What Iran Really Wants in Syria
Misperceptions of Tehran’s true intentions could lead to disaster.
In the wake of recent Israeli airstrikes against the T-4 airbase in Syria and the shooting down of an Israeli F-16 fighter in February, Iranian-Israeli tensions have been escalating. On April 26, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke of the possibility of direct clashes between the two sides. And on the night of May 9, a rocket barrage was launched from Syrian territory, targeting Israeli positions in the Golan Heights.
At such a delicate moment, when the risk of miscalculation and confrontation is growing, it is essential that policymakers in Washington gain a clearer understanding of Iran’s goals in Syria, which are not offensive but focus on deterring Israel and other major foreign stakeholders in Syria.
Misperceptions of Iran’s strategic intentions could lead to military confrontation and an escalatory cycle — especially on the heels of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out of the Iran nuclear agreement.
Rather than provoking military confrontation with Israel, Iran’s actions in Syria are first and foremost about preserving the Syrian government as part of the “axis of resistance” — a longstanding alliance between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, among others. Iran is also seeking to establish a balance of power — including deterrence — with other regional and international actors with interests in Syria. Recent Iranian actions that may be considered provocative, such as the Iranian drone that allegedly breached Israeli airspace, are tactics for drawing red lines and raising the costs for Israel if it chooses to confront Iran within Syria.
For the Israelis, Iran’s military buildup is intolerable, as it crosses their red line of preventing permanent Iranian military bases in Syria. According to this interpretation of events, the objective of Iran’s Syria campaign is to expand its conventional power projection and military installations beyond its borders with the goal of destroying Israel. While some Iranian elites may share that goal, the prevailing Israeli view on Iran’s Syrian presence misreads actual Iranian objectives and Tehran’s current prioritization of interests in Syria.
This view also fails to take seriously the limitations Iran faces in Syria, especially the very real reluctance of the Syrian and Russian governments to allow Iran to have formal military installations inside the country. It readily assumes Syria has no say in how it manages its relations with Iran because of its weakness, when the reality on the ground is much more complicated. Broader power politics involving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia, Israel, and the international community actually constrain Iran’s Syria policy. The dominant narrative simultaneously portrays both an expanding Iran that is confrontational and a passive Iran that will not retaliate if attacked. Both of these perceptions are potentially dangerous, especially if they underestimate Iran’s response to potential military attacks.
While Iran and its partners are staunchly anti-Israel, provoking a military standoff with Israel is not an Iranian priority, according to our analysis. Instead, Iran is looking to consolidate its hard-won position in the power competition between the main stakeholders in the Syrian conflict: Turkey, the United States, and the Syrian government, along with their respective allies. Syria provides Iran with vital strategic depth, allowing it to project power through the Levant, and gives it a gateway to Hezbollah, enhancing Iranian deterrence of Israel. The collapse of the Assad regime and the dismemberment of the Syrian state would have dealt a significant blow to Iran with the loss of one of its few key allies in the Arab world.
Accordingly, from Iran’s perspective, it is the party under threat in Syria. This view became entrenched among Iranian elites at the beginning of the Syrian conflict, as Iran was placed on the defensive and the probability of Assad surviving the protests seemed dim. Indeed, Iran’s government believed the uprising against Assad was a foreign conspiracy designed to undermine Iran — a direct threat leading some to even claim that “if we lose Syria, we will not be able to preserve Tehran.”
Iran’s entrance in the war was therefore meant to shore up support for its struggling partner and attempt to cut its losses by strengthening local allied militias within Syria with an eye to post-Assad territorial fragmentation — a rational and limited contingency plan in case Assad fell that has been incorrectly interpreted as Iranian expansionism.
From Tehran’s perspective, Israeli strikes against positions linked to Iran and its allies in Syria, alongside belligerent U.S. and Saudi rhetoric, are aimed at undermining Iran’s uncertain deterrent capability. It is thus important to consider Iranian acts of provocation through the lens of establishing deterrence and of its own red lines vis-à-vis Israel.
Iran has decided that the best way to preserve Syria’s continued prominence in the axis of resistance is to make sure that the Syrian state achieves full control over its territory, especially given the very serious challenges Syria faces from rival armed groups after the demise of the Islamic State. It is true that Iran and its allied militias, the Syrian government, and Russia have the upper hand on the ground, but there seems to be no guarantee that the Syrian government can achieve full victory and unify the country given the military presence of Turkey and the United States there. In Tehran’s perception, the situation is all the more precarious because Iranian leaders believe that the United States plans to divide Syria.
While the fight against the Islamic State kept most of the external actors in the Syrian conflict focused on a specific target, broader peripheral competition and friction between the major stakeholders in Syria are now taking center stage. The three most powerful groups are Turkey and its allies; the Syrian Democratic Forces and its main backer, the United States; and the Assad government and its allies, including Iran.
Worried about rival stakeholders, the Iran-Syria camp has focused its operational forces in places that remain to be conquered by the Syrian state. Iran has vocally expressed its intention to prioritize two particular theaters in its Syria campaign. One of those has been the city of Deir Ezzor, which has been a source of competition between the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and the Assad regime and its allies. Now that the Islamic State is out of the picture, these two forces are fighting in close proximity, and confrontation has entered their strategic calculations with clashes reported recently.
The second theater is Idlib, the final major stronghold with large numbers of Nusra Front fighters and other takfiri groups. The Turkish and Iran-Syria camps will likely face off in this critical battle, just as there was a possibility of real confrontation between the two sides in the Kurdish town of Afrin earlier this year. Beyond these two theaters, however, there are also enclaves of opposition forces deep in Assad-controlled territory, including southern Syria, that the government has to conquer in order to restore its control, as witnessed recently in the fierce fight in eastern Ghouta. Preparations for these upcoming battles have been preoccupying the Syrian Army and its allies.
Given these goals and Iranian-backed forces’ deep involvement in these key theaters, it is not a strategic priority for Iran to seek a conflict with Israel. Iran already has limited resources, and managing the multiple rival parties in Syria is what is keeping Iranian strategists up at night. That said, Iran is still keen to establish deterrence against Israel, with Quds Force Gen. Qassem Suleimani arguing in January that Israel is an aggressive power “with 300 nuclear warheads” and a propensity to carry out “preemptive strikes.”
Based on its historical behavior, Iran is not likely to abide by Israeli red lines that impair its broader goals in Syria. And to uphold the credibility of its deterrence doctrine, Tehran will feel compelled to retaliate against an Israeli attack. The Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has repeatedly stated that the time of “hit and run” is over, which means that if matters escalate, any strike on Iran will be followed by Iranian retaliation. If Iran blinks, it will cost the Islamic Republic heavily in terms of its reputation. This in turn raises the risks of an escalatory cycle that will be difficult to manage and underscores the need for extreme caution from both Israel and Iran in Syria.
As U.S. and Israeli policymakers assess Iranian intentions in Syria, they would be wise to remember that Tehran has successfully expanded its influence in power vacuums before. From Lebanon to Iraq to Yemen, Iran has made use of conflict zones that were not of its own making to further its strategic goals.
Given these precedents, Israel faces a conundrum. A stable and strong Syrian state is the best option for Israeli security — one that can more strongly restrain Iranian influence in the country and where there are no power vacuums for extremist terrorists such as the Islamic State to fill. On the other hand, a more forceful Israeli confrontation of Iran in Syria could undermine the possibility of a stable Syrian state — thus paving the way for Iran and its allies to fill the void and consolidate their position in Syria, sparking the inevitable conflicts that would ensue.
Payam Mohseni is the director of the Iran Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.