Iran’s gamble on Syria: A ‘lose-lose’ game
Those who observed Iranian mass protests following the disputed 2009 presidential elections may remember the protesters’ famous slogan in the rallies: “No to Gaza. No to Lebanon. My life only for Iran” as a clear note of displeasure towards the government’s generous support for Hezbollah and Hamas, spending of millions of petrodollars on arming the groups, while people in Iran were suffering from economic problems.
The message, however, fell on deaf ears. Plans by Iranian rulers to open a new front in Syria can impose even worse consequences for Tehran as compared to Lebanon and Palestinian groups.
Iran’s military presence in Syria is not a secret. Time after time we see the official media publishing stories about the members of Iran’s Islamic Republican Guards Corps (IRGC) — “Defenders of the Holy Shrine” as Iranian officials say — being killed in Syria.
The death toll has risen sharply in recent weeks, simultaneous with Russia’s air strikes on Syrian opposition, which is a significant sign of the increasing military presence of Iranian forces.
There are rumours that hundreds of Iranian troops have arrived in Syria to join a major ground offensive in support of President Bashar Assad’s government, while Russia provides air support. Fighters from Tehran’s Lebanese ally Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militia are also present.
Tehran, however, rejects reports of its forces being directly involved in the Syrian civil war but confirms that it will increase its “advisory support” to the Syrian Army.
Until now, Tehran has mostly tried the option of proxy forces, including Hezbollah, Afghan and Iraqi Shia militias, to reduce its own casualties.
However, if Iran’s role in the Syrian conflict increases, and the country gets directly involved, the situation could quickly spiral out of control. The increasing death toll and heavy economic costs, which have been kept away from the public eye, could lead to a widespread negative reaction among Iranians, even among the ruling circles, who are already unsatisfied with the government’s policy on Syria.
On the other hand, a direct military intervention in Syria could intensify the Shia-Sunni confrontation, a frightening prospect that could drag the entire region into a major conflict with unforeseen results for the Islamic Republic, which already suffers problems with its Sunni minority.
Iran’s gamble is dangerous as it can harm the recently achieved nuclear deal with the West as well. There is no doubt that, if the ongoing situation continues, Tehran will enter a military coalition with Moscow in Syria, which will lead to closer ties and economic cooperation and can thwart efforts made to resume cooperation with the West following the nuclear deal.
It will make Iranian President Hassan Rohani’s middle-class voters unsatisfied and his position more fragile against the domestic conservative rivals.
So, the Syrian crisis has become an insecure gamble for the Islamic Republic; yet, for the time being, the gamble looks attractive thanks to Russian air strikes. However, it could turn into a nightmare in the long term.
Russia has its own interests in Syria and may even leave Iran halfway in the middle of the war depending on Ukraine and Crimea as bargaining chips.
Having no alternative for Assad was Tehran’s big strategic failure from the beginning of the protests in Syria. By offering an alternative for Assad in the early stage of protests in Syria, as it did in Iraq by withdrawing support for Nuri al-Maliki, Tehran might have prevented the military conflict that has imposed irreparable consequences for all the parties involved.
Finally, if we assume the impossible and consider that Iran will come out victorious, keep the Assad regime and leave behind cities in ruins and millions of people displaced, can we really call it a victory?