How to counter Iran’s military entrenchment in Syria
Iran’s foreign and military policies in Syria are far-sighted and carried out with the aim of accomplishing the long-term revolutionary, ideological and hegemonic objectives of the regime. Any change in Iran’s militaristic role in Syria would not only significantly impact the seven-year-old conflict and the status quo between Bashar Assad and the opposition groups, but it could also have severe repercussions on the alliances and national security of other nations in the region.
In the space of a few years, the Iranian regime went from simply conducting an advisory role to becoming deeply embedded in Syria’s political, military and security infrastructure.
As the conflict continues, the Iranian regime shows ever greater disregard for the sovereignty of the Syrian nation, and Tehran is effectively acting more like an occupying force. Strategically speaking, the regime of Assad is too vital for Iran to abandon. Controlling Syria gives Iran immense geopolitical and military clout in the region. In addition, Tehran is effectively utilizing Syria to create a land corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean, to support Hezbollah, empower Shiite militias in other nations, accomplish its regional ambitions, and tip the regional balance of power in favor of the “Shiite Crescent.”
Due to Iran’s current deep involvement in Syria, officials including Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif have begun to boast that no force can push Iran out of Syria. Nevertheless, the international community still has the time to halt Iran’s entrenchment in Syria via five strategies that have not yet been paid adequate attention. Yielding to Iran’s political posturing will only assist Tehran in further solidifying its presence in Syria to the point of no return. This could alter the geopolitical chessboard of the Middle East in favor of the ruling clerics of Iran for decades to come.
In order to halt Iran’s entrenchment, first it is important to understand Iran’s twin strategies and modus operandi in Syria. In order to expand its influence in Syria more rapidly, the Iranian regime has transformed the function of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The IRGC and its various domestic branches, including the Basij, have been deployed to act like the Quds Force, which specializes in conducting operations in foreign countries. Secondly, Iran deploys Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias to fight on its behalf in Syria.
Iran’s military and militias rely on the Syrian regime’s air force to give its militants cover on the ground.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
The first strategy in countering the Iranian regime’s efforts is for the US and its allies to establish a no-fly zone on the Syrian borders. Among the countries that are bordered with Syria — Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and Jordan — Jordan and Israel are the most likely to agree to such a move.
Iran’s military and militias rely on the Syrian regime’s air force to give its militants cover on the ground. Aerial attacks put the Syrian regime, and consequently the IRGC, in a more advantageous position in comparison to the opposition groups. Without the aerial bombardments, Iran’s military would find it extremely difficult to score victories and make territorial advances at its current swift pace.
Secondly, the US and its allies ought to dismantle the IRGC’s independent command and control system in Syria with air strikes. It follows that the command and control centers in Iran’s military bases, which are being built across Syria, should be targeted.
Third, to push back against Iran’s military, a powerful, moderate and legitimate domestic force is required. The international community appears to have given up on finding such a moderate force in Syria. This is partially due to the notion that, since the West has decreased its engagement in Syria, the Iranian and Syrian regimes have been on the offensive, shelling and bombing areas held by opposition groups. In addition, Damascus and Tehran appeared successful at spreading their narrative and propaganda message that the only anti-Assad groups left in Syria are terrorist and extremist groups.
With intelligence and advisory assistance, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the US and its EU allies can reinitiate their plan to support a moderate Syrian opposition group. A moderate Syrian force could play a significant role as a bulwark against Iran’s entrenchment.
Fourth, empowering minority ethnic groups, specifically the Kurds, is essential to countering Iran and its linked groups. The Kurds were effective at fighting Daesh, but the West has recently cut back on its support for them. This has allowed Iran, Turkey and Russia to expand their influence in Syria’s Kurdish areas.
Finally, Iran is hemorrhaging billions of dollars to keep Assad in power. Iran’s main revenue originates from its oil exports and, thanks to the nuclear agreement, it is exporting approximately 40 percent of its oil to Europe. The leaders of Europe can put significant pressure on Iran’s military by suspending its oil imports. Europe’s other alternatives for oil supply can be the Gulf states.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh