‘Iranization’ of Syria: Why has the conflict lasted so long?

Four years since the uprising erupted in of Syria, President Bashar al-Assad remains in his palatial residence

Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
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As the nuclear talks between the six world powers (known as the P5+1: referring to the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany) and Iran have gone under the international spotlight, the continuing support of the Iranian government for President Bashar al Assad and his governmental apparatuses have been overshadowed by the international community, and particularly the United States.

Next week marks the fourth anniversary of the Syrian uprising. The uprising initiated by some schoolboys writing their demands for freedom and justice on walls in the southern city of Deraa. The Syrian police and mukhabart (Syrian intelligence) responded by mass arrests and torture. Syrian people who were inspired by the other popular uprisings across the Arab world, went to the streets calling for the release of political prisoners and for political reforms.

If it was not for Tehran’s military, economic, political, advisory, and intelligence support, would Assad have lasted more than his counterpart leaders in Egypt or Tunisia?

Majid Rafizadeh

The Syrian regime responded by bullets, tanks, gun-fire and hard power. Some cosmetic and superficial promises were also made by the Syrian president in order to appease the international community and avoid the same fate that Hosni Mubarak and Zine El-Abedine Ben Ali faced. However, the protests spread across the country, even in the Latakia- the home base of the Alawites- people demonstrated against the Alawite mafia groups and the widespread corruption.

Many scholars, politicians, and policy analysts believed that the Syrian regime would be toppled in a matter of weeks, since more iron-fisted leaders, as seen in Tunisia and Egypt, were overthrown in a few months.

The direction of the Syrian conflict as well as the hopes of many Syrian people who demanded freedom and political reforms were shattered when Shiite regional power Iran entered the political game, vowing to protect President Assad and his state forces at any cost.

Now, it is four years since the uprising erupted in of Syria, and President Bashar al-Assad remains in his palatial residence in Damascus, holding power.

The fourth anniversary of the uprising

As Iran ratcheted up its support for the Syrian regime, the government forces increased their deployment of hard power. Soon, the demonstrations of hundreds of people who demanded the rule of law and justice, turned into a vicious civil war.

The Islamic Republic began by sending military and political advisors to Damascus. As Syrian forces proved to be insufficient in the fight against the opposition, Tehran did not hesitate to send thousands of its trained officers from the Quds Forces- a wing of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps operating in foreign countries- to back President Assad.

The deployment of its own national forces was not sufficient for Tehran. Iran was still determined to keep its vow and prevent Assad from losing the throne. The IRGC officers turned to other powerful regional Shiite groups such as Hezbollah to join the conflict. Hezbollah fighters were now on the frontline of the battles.

The conflict took another facet: a sectarian nature fueling the war. Tehran began investing in paramilitary fighters in Syria, known as the National Defense Forces. As the death toll, the need for urgent humanitarian assistance, and number of people fleeing their homes skyrocketed, the Islamic Republic still saw no need to alter its foreign policy of supporting Assad.

In fact, in order to prevent the economic collapse of the Syrian regime, billions of dollars in credit and oil began pouring into the Syrian government. Iran’s military, economic, political, advisory, and intelligence support of Assad became indisputable.

Red lines

Iran drew a red line: any party fighting with Assad is now battling, and an enemy of, the Islamic Republic.

If it was not for Tehran’s military, economic, political, advisory, and intelligence support, would Assad have lasted more than his counterpart leaders in Egypt or Tunisia?

If it was not for Iran’s robust backing of Assad, would the world have seen the following tragic facts and staggering numbers in a country which originally had a population of 23 million before the war:

- More than 200,000 people have been killed and approximately 1 million wounded inside the country

- An estimated 9 million Syrian people (roughly 45%) have fled their homes, so far. If we make an analogy, this would be an equivalence of 140 million Americans having fled their homes.

- More than 3 million Syrians have fled to neighboring countries (Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq.)

- An estimated of one-third of the population is displaced internally requiring urgent and basic humanitarian assistance such as food, water, medical support, and shelter.

- Schools, hospitals, historical sites, and cities have been destroyed. The lost generation of the Syrian children, who were supposed to be the next leaders of their country dreaming to be doctors, entrepreneurs, teachers, and nurses, are growing up without experiencing sitting in classrooms or any school education.

Although one might make the argument that Iran cannot be blamed for all these tragedies, Tehran’s support for Assad and his forces have directly impacted the militarized character, viciousness and direction of the civil war. Without the robust and unshakable support of Tehran, Assad’s fate would have resembled that of Mubarak and Ben Ali.

As the international community, and particularly the United States, are silent and soft on Iran when it comes to its military, economic, and intelligence support of Assad, there is no pressure on the Islamic Republic to shift its support of Assad. Thus it follows that the Syrian civil war will continue, the death toll with increase, and there exists no end to the conflict anytime soon.


Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-American political scientist and scholar at Harvard University, is president of the International American Council. Rafizadeh serves on the board of Harvard International Review at Harvard University. He is also a member of the Gulf project at Columbia University. Rafizadeh served as a senior fellow at Nonviolence International Organization based in Washington DC. He has been a recipient of several scholarships and fellowship including from Oxford University, Annenberg University, University of California Santa Barbara, and Fulbright Teaching program. He served as ambassador for the National Iranian-American Council based in Washington DC, conducted research at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and taught at University of California Santa Barbara through Fulbright Teaching Scholarship. He can be reached at [email protected]

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