During the current war in Syria, Iran remains a firm supporter of the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The extraordinary strength of the Iranian-Syrian alliance is even more striking when you consider that it is not based on the coincidence of national interests or common religious values: it’s rather a tactical-strategic partnership between the two authoritarian regimes. Iran and Syria became close in 1980 on the basis of a general dislike of Hussein’s Iraq, and the fear and hatred that the United States and Israel have in them contribute to maintaining the alliance.
Iran initially supported popular uprisings in the countries of the Middle East, calling them "Islamic awakening": then it seemed that the collapse threatens only the allies of the West - authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen. During the Syrian crisis, however, Tehran unswervingly supports the Assad regime, which finds itself in a difficult situation, and stigmatizes the opposition as “terrorists” who are assisted by the diversified alliance of the Gulf countries, Israel and the United States. High-ranking Iranian politicians, such as former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, call Syria the “golden ring of resistance to Israel,” and Mehdi Taeb, one of the closest advisers to Ayatollah’s top leader Ali Khamenei, said: if we lose Syria, Tehran will not keep it either. ” Without Iran’s military and financial assistance, the Assad regime might have collapsed long ago.
This article analyzes the factors behind Iran’s support for the Assad regime, including concerns about who can replace it. The author argues that despite the economic difficulties facing Iran and the unexpected victory of the “moderate” religious leader Hassan Rouhani in the presidential election, Tehran will most likely continue to provide Assad regime with political, financial and military support.
Iran’s strategic interests in Syria are at stake
Since the Islamic revolution 1979, Syria has remained Tehran’s only consistent ally. During the Iran-Iraq war, other Arab countries supported Saddam Hussein, and even provided him with financial assistance, but the Syrian regime of Hafez al-Assad stood on the side of Iran. And although over the past thirty years, the tactical interests of Iran and Syria sometimes diverged, on macro-strategic issues both regimes most often acted in unison.
For Tehran, not only Damascus’s political support is of great importance: geographically, Syria is a bridge connecting Iran with the Shiite militarized organization Hezbollah in Lebanon, one of the “diamonds” in the crown of the Iranian revolution. Syria and Hezbollah are critical elements of the Iranian “alliance of resistance”, and much of the weapons for Hezbollah are believed to come from Iran through Damascus airport.
Iran’s desire to keep the Assad regime in power is also due to deep concern about the composition of the government after Assad. Given that the overwhelming majority of the population of Syria are Sunni Arabs, Tehran is frightened by the prospect of education in this country of a Sunni confessional regime, allied Saudi Arabia or the United States and hostile to Shiite Iran. During his visit to Damascus in August 2012, the former secretary of Iran’s Supreme Council for National Security, Saeed Jalili, said: “Iran will in no way allow the“ axis of resistance ”, one of the pillars of which, in our opinion, is Syria, whatever way is broken. " In other words, if the goal is to confront the United States and Israel, then it justifies almost any means.
Level of Iran's involvement in Syrian events
The fact that Iran plays an important role in Syria is beyond doubt, but it is impossible to accurately determine the extent of its military and financial assistance to the Assad regime. According to official data, the trade turnover between Iran and Syria is only about 700 million dollars a year - more than two times less than the volume of Iran’s trade with Afghanistan. Compared to Iranian trade with China (30 billion dollars), this figure is simply negligible. However, these statistics do not take into account the preferential prices at which Iran has been supplying Syria with oil since 1982, when Damascus agreed to close the Iraqi oil pipeline, which ran through Syrian territory.
Since the unrest began in Syria, Iranian financial support has become even more important. In January, 2013, the Syrian state media announced an agreement with Iran to open a billion-dollar credit line. Five months later, Syrian officials reported that Iran would provide Damascus another 3,6 credit line of a billion dollars "to finance gasoline and other petroleum product purchases."
In addition, Iran also offered Syria military assistance in conventional and non-traditional forms, it trains special services and cooperates with Damascus at the intelligence level to suppress popular demonstrations. From the report of the US government and Tehran’s official statements, it follows that Iran contributed to the creation of the Syrian militant organization, Jaish al-Shabi (the People’s Army), which is assisting the government forces.
As in other countries experiencing turmoil that Iran considers strategically important, for example in Iraq and Afghanistan, Tehran’s activities in Syria are not controlled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but by an elite unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) known as Quds. Former Syrian Prime Minister Riyad Hijab, who fled the country, even declared: “Syria is occupied by the Iranian regime. The country is not ruled by Bashar Asad, but by Kasim Suleymani (commander of Quds). ” The US Treasury Department imposed sanctions against Suleimani and Mohsen Chizari, who is responsible for operational activities and combat training at the IRGC, because of their role in "cruel repression against the Syrian people."
It is also alleged that Iran sent to the Syrian Army ground troops of the IRGC, which have experience in suppressing popular unrest in the Iranian outback, in particular the uprisings of ethnic minorities and tribes. In August 2012, several dozen of these fighters were allegedly abducted by insurgents, and then released as part of an exchange of prisoners of war. Tehran claims that these people were pilgrims, but the facts show otherwise.
It is reported that Iran has provided Syria with assistance in building up its arsenal of chemical weapons. Iran’s support for Syrian chemical weapons work allegedly includes help from scientific personnel, equipment supplies and basic chemicals, as well as technical training from Syrian specialists.
In addition to financial and military assistance, Iran has made deliberate efforts over the past thirty years to form cultural and religious ties between the Iranian and Syrian peoples, providing its citizens with large subsidies for air travel and living expenses when traveling to Syria. In particular, millions of pilgrims from Iran visited the tomb of Said Zeinab in Damascus.
Challenges and opportunities
The main problem for Iran is the implementation of considerable amount of financial assistance to Syria under the conditions of draconian international sanctions imposed against Tehran in connection with its nuclear ambitions: because of them, Iranian oil exports have halved. According to estimates, an official from a single Arab country, Tehran, to keep Assad afloat, spends up to 600 – 700 million dollars a month. In the absence of an agreement on the nuclear issue, which, by loosening sanctions, would allow Iran to increase production and increase oil exports, the country's population, suffering from external economic pressure and incompetence of its own authorities, will increasingly be critical of Syria’s financial assistance.
In addition to financial burdens, Syria’s support turns Iran into a serious reputational loss in the Arab world, where the majority are Sunni. Just a few years ago, Shiite Iran inhabited by Persians was able to overcome this ethnic and religious divide, appealing to the indignation of ordinary Arabs by the war led by the United States led by Iraq’s coalition and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006, but today Arabs Sunnis see this country as an intriguer, pursuing only their own confessional interests. The Lebanese Hezbollah is facing the same attitude because of the support of Assad.
If the Assad regime is driven out of Damascus, Tehran will face a difficult strategic choice: try to maintain its sphere of influence by supporting predominantly Alawite armed groups representing only a small minority in Syrian society, or making friends with the Sunni rebels who will take power in the capital. Contrary to the generally accepted opinion for Iran, the most important thing is not the confessional composition of the future Syrian leadership, but the ideological and ideological intimacy based on the "resistance" of the United States and Israel. As Iran’s top leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, once noted, “we will provide support and help to any people of the world, any groups fighting against the Zionist regime.” Evidence of this is the Iranian presence of Sunni allies in the person of Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But despite the fact that Iran and some groups of Syrian rebels have common enemies, Tehran may not be able to establish friendly relations with the forces that he has helped to fight against over the past two years. Anti-Shiite, anti-Persian sentiments are widespread among Syrian rebels, and the attractiveness of Iran’s future financial assistance is reduced by the presence of richer sponsors, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
For Tehran, the main thing is that Syria remains a strategic ally of Iran in the "axis of resistance" and a link with the Lebanese Hezbollah. Since Iran’s ideal endgame — a return to the status quo, that is, the restoration of Assad’s control over the entire territory of Syria — appears to be beyond what’s possible, the main questions for Tehran today are: how long will Assad be able to keep Damascus How much help is needed for this and what happens if he loses power? According to one estimate, supplying Hezbollah through Syria, Iran will be able even if only Damascus, Homs and the coast remain under Assad’s control. And even in the case of Assad’s fall, pro-Iranian groups may be able to protect these supply routes if the opposition does not establish control over Syria’s borders.
The significance of the election of Rouhani
Iran’s alliance with the Asad family regime has existed for more than thirty years, but in the coming months the main question will be whether the unexpected election of the “moderate” cleric Hassan Rouhani as president will change Tehran’s strategy regarding Syria, or rather, does Rouhani have a political will, opportunity and interest to change Iran’s policy in the Syrian direction? In public, Rouhani expresses solidarity with the Assad regime: at a meeting with Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halki who arrived in Tehran, in particular, he said: “The Islamic Republic of Iran intends to strengthen relations with Syria and will support it in the face of all the challenges. No power in the world will shake ... deep strategic and historical relations between the peoples of Syria and Iran. " However, in an informal setting, a former senior assistant to Rouhani spoke out about continued support for Assad by Tehran much less categorically. According to him, the best way to eliminate the friction between the US and Iran over Syria is to find a “Syrian Karzai”: a Sunni politician whose candidacy will be acceptable to Tehran, Washington and the people of Syria.
If we cannot be sure that Rouhani wants to change Iran’s approach to relations with Syria, then it’s even harder to answer the question whether he can do it. The officials at the helm of Iran’s policy on Syria, namely the current commander of the Quds Special Forces, Qasim Suleymani, are not accountable to Rouhani: they are subject to Ayatollah Khamenei. At the same time, Syria is very important for Iran’s relations with another indispensable ally on the "axis of resistance" - Hezbollah. In this regard, according to one source in Iranian official circles, those who believe that Rouhani can do away with Iran’s patronage of Hezbollah, "... are naive or soaring in the clouds ... Whoever the president is, whoever He was ministers, Hezbollah will remain the same Hezbollah for Iran. Hezbollah is not a playing card for Iran. Today it is the “pearl” of the resistance bloc, the president’s moderation does not mean surrendering the country's positions. ”
In this context, Iran’s refusal to support the Al-Assad regime in the near future seems highly unlikely. For the political leadership of the United States, overt support for Assad by Tehran has both negative and positive consequences. On the one hand, it prolongs the life of the Syrian regime and exacerbates tensions and mutual distrust of the United States and Iran, reducing the chances of an agreement on the nuclear issue. At the same time, this support spoils Iran’s reputation among Sunnis in the region and depletes its financial resources, weakening Tehran’s ability to strengthen its power and influence in the Middle East.
Karim Sajadpur - Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, author of “Understanding Khamenei: The Worldview of the Most Powerful Leader of Iran” (Reading Khamenei: The World ViewofIran's Most Powerful Leader). In 2003 – 2004, he worked as a visiting researcher at the American University of Beirut and often visited Syria.
This article was first published in the periodical of the Center for Counter-Terrorism at West Point (CTC Sentinel. - Aug. 2013: SpecialIss. - Vol. 6. - Iss. 8. - R. 11 – 13). The opinions expressed in the article express the position of the author, and not the US Military Academy, the Department of Land Forces, or another government department of the United States.