Hamid Rezai was among the latest batch of soldiers to die for Iran in Syria, killed by an alleged Israeli rocket attack on the T4 airbase near Homs. He was a 30-year-old native of the capital, Tehran, a pious young man whose father had also been a soldier and who left behind an infant daughter. At Rezai’s late April burial service, his weeping mother said there was no stopping him from volunteering to fight in Syria. “It offends me when people ask, ‘Why didn’t you stand in his way?’” she said, according to an account in the hard-line Mashregh News. “My son chose his own path.”
Rezai’s death added to the more than 2,000 Iranian military deaths in Syria since Tehran began pouring troops and tremendous amounts of resources into the country to defend the regime of Bashar al-Assad from an armed uprising. Israel is pressing Russia, the main powerbroker in Syria, and other international players to get Iran to leave Syria, threatening more strikes on Iranian positions near its border at the Golan Heights or anywhere inside the country should it remain. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listed Iran’s withdrawal from Syria as one of 12 preconditions for removing sanctions after the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal last month.
But Iranian officials and other experts say the country has invested too much blood and treasure — upwards of $30 billion to date — to fold to international demands, regardless of Israeli airstrikes, or even Moscow’s pressure. Having already made such a massive investment, Iran is determined to reap the potential long-term strategic rewards Syria has to offer — even if it comes at the expense of more lives and money in the short term.
“I don’t think Iran is willing to abandon its presence in Syria,” said the editor of a leading Tehran news outlet, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity. “It gives Iran good leverage against Israel. The ground is very important, and Iran is very skillful at managing the ground — the one area where even Russians are weak. The one who has control of the ground doesn’t take seriously those who don’t.”
Iran insists it is in Syria at the behest of Damascus and will only leave at its request. “As long as necessary and as long as terrorism exists there and the Syrian government wants us to do this, Iran will maintain its presence in Syria and will offer its contribution to the Syrian government,” said Bahram Qassemi, the spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, according to the BBC.
Assad said in a Russian TV interview this week that there have never been Iranian troops inside Syria. “We have Iranian officers who work with the Syrian army as help,” he said. “But they don’t have troops.”
Iran, along with its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, originally intervened in Syria to defend a regime that had long been its loyal ally at a time when much of the world had written off Assad as another casualty of the Arab Spring uprisings. Over the last seven years, the Iranian investment in Syria has escalated to billions of dollars in military and economic pursuits, sometimes intertwined. Iran has recruited and trained militia recruits from across the Middle East and South Asia deployed to Syria, and provided for the families of those killed. According to calculations by Mansour Farhang, a United States-based scholar and former Iranian diplomat, Iran has spent at least $30 billion on Syria in military and economic aid. The estimates by Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East scholar at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, are even higher, at $15 billion a year and some $105 billion in total. Either figure would be politically controversial at a volatile moment when Iranians at home are demanding accountability and fiscal prudence.
“They’ve made so much economic and political investment,” Farhang said. “It’s very difficult for them to pick up their bags and go home.”
Iranian forces currently operate out of 11 bases around the country, as well as nine military bases for Iranian-backed Shiite militias in southern Aleppo, Homs, and Deir Ezzor provinces as well as about 15 Hezbollah bases and observation points mostly along the Lebanese border and in Aleppo, according to Nawar Oliver, a military researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Istanbul.
Military analysts said Iran is already under Russian pressure to relocate troops and militias now in Syria’s south to Deir Ezzor, west of the Euphrates River. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned this week that Israel would strike against any attempt by Iran to “establish itself militarily” in Syria, “not just opposite the Golan Heights, but any place in Syria.” Former Israeli United Nations envoy Dore Gold insisted Netanyahu was not being hyperbolic, but meant the entire country. “From a clear military standpoint, Israel wants Iran out of Syria,” said Gold, now director of the Jerusalem Center, a think tank. “That means Syria within its boundaries.”
But Iran’s involvement in Syria goes beyond a conventional military presence, and it has already begun to plant there the seeds of its unique financial and ideological institutions. Along with about a dozen other Iran-linked organizations, the Iran-backed Jihad al-Binaa, the Islamic charitable foundation that financed and organized the reconstruction of southern Beirut after the 2006 summer war, is already working on large projects to rebuild schools, roads, and other infrastructure in Aleppo and other towns, as well as providing aid for the families of slain Iran-backed Syrian militiamen.
Iran’s deepening presence in Syria ties the regime ever closer to Tehran, giving Iran an expanded military footprint in the region as well as moving the venue of its longstanding grudge match with Israel closer to its rival’s border.
In recent months, Iranian companies won Syria deals that include providing tractors, mining phosphate, repairing electricity networks, and refining sugar. Based on estimates provided by Iranian officials, Iran appears to be exporting at least $150 million a year to Syria. Tehran has also loaned at least $4.5 billion to the Damascus regime since 2013.
Iran and its Syrian and Iraqi allies also control much of the Iraq-Syria border, the transit area for construction materials and energy imports, giving Tehran a key say in much of future of the country, and a way for Iran to recoup its extraordinary investment. “They control the road in the Syrian desert and control a crucial pipeline,” Oliver said. “In a way, no one can do a project without Iran being in the loop.”
The ongoing Syria intervention is not particularly popular at home in Iran. Protesters demanding social and economic change have repeatedly chanted slogans decrying Iran’s involvement in the conflict. Foreign Ministry officials sometimes squirm to defend the Iranian position, and top officials, including the late Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani have publicly questioned Tehran’s support for Assad, a dictator behind the slaughter and displacement of hundreds of thousands of his own people.
Still, the segment of the regime that holds its nose at the Iranian partnership with Assad has little power or say over the Syria intervention, which is overseen by Iranian deep state figures such as Qassem Suleimani, head of the Quds Force division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“I don’t think that segment of the regime would agree to a permanent disengagement from Syria,” said Sanam Vakil, a scholar at Chatham House. “I feel like that segment of the regime is ready for the risks. They’re going to try to play the slow and steady long game. Not in terms of bases necessarily, but personnel and some militias, and the economic investments.”
There have been numerous reports that Iran and Israel, through Jordanian or Russian intermediaries, have been attempting to sort out a modus vivendi over Syria. Ali Ansari, a scholar at St. Andrews University, suggested that Iran could be bought off if both Moscow and Damascus pressure it to leave. Already, some Syrian tender offers stipulate they are only for Iranian firms. “They would say, ‘mission accomplished,’ but now we’re going to get all these lucrative business contracts,” Ansari said. “They want to get some kind of benefit out of it.”
But while Iran doesn’t yet want to escalate the conflict with Israel over Syria, its presence there has changed the strategic regional balance of power. One Iranian military analyst described Syria as an “existential conflict” Tehran views as essential.
“Only a full military defeat of the Syrian government would force Iran to leave Syria,” said the analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
“The Iranians will not withdraw,” Shehadi said. “They may withdraw tactically with pressure from the Russians, just to calm things down. But they are there for largely strategic regional issues.”