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Why Iran’s involvement in Syria may backfire

- June 12, 2018
A convoy of Syrian government forces and police hold portraits of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as they enter a village May 15 in the northern countryside of Homs province, Syria. (SANA/AP)

It is a commonly held view that Iran has emerged as a winner from the war that has raged in Syria since 2011. Though the survival of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is now virtually guaranteed, this is a Pyrrhic victory: Iran has been dragged into a costly quagmire with no end in sight.

Iran is obliged to remain in Syria for years — possibly decades — with Russia, to prop up a hollowed-out and brutally corrupt regime. This is a classic case of mission creep: Iran intervened lightly to support its ally but got dragged into an ever-costlier spiral from which it cannot extricate itself.

Iranian gains …

Iran has undeniably made important gains. It is deeply involved in Syria; its officers are embedded throughout the Syrian military and have gained important influence over pro-Assad forces. Iranian-backed militias play a decisive role in the regime’s efforts to roll back the armed opposition. Iran is increasingly penetrating the Syrian war economy, building assets that it will be able to leverage after the war.

The National Defence Forces (NDF), a coalition of Iranian-backed local militias, is likely to remain in Syria beyond the war. Inspired by the Hezbollah model, Iran will possibly encourage the NDF to form a political movement. This has already begun: the Local Defence Forces, another Iranian-backed umbrella of groups, has been providing social services in Aleppo since the city was taken by the regime. Moreover, the thousands of Iran-backed foreign Shiite militia fighters will remain useful tools for Tehran to project its influence in postwar Syria (for those who remain) but also in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, where returnees could be remobilized to advance Iranian interests.

Iran is also gaining tremendous fighting experience. Iran has demonstrated, in particular, that it can sustain the long-term deployment of thousands of troops in a war zone. The regime has learned important lessons regarding the politics, economics and logistics of sending troops abroad, which will boost its ability to project expeditionary power in the future.

… but a costly intervention

Yet as I argue elsewhere, this has been costly. Pre-2011 Syria will not reemerge: Assad has survived, but he faces continuing insurgencies, and the country will remain focused on the extraordinarily difficult processes of stabilization and reconstruction. Assad’s Syria was Iran’s only state ally and its essential partner in pressuring Israel and the United States. A weakened Assad will damage Iran’s ability to project influence in the region.

When the situation in Syria escalated, Hamas sided with the opposition against its Iranian patron. Iran soon cut its support in response. Despite attempts at rapprochement, the relationship is unlikely to return to what it was before 2011. Iran’s remaining Palestinian partner, Islamic Jihad, is a smaller group focused on violent militancy and has a narrower support base. This degrades Iran’s ability to pressure Israel.

Hezbollah gained fighting experience and acquired new advanced weapons, thanks to the war, but the movement has suffered as many as 2,000 combat deaths, including senior commanders, and as many as 5,000 injured. The war is also been politically costly: Hezbollah’s soft power has been damaged, as it is now viewed less as the front-line resistance against Israel and more the lifeline of a regime fighting Sunnis. Being bogged down in Syria also constrains its ability to confront Israel.

Russia’s intervention has transformed Assad’s survival prospects by tilting the balance of power in favor of the Damascus-Tehran-Moscow axis. Yet Russian gains do not translate in a 1-to-1 ratio as gains for Iran: Russian gains come partly at the expense of Iran.

The two put aside their differences and, recognizing the need to work together, deepened ties to unprecedented levels. Down the road, however, there is scope for growing tension as both seek to emerge as the dominant external player in Syria. Iran’s vision of a decentralized Syria, in particular, is likely to clash with Russia’s preference for a stronger central government. Russia is also more sensitive to Israel and Saudi Arabia’s interests and is more willing to negotiate with the United States.

Since its 1979 revolution, Iran positions itself as the vanguard of resistance against U.S. and Israeli policies. Its ability to rally Muslims was always more rhetorical than real. Nevertheless, it enjoyed support among Muslim populations, especially in times of crisis. Iran systematically tried to leverage this soft power to pressure pro-American rivals, though its ability to do so has, in practice, been limited. Yet Iran’s reputation — such as it was — has been damaged, especially among Sunni Arabs, as it is seen as propping up a regime trying to crush a mostly Sunni opposition.

Looking ahead

Iran has undeniably made gains in Syria, especially now that the survival of the Assad regime is guaranteed for the foreseeable future.

Its seemingly permanent commitment to Syria is costly. Iran and its allies have been lining up tactical military victories on the battlefield since 2015. But these do not amount to winning the war: Assad is not strong enough to eliminate the opposition, and there is little to suggest that he has the ability or willingness to lead the process of rebuilding the country.

Iran — and Russia — in this sense are responsible for a devastated country ripped apart along sectarian, regional and political fault lines suffering from a humanitarian disaster of epic proportions. Syria’s GDP is slashed by as much as 75 percent, about 70 percent of Syrians live in extreme poverty, unemployment is near 60 percent, more than 400,000 are dead — and half the country’s population has been forcibly displaced. Reconstruction will cost hundreds of billions, which neither Syria nor Iran and Russia have and which the international community will be reluctant to provide.

What remains of the Assad regime is deeply divided and hollowed out: Army commanders and pro-Assad militia leaders have mostly become self-financed local warlords who thrive on corruption, violence and racketeering, and often do not take orders from Damascus. Rebuilding the country will be exceedingly difficult. And Syria, it is worth emphasizing, is Iran’s only state ally in the Middle East.

Thomas Juneau is an assistant professor at the University of Ottawa’s Graduate School of Public and International Affairs.