018). However, according to the “Caesar Law,” which came into force in early June this year, the United States is imposing heavy sanctions on the Syrian regime, and this is expected to threaten Iran’s ability to recoup at least some of what it has invested in supporting the Assad regime to date (Makor Rishon, June 18, 2020). After the law took effect, Iran’s Vice President spoke with incoming Syrian Prime Minister Hussein Arnous by telephone and said that Iran would not hesitate to do whatever necessary to help Syria deal with US sanctions. The importance of the deep connection between the countries was also discussion when the chairman of the Iranian Majles (parliament) met with the Syrian ambassador to Tehran, and said that Iran considers Syria the “front line” of the “Resistance Front.” Meanwhile, a senior Iranian economic delegation traveled to Damascus for discussions on how to strengthen commercial, economic, scientific, and research cooperation  between the two countries (Terrorism Info, June 14-28, 2020). In addition, Iran is deploying the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria. Syria is an important base for the force even though its presence there is covert, under the guise of business people and consultants working on economic projects (Alma, June 21, 2020).


Despite Tehran’s statements and demonstrated determination to provide economic aid to Syria, rehabilitation of the latter will require far greater support than the Islamic Republic can offer, especially for repairing the ongoing and comprehensive damage to the country’s infrastructure. Even Syria’s limited natural resources such as oil, which are mostly in the eastern part of the country, need to be restored to government control, rehabilitated and provided with efficient management. This requires both time and calm labor relations. As long as Assad is in power, it is likely that many countries, certainly in the West, will not hurry to join Syria’s rehabilitation. Other countries that are not necessarily hostile to Assad, such as China, may be reluctant to develop investment-intensive projects in Syria as long as the instability and fighting continues, even if they are limited. The Caesar Law is another obstacle, because it casts the threatening shadow of sanctions imposed by Washington on companies and businesspeople who work with Syria. Iran could invest resources in rehabilitating Syria and lending it money, but that would be a gamble because of both Assad’s situation and Iran’s own economic weakness, which has been intensified by sanctions, the Covid – 19 crisis and the struggle against the United States (see Iran Pulse 106).


At the same time, it is clear that Assad is also maneuvering between Russia and Iran, and sometimes prioritizing Russia due to fears that Iran will become overly involved in managing Syria. Thus, for example, petroleum infrastructure has been entrusted to Russia, and Russian involvement is gradually increasing in phosphate industry, which was initially given to Iran. Iran, for its part, is still a leader in the rehabilitation of Syria’s electrical infrastructure, and is clearly interested in utilizing the rehabilitation process to continue reinforcing its military, economic, social, educational and political positions in the country (INSS, January 22, 2019). Therefore, Russia also has an interest in reducing Iran’s hold in Syria, in order to increase its own involvement.


The upper echelons of the Syrian regime, especially the military command that was forced to accept the authority of Iranian officers during the civil war, are not overwhelmingly supportive Iranian involvement (YNET, May 11, 2015, see also Haaretz, March 13, 2015). This is further compounded by the feeling among the Syrian leadership that Iran does not consider Syria an ally and partner but rather a subordinate. Unlike Iran’s other allies in the Middle East, which are sub / non state actors and quite aware of their inferiority to Iran, the Syrian regime considers itself the leadership of an important Arab state, despite is greatly diminished status at the moment. National pride and internal power struggles intensify Syrian leaders’ fear of and revulsion at Tehran’s over-involvement.


Thus, despite Assad’s praise for the contributions of Hezbollah and Iran in a speech delivered on August 20, 2017, textbooks in schools controlled by his regime include manifest hostility toward Iran (Memri, August 20, 2017). “The pan-Arab nationalism and Syrian nationalism featured in the textbooks necessarily rejects the Shiite-Iranian hegemony and considers it a threat,” as Daniella Salameh explained (Ynet, July 11, 2018).


In addition, Israeli bombings of Syria in recent years have not only embarrassed Iran and Assad but may also have driven a wedge between them. Assad could stop these attacks by persuading Iran to substantially reduce its military presence in Syria, especially the elements targeting Israel. The ebbing of the Syrian civil war means that Assad has less need for Iranian military support to fight rebels, especially if the Iranian deployment is directed against Israel and not against rebels. Moreover, Assad wants to strengthen his independence, and not be a puppet of Iran. These factors might help Israel push Iran out of Syria.


In conclusion, Iran certainly has vital interests and needs in Syria. In mid-July 2020, Syria and Iran signed an agreement designed to reinforce the military cooperation between them, and also to refute rumors of the weakening in their ties (INSS, July 15, 2020). This is also an indication that both Iran and Assad are aware of their need to display, even outwardly, an image of allies. However, there are also good reasons why Iran should think carefully about investment and deployment in Syria.


For all the importance of Syria’s location as part of the Shiite Crescent, the anti-Iranian unrest in Iraq and Lebanon, along with problems in Syria itself, raises questions about the Crescent’s stability. Moreover, Iran has already paid a high price in human life for the war in Syria, and confrontation between Iran and Israel on Syrian soil might well add to that heavy toll. Considering Iran’s sensitivity to casualties, this is an important consideration. Iran has also invested tens of billions of dollars in Syria, and it is highly doubtful that it will recover this investment in an economically-devastated country that isn’t well-endowed with natural resources. Iran hopes to benefit from the reconstruction of Syria, but other countries and companies may avoid investing for reasons that include, but are not limited to, the Caesar Law. Iran, too, is facing multiple economic difficulties that will not disappear anytime soon. Moreover, Iran is competing with Russia for increased influence in Syria, and although Assad still needs Iran, he also wants to fortify his independent status by reducing his dependence on Iran, and its hold on Syria. Iran’s intentions are the opposite, and that creates friction between them. Iran’s rivals can take advantage of this to drive a wedge between Iran and Assad, and hinder Iranian efforts to maintain its grasp on Syria. In light of all these factors, Iran must carefully consider whether and to what extent it should continue its support and deployment in Syria.


If Iranian influence in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon is weakened, Tehran may need to reconsider all of its costly, complicated involvement in the Arab world. It might then turn toward other regions where it could expand its influence – eastward to Afghanistan and/or northward to Central Asia –rather than investing in the Arab world. The Iranian regime might also be forced to allocate more resources to address its serious domestic distress, at the expense of its expansionist aspirations in the Middle East. Making such a turnaround would be a difficult strategic decision, raising more than a few dilemmas. However, the regime in Tehran has already proven its ability to make weighty decisions, like ending the war with Iraq in 1988 or signing the nuclear deal in 2015. The bottom line indicates that despite Syria’s importance in the eyes of Iran, there are several factors that might lead to Iran loosening its grip on Syria.

* Dr. Ehud Eilam is a researcher specializing in Israel’s national security, who served as a civilian employee of the Israel Defense Forces for several years. He has published seven books and dozens of articles. His most recent book Containment in the Middle East was published by University of Nebraska Press, 2019.

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ACIS Iran Pulse No. 111 ● September 2,  2020 

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