Ordinary people pay the price for Tehran’s support of Assad

Ordinary people pay the price for Tehran’s support of Assad

It is ironic how history can surprise many historians, scholars, politicians and policy analysts. When the uprising began in Syria in 2011, many world leaders and experts predicted that Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime was on the verge of collapse. They most likely drew their conclusions from the historic developments that occurred in other Arab countries such as Egypt, Libya and Tunisia during the Arab Spring. 

World leaders such as the former US President Barack Obama, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and former British Prime Minister David Cameron appeared to contend that Assad’s fall was “only a matter of time.” Hence, they famously called for the Syrian president to step down.

But, after more than seven years of civil war, the Syrian regime has survived and it is widely perceived that Assad has come out of the conflict triumphant. In fact, in the last few months, after Assad recaptured the last major stronghold of the rebels in the suburbs of Damascus, and after their surrender in the city of Daraa (which was the birthplace of the popular uprising), Israel recently announced that the Syrian civil war had effectively came to an end. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters last week: “From our perspective, the situation is returning to how it was before the civil war, meaning there is a real address, someone responsible, and central rule.”

Nevertheless, it is worth noting that suppressing most of the rebellion, recapturing major cities and rebel holdouts, and maintaining control in Damascus was not simply a result of luck for Assad and his loyalists. 

The external dimension of the Syrian civil war played a far-reaching role in the Assad regime’s fate. To put it simply, the hesitation, lack of coordination and unification, in addition to the reluctance of Assad’s external enemies to enact a firm policy against the Syrian regime, combined with the commitment, determination and political willpower of Assad’s allies to sustain his grip on power, ultimately tipped the balance of power in favor of Assad’s Alawite-dominated state. A game-changer for Damascus was the extensive role that its staunchest geopolitical, ideological and strategic ally — the Iranian regime — has fulfilled.

At the beginning, Tehran only provided advisory assistance and moral support to the Syrian regime. Subsequently, specifically during 2012 and 2013, when Assad’s forces showed weakness and lost several major battles and territories to the opposition and rebel groups, Iran ratcheted up its involvement. At this point, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei instructed the government to provide military, intelligence and economic assistance to Assad. Iranian leaders across the political spectrum — moderates, hard-liners and principlists — also reached a consensus by unanimously calling for more robust support to defend their ally.

Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and its elite branch, the Quds Force, which conducts military and ideological operations in foreign countries, dispatched low-level soldiers as well as senior military generals to Syria. In addition, Iran used Hezbollah, Shiite militias from across the region, and recruited fighters from other countries such as Afghanistan to fight in Syria alongside Assad’s forces. 

From both the Iranian leaders and Assad’s perspectives, they have finally emerged as winners of the seven-year-old civil war, although violence and brute force was deployed and nearly half a million of people, including thousands of children, have been killed

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh

More importantly, as inflation skyrocketed in Syria and the regime lost revenue due to the war, as well as regional and international sanctions, Iran did not hesitate to open the doors of its nation’s treasury to fulfill Assad’s economic needs. Iran spent roughly $16 billion a year to support Assad. Tehran also opened a credit line for Damascus and continued to extend it — it has now reached over $3 billion. With such strong financial and military support, Iran has deeply infiltrated the political, military and security structures of Syria. 

From both the Iranian leaders and Assad’s perspectives, they have finally emerged as winners of the seven-year-old civil war, although violence and brute force was deployed and nearly half a million of people, including thousands of children, have been killed. The Iranian regime celebrated accomplishing its mission as Assad regained control of most territories. 

But what Iran’s leaders did not predict was the unintended consequences of their unequivocal support for Assad and his forces. As the Tehran regime hemorrhaged $100 billion of the nation’s wealth in order to keep Assad and his Alawite-dominated state in power, its own citizens suffered dramatically. The financial situation for ordinary Iranian people became unbearable; the unemployment rate increased, inflation rose, and millions of people could no longer make ends meet. 

If the Iranian leaders had invested the billions of dollars that they used to save Assad on creating jobs at home and improving the economy, they would not be facing nationwide protests.

The irony is that Assad may have won the civil war with the assistance of Iran, but now Tehran is in deep turmoil. But the difference is that Assad is not in a position to reciprocate Tehran’s favor and come to its aid, since he is presiding over a battered and war-torn country. 

 

  • 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. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh
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