Why Tehran is in Syria for the long haul
The Iranian regime continues to exert a considerable amount of influence in Syria. Will the region witness any changes in Iran’s policy toward Syria under the presidency of Ebrahim Raisi? And what are the broader regional implications?
As a core hard-liner, Raisi sees Syria from the perspective of ideological and geopolitical landscapes as well as the balance of power in the Middle East, rather than from a humanitarian point of view. Ideologically speaking, one of the major pillars of Iran’s foreign policy has been anchored in exporting its revolution to other Muslim nations. This critical mission has been incorporated into the constitution of the Islamic Republic.
As a result, the Alawite sect-based state of Syria serves as a crucial instrument for advancing, empowering, and achieving this ideological foreign policy objective.
Since becoming president, Raisi has not called for an overall sweeping shift in Iran’s policy toward Syria, such as reducing Tehran’s military, intelligence, and financial support to Damascus. This is because, for Iran’s hard-liners, withdrawing support to Bashar Assad would undermine Tehran’s revolutionary principles as well as its geopolitical leverage in the region, which would ultimately endanger the regime’s hold on power.
In addition, because of the role the supreme leader plays in Iran’s foreign policy objectives, Raisi does not completely control relations with Syria; instead, Iran’s policy is closely guided by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the high generals of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Etela’at — Iran's intelligence service. Yahya Rahim Safavi, a top military aide to the supreme leader, made it clear recently that Iran would be staying in Syria, but US forces would have to leave.
Nevertheless, Raisi does have the ability to set the tone in regional and international circles for the supreme leader and the IRGC when it comes to their favored policy toward Syria.
Over the past decade, the Iranian regime has spent about $100 billion to keep the Syrian government in power.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Under Raisi’s administration, the Iranian regime will continue to increase and safeguard its influence in Syria because losing Syria would be detrimental for Iran on several levels. Since the ruling clerics of Iran came to power, Syria has been a key proxy for Iran by serving as a platform from which Tehran has built formidable influence over the Levant. For example, Iran’s influence in Syria gave Iran the opportunity to establish Hezbollah and to support Hamas. Iran has used Syria to supply weapons and oil to Hezbollah. The establishment of proxy groups throughout the Levant has allowed Iran to strengthen and preserve its regional influence. Without Syria, Iran loses not just the flexibility and capability that having a friendly Syrian government brings to these proxy groups, but also regional geopolitical leverage.
In addition, from the Iranian leaders’ perspective, their interventionist policy in Syria has been successful and they have emerged as a winner there. Therefore, there is no need to change its policy toward Damascus. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian recently visited Syria and hailed the strong ties between the two countries, and he believes that the view of the international community has altered for the better toward the Syrian government. As he said at a meeting with Bashar Assad: “The diplomatic atmosphere in the recent meetings of the UN General Assembly indicated that conditions have changed in favor of Syria.”
Without the Iranian regime, it is unlikely that the Alawite state of Bashar Assad would have survived the civil war. Over the past decade, the Iranian regime has spent about $100 billion to keep the Syrian government in power. The theocratic establishment also saw the conflict as an opportunity to gradually increase its influence there. Tehran began by providing advisers to the Syrian government, and later technological, financial and intelligence assistance. Afterward, Iran engaged in assisting and training Assad’s forces militarily. Iran dispatched soldiers from the Quds Force, the elite branch of the IRGC that conducts extraterritorial operations. When the dispatched soldiers proved to be insufficient, IRGC forces were sent to fight in Syria. Tehran also sought the help of its Shiite proxies, primarily Hezbollah, to fight in major battles in favor of Assad’s forces. When the numbers of Syrian rebel groups and opposition groups increased, Tehran hired fighters from Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In a nutshell, under the hard-line administration of President Raisi, the Iranian regime is more likely to ratchet up its military adventurism in Syria, which can further destabilize the region.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh