How has Iran’s role in the five-year Syria conflict evolved?
Assad is increasingly dependent on Iran militarily and financially, and Tehran does not see a viable alternative to the Alawite-dominated state
Iran’s role in Syria has significantly impacted the direction, magnitude and longevity of the conflict. Its role has evolved over the five years since the uprising began. With experience of cracking down on its own popular uprising in 2009-2010, Iran provided the Syrian government with technical support, social-media monitoring systems, surveillance, intelligence and advisory support to quell protests.
Tehran also needed to create a narrative for the conflict that would suit its interests. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and state-controlled media depicted other uprisings in the Arab world as an “Islamic awakening” emulating the 1979 Islamic revolution. However, when it came to Syria the narrative changed. The uprising is projected as a battle between a legitimate government and terrorist groups attempted to topple it.
As Damascus was unable to suppress the uprising, and as conflict spread nationwide, Iran’s role deepened. Its military establishments began dominating the Syrian security, military and intelligence infrastructures.
Iran’s Quds Force - which operates in foreign countries - sent thousands of troops to Syria, leading crucial battles against rebel groups. Its drones and advanced weaponry were ubiquitous. Tehran has spent billions of dollars since the start of the war in order to preserve its interests in Syria.
Nevertheless, as the Quds Force could not turn the tide, senior commanders from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) took over, turning the IRGC into a foreign interventionist force. Pubic funerals of its “volunteers” killed in Syria increased as a result, but President Bashar al-Assad did regain some lost territories.
To further bolster him, Tehran trained and oversaw the creation of the National Defense Forces, a domestic militia comprising tens of thousands of regime loyalists. However, the regime still faced critical challenges in maintaining control over major territories, so Iran summoned Shiite militias from across the region to fight in Syria, adding to the sectarian element of the war.
Tehran implored Russia to forge a military partnership to help the IRGC and Syrian troops gain ground. As the nuclear deal was reached, IRGC senior cadre became more public about their role in Syria.
Assad is increasingly dependent on Iran militarily and financially, and Tehran does not see a viable alternative to the Alawite-dominated state that would preserve its interests in Syria. Iran cannot afford to lose Syria, so it is using Assad to tip the balance of power against other regional powers and strengthen the Shiite axis. Any fundamental change in Syria’s political structure will directly and significantly threaten Iran’s national security.
Tehran’s role will continue to deepen. This will further militarize, radicalize and widen the conflict. A reformist presidency in Iran will not change the status quo. Though Iranian policy on Syria is formed by the supreme leader and senior IRGC officials, Iranian politicians across the spectrum agree on that policy. Moderate President Hassan Rouhani declared in June 2015 that Tehran would back Assad “until the end of the road.”
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