Iran’s attempts to ideologically dominate Syria

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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For the last two-and-a-half years, since the popular uprising erupted in various cities across Syria, the leaders of the Islamic Republic of Iran have repeatedly denied any claim of military involvement in Syria. Iran’s defense minister, Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi, has frequently been cited for rejecting claims that the Iran has troops in any part of Syria.

Additionally, Iranian leaders have long denied any intention to send troops or army units into Syria to defend the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Vahidi has pointed out that the Syrian government does not require any troops, army, or military units. He has stated: “we believe that the Syrian government and army have the ability and strength to confront these terrorists.”

On the other hand, Syrian opposition groups and rebels have long held the claim that Tehran is assisting Assad’s state apparatus not only financially and in an advisory capacity, but also with regards to intelligence and militarily. Yet, although there have been various reports and claims that Iran has been backing up Assad militarily, there has not been any concrete or tangible evidence to corroborate the reports. Iranian leaders prefer operating behind the scenes, in clandestine moves through proxies to avoid public knowledge of their real geopolitical and ideological intentions.

However, this all changed when a cameraman- who was embedded in an army unit and later killed because of his actions- captured footage of Iranians and Persian-speaking advisers training and fighting alongside the Syrian army.

Since President Hassan Rowhani- the centrist, moderate cleric, and so called “diplomatic Sheikh”- came to power, Iran has become increasingly militarily involved in various cities across Syria. Furthermore, there have been persistent and credible reports that Iran has increased the amount of arms deliveries to the Assad regime over the past year.

The footage and remarks by the Iranian and Persian-speaking officers represent a broader ideological and military framework held by the Iranian ruling clerics.

First of all, the footage shows that the Iranian officers are indeed part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps. The revolutionary guard has an elite overseas operations arm, the Quds Force, those officers in Syria most probably come from this force. Furthermore, this sends strong indications that when it comes to Iran’s military, financial and advisory support of Assad’s regime, the final authority and power rests in decisions made by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, the supreme leader’s office, and the Islamic Republic of Iran’s intelligence, Etela’at.

Any softening of tone utilized by Rowhani and his American-educated foreign minister, Javad Zarif, would not represent any actual change in Tehran’s foreign policy towards Syria. The conciliatory tone used by Rowhani and his foreign minister is primarily a strategy of playing the game of politics.

Any softening of tone utilized by Rowhani and his American-educated foreign minister, Javad Zarif, would not represent any actual change in Tehran’s foreign policy towards Syria

Majid Rafizadeh

Only last week, Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, told a gathering of top and ruling clerics in Tehran that Iran would support President Assad “to the end.” The leaders and decision-makers of the nation have been very clear about their geopolitical stance towards Syria; Tehran has repeatedly vowed that it will never allow the Assad regime to collapse.

Along with sending advanced military equipment and troops, Tehran continues to give millions of dollars of credit to shore up Syrian funding in order to support its army budget and Assad’s economy.

In addition, this conflict brings about the ideological aspect of Iranian clerical involvement in Syria. The officer in the footage points out, “the war is that of Islam versus the nonbelievers. Good versus evil,” later adding, “this front is supported by Hezbollah. The fighters are Iranians, Hezbollah, the Iraqi and Afghan Mujahideen, and others. The opponents are Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar… funded by the Emirates, plus America, England, France and Europe.” In response to an interview question, the Iranian officer points out that they are on the side of good because they follow the orders of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

This is indicative of the ideological beliefs held by the supreme leader, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and Tehran’s ruling coalition claiming that they are the “true” Muslims, while the rest of the world, including Westerners, countries in the region and other Arab states are nonbelievers. According to these leaders, the genuine and correct form of religious and ideological belief is that of Shiism.

The Islamic Republic of Iran has moved beyond its political and military role engaging in a proxy war in Syria to dominating the top military, decision-making and command apparatuses of the Assad regime. Tehran’s military, political and economic dominance in various parts of Syria has become increasingly prominent.

Under the presidency of Hassan Rowhani, the shift in Iran’s foreign policy towards Syria has become manifested in an increase of arms deliveries, billions of dollars of credit to the Assad regime and a concentrated attempt to totally dominate Syria geopolitically and ideologically.


Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American scholar is president of the International American Council based in Washington DC. He is on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University and a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Formerly, he served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and served as a scholar at Oxford University. He can be reached at [email protected]. Twitter: @MajidRafizadeh

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