Is Iran Overstretched in Syria?
For four long years, Tehran has fought, bled, and paid for its ally in Damascus. It may be time for a new strategy.
For the majority of Arabs, Syria symbolizes all that is wrong with Iranian influence in the Middle East. Since 2011, Tehran and its regional proxies have poured men, money, and weapons into Syria to prevent President Bashar al-Assad’s military defeat. In June 2013, Hezbollah’s intervention in the western city of Qusayr single-handedly turned the tide of the war in Assad’s favor.
Iran’s stakes in Syria are high. Three overriding priorities drive its policy: to defend Hezbollah’s weapons transit route through Syria, and in the long term to ensure that the country will never become a platform to attack the Lebanese Shiite movement; to fight against a Saudi-led regional axis whose objective is to contain Iran’s rising geopolitical power; and to support a long-standing ally — some officials in Tehran speak of paying back an old debt owed to former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad for supporting Iran in its eight-year war with Iraq. In the event that Assad loses power, Iran fears that an implosion of the Syrian regime may enable the ascendance of an alliance of Sunni extremist groups that are anti-Shiite, anti-Iran, and anti-Hezbollah.
In the zero-sum competition between the Iran-led axis and Saudi-led coalition, it is hard to see how a nuclear deal will change the dynamics of the Syrian conflict. Although all regional actors pay lip service to the need for a political solution in Syria, none of them are yet willing to abandon their maximalist positions. In the absence of any diplomatic solution, Iran, Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are all pursuing military strategies intended to tip the balance on the ground in favor of their respective proxies.
Syrian regime forces have been on the back foot recently, suffering significant losses to a coalition of Islamist rebels in both northern Idlib province and the Syrian-Jordanian border crossing of Nasib in the south. Nevertheless, Iran’s military and financial investments in Syria have paid off: Assad is still in power despite a bruising four-year civil war, and his regional allies even speak of the tide of war having turned in Damascus’s favor. They also boast of the fact that the United States has come around to embrace their own threat priorities in Syria — that is, accepting that the fight should be focused against the Islamic State, not Assad.
However, all is not going well for Iran in Syria. Tehran faces a classic case of mission creep: It is being forced to commit ever-greater military and financial resources in Syria, falling deeper into the Syrian quagmire with no clear exit strategy. After four years of war, Assad’s forces are overstretched, the regime’s Alawite base is demoralized, and the Syrian economy is in a free-fall. For Tehran, this means sustained military support by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Hezbollah, and Iraqi militias, and extending more credit lines to Damascus.
Meanwhile, Iran’s military effort to prop up Assad may only become more difficult in the days ahead. Its regional competitors — led by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey — have reached a new understanding to regulate their cooperation in Syria and Yemen. Recent rebel gains in Syria are the first products of this new collaboration. The Saudi-led military operation in Yemen, even if mildly successful in the short term, might pave the way for a similar operation targeting Assad. This is why Iran will not let the campaign in Yemen go unpunished; Tehran wants to see the country become a festering wound that slowly bleeds out Saudi Arabia and its regional allies.
But it’s difficult to see in the short to medium term how Iran will heal its own festering wound in Syria. Unlike in Iraq, where Tehran had a cadre of trustworthy Shiite Iraqi politicians to replace Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister when the cost of supporting him became too high, it does not have this option in Syria. Assad is perceived as the only guarantor of Iranian and Hezbollah’s interests in Syria. To date, Iran has no acceptable alternative to Assad.
Inside Iran, there is no bottom-up pressure to push the Islamic Republic’s leaders toward re-examining their Syria policy. Iran’s casualties in Syria, which number in the hundreds, are still tolerable. The information about the financial costs of the Syria war is not accessible to the Iranian public. There is also no evidence of an internal Iranian debate about the endgame in Syria: The moderate camp led by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has not staked a position different from the hard-liners, instead preferring to use their political capital toward reaching a nuclear deal with the world powers.
At an off-the-record gathering with Iranian officials in Tehran last October, the line I heard about Syria from representatives of the “moderate” camp was neither moderate nor accommodating. It was the same line endorsed by Iranian hard-liners: The Syrian uprising was hijacked by jihadi radicals from the beginning, Assad has won an electoral mandate and is not going anywhere, and the priority in Syria should be fighting terrorism and not forcing Assad from power.
This tired argument is destroying Iran’s reputation in the Arab world. The daily stream of photos of children killed by Assad’s barrel bombs is a reminder of Iran’s complicity in the spilling of Arab blood. As Iran steps in from the cold and rejoins the international community, it faces a choice in how best to project influence in its immediate neighborhood.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah claimed recently that “the [rebels’] war on Syria has failed due to the steadfastness of the [Syrian] leadership and army.” He may wish that to be the case, but to the contrary, the Syrian conflict is in a stalemate that may last for years, continuing to bleed all parties involved in the conflict. Assad is not in a position to defeat the rebels, while his enemies also cannot force him from power. No Syrian rebel will lay down his arms as long as Assad is in power, while pro-regime Alawite militias will keep fighting unless they have credible guarantees for their future in the post-Assad era.
Iran has a choice to make in Syria. It can continue to prop up Assad, thus prolonging the conflict, or take the lead in laying the groundwork for a serious negotiation process that leads to a new leadership. A prerequisite for such a solution will be for Iran to show a readiness to abandon Assad and for the pro-rebel regional coalition to recognize Iranian interests in the Levant.
The United States and Iran both have an interest in bringing the Syrian conflict to an end. Only a negotiated solution will preserve Syrian territorial integrity and state institutions. Iranian behavior in Syria undermines these interests: With every passing day, state institutions are being hollowed out, and the Islamic State has rendered Syria’s territorial integrity a thing of the past. More importantly, Syrian national identity is weakening: In its place, exclusive, divisive, sectarian, and ethnic sub-identities are taking hold. Whether Syria can be put back together is no longer a theoretical question.
Some argue that by lifting sanctions, the international community is granting more resources to bolster Iran’s “expansionist” regional policies, including its military and financial support of the Assad regime. However, one could also argue that Iran’s newfound financial power may empower it to deploy resources in the service of security and economic development in the region, projecting power through the different tools of soft diplomacy — such as business investments, educational exchanges, and scientific collaboration — rather than brute force.
Syria is a test case for Iran to showcase what kind of neighbor it wants to be going forward. Tehran has a choice: It can be an agent for regional stability and cooperation, or a spoiler that is intent on propping up its proxies no matter the price to the people of the region.
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