As the Arab Spring unfolded in the Middle East region back in 2011, Iran expressed its encouragement for the uprisings, naming them “Islamic Awakenings”. However, as the protests reached Damascus, Tehran offered its unwavering support to its longtime ally, the Assad regime.
Several factors motivated Iran’s decision. First, Syria has been Iran’s sole Arab ally since 1979, as a common hatred for Saddam Hussein brought them together as Hafez al-Assad provided vital support to Tehran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Additionally, Syria also played an essential role in convincing Algeria and Libya to do the same, consequently splitting the Arab world in two.
However, in choosing to stand by Assad back then, Iran was not solely motivated to preserve its Syrian support. For Tehran, losing Syria would have implied the immense loss of a key strategic partner, with which it has often shared a common worldview. Nonetheless, Iran’s move was politically motivated in that the country was convinced that by backing Damascus would turn out in its favor and interest. Since then, Syria has in fact been the senior partner in the relationship, and, while sharing a similar perspective, it has also maintained some differences. Among these is Syrian support for the Shiite party Amal over Hezbollah in Lebanon, as well as its support for Sunni and ex-Baathist groups over Shia parties in Iraq, following Saddam Hussein’s demise. Most of all, if Iran had lost an ally in Syrian, it would also have neglected a central country of the Resistance axis. This would have been a significant issue for Tehran as it is this axis which allows it to maintain access to Hezbollah in Lebanon which is perceived as essential to deter any potential Israeli action on Iranian territory. Furthermore, the most fundamental consequence that would have resulted from losing Syria to the opposition, would have been for the regional balance to shift in Iran’s rivals’ favor.
Iranian involvement in the war evolved over time in parallel with the different phases of the conflict. What began in 2011 as a transfer of equipment, weapons, and advisers presented as religious pilgrims, transformed in 2013 into a proper deployment of Iran’s own troops (IRGC, Al Qods and Basij), together with Hezbollah, Iraqi Shiite militias, and new militias made of foreign fighters (Afghans and Pakistanis). Since 2015, Iran started coordinating with Russia, as the latter began providing air support to Iranian boots on the ground. In the same year, Iran added a diplomatic track by being admitted for participation in the Syrian peace process convened by the United Nations in Geneva. Another diplomatic track was added in 2017, with the launch of the Astana process featuring Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Between 2017-2019, Iran obtained a significant strategic achievement. It regained control over the al-Bukamal area from the Islamic State at the Syrian-Iraqi border. Similarly, to the Iraqi PMUs liberating at the time the Iraqi part of the border, Iranian fighters too gained control over one of the three strategic border-crossings between Syria and Iraq. More recently, as Israeli air campaigns against Iran have intensified, Tehran has been focused on trying to create an area of influence in the East of Syria, in the Southern half of Deir-ez-Zor province. The control over this area, distant from the Israeli border, would provide Iran with the opportunity to maintain a solid foothold in the country, as a guarantee for any kind of political scenario may open in the future.
Over the last decade, Iran has been strengthening its presence and influence in Syria. However, a combination of different factors has recently been preventing a final victory over Syrian territory.
First, Iran is undoubtedly undergoing a difficult period. Stringent sanctions as well as the US’ killing of Qassem Soleimani have inflicted pain on Iran’s “forward defense” strategy. This, however, does not mean that the Islamic Republic is about to collapse or that Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy has been successful in reining in Iran’s influence in the region. On the contrary, we have witnessed an increase in Iran’s regional activities, as Tehran’s behavior tends to become more aggressive when put under pressure. However, from a regional perspective, sanctions and targeted killings help containing Iran. This thinking seems also to be shared by the new US administration, partly explaining Biden’s reluctance to make good on its electoral promises to revive the JCPOA.
Second, a growth in competition and divergence of view with Russia. As Moscow seeks to put an end to its military engagement and looks for political dividends, Iran does not appear in line with
this desire as it would imply a stabilized and sovereign Syria. The perception of Iran as being an asset to becoming a liability is also present inside the current Syrian government, especially among the pro-Russian figures, who have been cultivating hostile views towards Tehran’s extent of involvement in the country.
Third, with the perfect storm currently affecting Lebanon, combining a political, economic, and health crisis, is significantly harming Hezbollah’s grip on the country as well as its involvement in the Syrian war. As the Lebanese population increasingly grows unsatisfied with the stalemate and the international community subordinates economic aid to meaningful political reforms, Hezbollah could experience a downsize. For the same reasons, its involvement in the Syrian war, which has always been a source of domestic trouble, could contribute to fueling discontent towards the Party. The Party yet again is then facing a dilemma between its national Lebanese interest and commitment towards Iran. Furthermore, recent Lebanese negotiations with Israel on the maritime border, that could potentially be broadened to other topics, threaten the Party of God to become further isolated and less essential in carrying out the “resistance”.
Fourth, and most importantly, the new axis between Israel and some Arab countries is bringing about a strategic shift in regional balance, leaving Iran and its allies more isolated. The UAE, specifically, has been the most vocal supporter of Syria’s return to the Arab League, besides being the first Arab country to reopen its embassy in Damascus in 2018. In a recent meeting with Russia’s foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, Emirati foreign minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan has once again pushed for Syria’s return to the Arab world and “to normal”. Syria’s return to the Arab world, which is advocated by a growing number of Arab countries, could be instrumental in extracting Damascus from Iran’s influence, breaking the Iran-Syria alliance, exactly as this same alliance broke the Arab front forty years ago. They could find an ally in Putin’s Russia, which has also recently launched another diplomatic effort, this time involving Turkey and Qatar – which remain against Syria’s return to the Arab league –, for promoting a political solution to the conflict. As Russia already acts as a broker between Israel and Syria and as a guarantor for the containment of Iran’s influence in the country, a new Israel-Russia-Arab countries alliance built upon the objective of ending the war, normalizing Syria and containing Iran could emerge. Ironically, this would see not only Iran, but also the US, in the opposing side. The new Biden administration does not seem keen on reversing the US position, rather seeking a political transition to produce legitimate governance. Neither they seem intent on reversing the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which, despite its name, is severely impacting Syrian population. However, while this represents an obstacle – and a message to Arab countries – against normalization, the US desire to rein in Iran’s influence in the region as a complementary track to the JCPOA may open room for some kind of compromise.
In conclusion, shifts in regional balances as well as the inauguration of a new U.S. administration seemingly aware of the dangerousness of Trump’s policy towards Iran, may open space for Iran to compromise on its Syrian engagement. At the same time, however, Tehran does not seem open to reduce its presence just out of interest to please external pressure. On the contrary, the last four years have clearly showed how Iran’s behavior turns increasingly more aggressive when it is pressured by third parties and tested. The solution lies in a sort of grand bargain addressing every country’s threat perception; this is even more true given the interconnected nature of current conflicts and rivalries in the region. Ten years later, as Syria has become victim of foreign countries’ ambitions as well as a tile in the mosaic of regional rivalries, the solution inevitably lies in addressing these rivalries and competing agendas.