Iran has dramatically escalated its support for the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria over the past year, enabling it to decisively gain the upper hand in a conflict that has claimed over 400,000 lives to date. During the final months of 2016, the West looked on in horror as a coalition of mercenary fighters spearheaded by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and backed by Russian air power laid waste to the city of Aleppo, wresting it from Sunni rebel control. Iran’s takeover of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and its industrial center, constitutes a huge boon to Tehran’s pursuit of regional dominance and threatens Israel’s security.
The Role of Syria in Iran’s Quest for Regional Primacy
Since the 1979 founding of the Islamic Republic, Iran has sought to “export” its revolutionary ethos throughout the Middle East in a bid to supplant American and Western influence. In its quest for primacy, Iran has frequently employed terrorism and subversion as tools of statecraft. Iran and its loyal terrorist proxies have destabilized much of the Middle East, inflaming sectarian tensions, tearing at the fabric of fragile nation states, and triggering wars that have killed hundreds of thousands. The devastation wrought by Iran’s reckless foreign policy has created fertile ground for ISIS and other Sunni jihadist groups to thrive as ideological counterweights to the Iranian Shiite menace.
Syria is now the lynchpin of Iran’s regional bid for influence. The country has been engulfed in civil war since 2011, when the Assad regime responded with heavy-handed repression to the peaceful “Arab Spring” protests, which were then spreading throughout the Middle East. Iran sprang to Syria’s defense; without its backing, the Assad regime would almost certainly have collapsed.
Iran and Syria have been each other’s principal and most loyal regional partner since the 1980-1988 Iraq-Iraq war, in which Syria backed Iran to weaken its main Arab rival, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Shared hatred of Israel deepened this Tehran-Damascus axis. Also, Syria’s role as Iran’s main partner (along with Hezbollah and Hamas) in the so-called “resistance axis” against Israel gave it regional influence disproportionate to its actual size and resources.
Under Iranian tutelage and assistance, Syria became a constant thorn in Israel’s side by hosting Hamas’ leadership and facilitating arms transfers to Hezbollah (from Tehran to Damascus by air, and on to Lebanon by land). Until 2005, Syrian troops in Lebanon actively aided Hezbollah, and after 2003 Syria allowed thousands of radical Sunni foreign fighters to flow through its territory into Iraq to destabilize the U.S.-supported regime in Baghdad. The Assad regime also subverted Lebanese democracy through a string of high-profile assassinations of anti-Syrian Lebanese political leaders, including the 2005 murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, accomplished in conjunction with Hezbollah.
Iran’s and Syria’s interests have grown closer over the years. Tehran now regards its continued control over Syria as one of its main foreign policy objectives: It relies primarily on the country to project Iranian power throughout the Levant, since—together with Shia-controlled Iraq—it provides a critical land bridge to its terrorist proxy Hezbollah and access to Mediterranean ports. Iran recognizes Assad’s Alawite religious sect as Shia, and views the political dominance of the Alawite minority in Syria as a bulwark against Sunni power there and throughout the region. Iran and Syria lump together all of Assad’s opponents as apostates and terrorists.
Effects of Syria’s Civil War
Up until the Syrian civil war, Iran and Syria were fairly equal partners in crime: Assad had a large army, considerable missile and chemical/biological weapon capabilities, and full control over Syria’s territory, while the direct Iranian military and political presence in Syria was modest. Five years of civil war, however, have hollowed out both the Syrian army’s fighting capabilities and Assad’s political authority, severely weakening the Syrian state and allowing the Iranian regime to in effect establish a new dynamic: Assad remains ensconced in the presidential palace in Damascus, but Iran plans, leads and fights the civil war. Iranian officials have gone so far as to refer to Syria as “Iran’s 35th province.” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated this month that, “If the ill-wishers and seditionists—who are the puppets of America and the Zionists—had not been stopped in Syria, we would be fighting them in Tehran, Fars, Khorasan and Esfahan.”
Finally, Iran has extended the Assad regime a huge line of credit, and has introduced up to 50,000 Shia proxies and mercenaries from throughout the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan which now, along with the IRGC and the Iranian-controlled Lebanese Shia terrorist group Hezbollah, form the core of the pro-Assad fighting forces. IRGC commanders serve as battlefield advisors and Iran has even deployed elements of its conventional military, which typically remains in Iran to secure the homeland, to join the fight in Syria as IRGC casualties have mounted.
With Bashar al-Assad's decline and a resurgent Iran, the morale of Syrian forces is poor. They are daily becoming more reliant on Iranian and foreign Shia fighters to defend and seize territory. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force—the foreign expeditionary arm of the IRGC that is tasked with exporting the Islamic Revolution—has emerged as the real leader of the Syrian war effort. Indeed, Soleimani toured Aleppo in person after its re-conquest last month (and in violation of a United Nations travel ban); no major leaders from Damascus accompanied him, a vivid indicator of Iran’s dramatic influence.
Although Assad may still dream of one day reuniting all of pre-war Syria under his control, Iran’s objectives there differ. Tehran seeks to ensure that a pro-Iranian government in Damascus (probably led by Assad, but conceivably with a different Alawite figurehead) establishes firm control over the Western quarter of Syria—home to 80 percent of the population and what little industry remains—to preserve Iran’s access to the Mediterranean and keep open the supply routes to its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon. The re-conquest of Aleppo has gone a long way to accomplishing this goal: With the exception of ISIS and Kurdish-held territory in northeast Syria and pockets of resistance in Idlib province in the north and on the Syrian Golan Heights in the south, Iran now controls almost all the territory to the west of the strategic Damascus-Homs-Hama-Aleppo corridor.
Emerging Threats to Israel’s Security
Israel is alarmed about the implications of Aleppo’s fall to Iranian-led forces, and wary of Iran gaining access to Mediterranean ports and concerned that Tehran will now step up the flow of arms and supplies to Hezbollah. In addition, Israel worries that Hezbollah—buoyed by its military success in Syria—may be emboldened to launch new attacks against Israel. Hezbollah has invested many resources and taken many casualties in Syria, but has also gained invaluable battlefield experience that will make it a much more formidable foe in the future. It has more than 100,000 missiles and rockets aimed at Israel. Finally, Israel fears that Tehran, determined to keep up its aggression and flush with cash following the 2015 nuclear deal, will eventually try to infiltrate its forces into the Syrian Golan and challenge Israel. Iranian recklessness could provoke an Israeli response— unwillingly drawing Israel into the Syrian maelstrom.
In securing a corridor of nearly unbroken Shia influence and control stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean, Iran is scoring an unprecedented victory in its effort to grow Iranian influence while diminishing America’s role in the Middle East. Iran’s activities guarantee more instability for the Middle East in the coming year.
In the meantime, Israel has warned Tehran that it may be playing with fire. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a clear message for Iran last month: “Don’t threaten us. We are not a rabbit, we are a tiger.”
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