Too many stakes for Iran to back out from Syria

For Tehran, battling a runaway rial and facing potentially ruinous US sanctions, Syria’s peace dividend could prove vital.
Sunday 25/11/2018
Syrian President Bashar Assad (R) meets with Iranian Assistant Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hussein Gabri Ansari in Damascus, on November 12. (AFP)
Seeds of trouble. Syrian President Bashar Assad (R) meets with Iranian Assistant Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Hussein Gabri Ansari in Damascus, on November 12. (AFP)

SILEMA - Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has voiced his opinion to the Knesset that Russia would not be able to dislodge its partner, Iran, from Syria, despite international hopes to the contrary.

The country lies in ruins after years of brutal civil war. But Tehran’s presence throughout Syria, as well as close to the locus of power in Damascus, could shape the contours of more troubles in Syria for years to come.

Numerous operations carried out by the Syrian regime close to the Israeli border over the summer, with apparent Iranian support, have cast more doubts on assumptions about the Russians dislodging the Iranians.

“Iran continues to have significant influence in Syria given that it has provided much of the manpower to support the Assad regime and push back other groups,” said Ariane Tabatabai, a political scientist at the RAND Corporation. “But since Russia has become involved there, Tehran has lost some ground to Moscow given that it can’t match the Russian political clout.”

Iran’s investment in the Syrian war and in the survival of the country’s president has been significant and with the conflict seemingly reaching its final stages, Tehran is unlikely to quit the country now. “Iran has made a major manpower contribution to the regime’s counterinsurgency,” Jeffrey Martini, a Middle East analyst also with the RAND Corporation, told The Arab Weekly. “So even then the Syrian government and its Russian ally would be hard pressed to bring about a total withdrawal.”

Though Iranian manpower within Syria remains limited, its use of militias, including its Lebanese ally Hezbollah, has been extensive, giving Tehran a significant degree of influence. According to a report by the Centre for Strategic and International Studies earlier this year, Hezbollah has between 7,000 and 10,000 fighters in Syria. This is in addition to other Iran-sponsored militias, such as the National Defence Forces, that support the regime.

Hoping to dislodge Iran from its Syrian nest are the approximate 2,000 US service personnel, who with their Kurdish partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) occupy large swathes of the country’s land to the east of the Euphrates. “US policy in Syria has changed from a counter-ISIS campaign towards one designed to push back Iran — one that is premised on the idea of waiting out Iranian withdrawal from Syria,” Tabatabai said. “So, as the policy is implemented and since Iran isn’t going anywhere, US positions will likely adapt to meet this objective.”

According to Russian estimates, between $200 billion and $500 billion will be needed for the reconstruction of Syria, with everything from power plants to new shipping lines on the table. For Tehran, battling a runaway rial and facing potentially ruinous US sanctions, Syria’s peace dividend could prove vital. “For months now, Iranian businesses have been working to establish themselves in the country, concluding contracts and MOUs (memos of understanding),” Tabatabai said. “A combination of factors drive this policy: The sanctions and loss of other markets, Iran’s decision to focus on the region (economically) to overcome the impact of sanctions and the domestic push towards a more transparent economy, at times geared towards the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps).”

However, Iran may not be without competition. For the neighbouring nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), Syria cannot become a further rogue state, undermined by the presence of Iranian militias operating freely within its borders. “I think everyone’s looking at reconstruction in a very opportunistic way,” Sanam Vakil, a senior fellow at Chatham House, said. “For the GCC especially, they’re hoping to create some kind of leverage that they use to check the Iranians. They really don’t want another Hezbollah active within the region.”

With so many forces arrayed against them, Iran’s continued bootprint in Syria may seem unlikely. However, having committed so heavily to the conflict, Iranian policymakers probably won’t back away now. “The outer edge of what is possible is a reduction of Iranian presence, limits on Iranian basing inside Syria and limits on the sophistication of weapons being transferred to Hezbollah and other Iranian-aligned forces,” Martini said.

15