Iran sees Syria’s future as its zombie state
The conflict in Syria seems to get worse every week. Yet in the West — occupied with Brexit or e-mail scandals — each new atrocity seems to generate a bored yawn rather than any motivation to do something to solve the crisis.
Into this vacuum have stepped Russia and Iran. Although they, particularly Iran have been around for a while, this lack of interest from the West — especially the United States — has allowed them to extend their influence in ways that promise to be long lasting for the entire region.
For Russia and its megalomaniac president, Vladimir Putin, the Syrian conflict is part of a long game against the West, which Putin seeks to destabilise with his every breath it seems.
The situation is different for Iran. It also wants to play the long game but with not quite the same goals as Putin. Iran has always seen the survival of Syrian President Bashar Assad as a key foreign, perhaps even domestic, policy goal. His demise would threaten its lifeline to Hezbollah and allow for greater Sunni dominance of the region. This explains Iran’s decision to help him almost from the moment the uprising started in Syria in 2011.
Iran has sent to Syria perhaps as many as 4,000 members of al-Quds Force, the external operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), and the Fatehin Brigade, made up of Iranian volunteers. Earlier this year, Iran also announced that members of Brigade 65, a special forces unit, had been sent to Syria, marking the first time that members of the regular army had fought outside Iran since the Iran-Iraq war 30 years ago.
Some experts put the number of Iran-connected dead in Syria at about 1,100 — around 350 are Iranian, the rest Afghan or Pakistani volunteers who joined the units to get citizenship in Iran. The dead include several senior military officers.
Iranian security and intelligence services are advising and assisting the Syrian military. Iran provides Assad’s regime with money — some estimate as much as $15 billion a year — to survive.
It adds up to a lot of blood and treasure. It is also the main reason that Iran is, well, not going home when the conflict finally ends.
Slowly but surely, Iran has taken over the situation in Syria, basically running the Syrian governmental ship with Assad as its very malleable puppet. There is not much he can do about this and word is that the Russians are not crazy about what they see happening as well. They got a taste of what Iran has planned when reports surfaced that the Iranian ambassador in Damascus decided on his own to appoint a new head of the Assad regime’s National Defence Forces in the nearby Druze city of Sweida.
For Iran, the conflict in Syria has been, in some ways, a godsend. It helped Tehran solidify its ability to supply its Lebanese Shia ally, Hezbollah. It has some of its own troops very close to the border with Israel, a fact that has not escaped Israel’s notice. It can have the more solid grasp on the port on the Mediterranean it has always wanted. And it has tossed a hand grenade into the long-standing regional power dynamics in a way that causes great concern in Riyadh and Washington.
There is no reason for Iran to go back to the old status quo. That serves neither its immediate nor long-term interests. Syria will become Iran’s zombie state, kept alive only by its hand.
A stronger and longer Iranian presence in Syria is an outcome that the United States, Saudi Arabia, Israel and even its erstwhile ally Russia will have to deal with in the new Middle East.