Iran doubles down in Syria

Iran doubles down in Syria
Analysis: Propping up Assad has enabled Tehran to enhance its influence in the Middle East, which is why Iranian leaders continue to justify their costly endeavor, writes Paul Iddon.
5 min read
12 January, 2017
Khamenei said fighting "terrorist" in Syria saves Iran from fighting them at home [Anadolu]
Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei again justified Tehran's involvement in the war in Syria this month by claiming, “If the ill-wishers and seditionists, who are the puppets of the US and Zionism, had not been confronted [in Syria], we should have stood against them in Tehran, Fars, Khorasan and Isfahan.”

Khamenei made these remarks while meeting the families of Iranian commandos recently slain in Syria, depicting their sacrifice as a necessary one against “Takfiri [those who label others as apostates] terrorists”, a term Tehran invariably uses to describe all of Assad's opponents.

At least 1,000 personnel deployed by Iran to Syria – including regular Iranian servicemen, paramilitaries and Afghan and Pakistani recruits – have lost their lives since the war began.

The Iranian ruler's claims are nothing new. Iran has often depicted its unrelenting support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as a necessary defensive measure for Iran itself, in spite of the fact Iran and Syria do not share a common border.

As Iranian casualties mount in Syria and Tehran's involvement becomes more costly it's no surprise Khamenei is doubling down on justifying this endeavour.

His justification is not a new one. A cleric named Hojjat al-Islam Mehdi Taeb went as far as calling Syria Iran's 35th province, arguing that Assad's continued rule is more important to Iran's security than the territorial integrity of Iran's southwestern Khuzestan frontier province.

“Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us,” Taeb said in February 2013. “If the enemy attacks us and wants to appropriate either Syria or Khuzestan, the priority is that we keep Syria.”

He justified this remarkable comment by adding, “If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too, but if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.”

Iran is also doubling down on Hizballah's continued presence in Syria. Ali Akbar Velayati, a key advisor to Khamenei, also dismissed the prospect of Hizballah leaving Syria as part of the upcoming Syria negotiations between Iran, Russia and Turkey as “mere propaganda by the enemy.”

Hizballah – which has lost at least 1,000 of its men in Syria since intervening in 2013 – chose to hold its “Martyr Day” celebrations in the Sunni Syrian town of Qusayr (which they captured from the Syrian rebels and Nusra militants in June 2013) on November 11, with a military parade.
Hizballah has lost at least 1,000 of its fighters in Syria [AFP]

This was the first time they ever held a military parade outside of Lebanon. The Shia militia also depicts its involvement in Syria as a self-defensive measure.

Since the beginning of the war in Syria and the subsequent Islamic State (IS) war, Tehran has expanded its visible presence across the region.

Commander of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) extraterritorial Quds Force, Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, never tried to conceal his travels across the region in recent years: from overseeing Iraqi Shia Hashd al-Shaabi militia offensives against IS in Iraq to the Syrian regimes' siege in Aleppo, which was backed heavily by Iranian Shia militias.

On the contrary, he frequently stopped for selfies. During the battle against IS for the Iraqi city of Tikrit in March 2015 the Quds commander, a veteran of the eight-year Iran Iraq War, was photographed smiling while walking around the former Iraqi dictator's hometown. A very striking, albeit symbolic, example of how far Iran has come since those war years.

US military action in Afghanistan and Iraq removed two of Iran's enemies from power, the Taliban and Saddam Hussein.

The latter's overthrow resulted in the ascent of Iraq's Shia Arab majority to political power for the first time in Iraq's nation-state history.

While Iran strongly influences Shia factions in Iraq, Baghdad is by no means a vassal of Tehran, nevertheless it no longer constitutes a threat to Tehran.
Since the early days of the incumbent regime in Tehran, the Assad family regime has proven an instrumentally valuable strategic ally
Since the early days of the incumbent regime in Tehran, the Assad family regime has proven an instrumentally valuable strategic ally.

It helped the Iranians exert pressure on Saddam's Iraq, by closing down a key Iraqi oil pipeline that ran through Syrian territory, and also served as a conduit for Tehran's arming and training of the then nascent Hizballah militia in Lebanon, who were fighting the Israeli Army in Lebanon's south.

Given this history, many in Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) undoubtedly feel it is their moral obligation to prop up Assad today.

Losing Syria to a Sunni-majority uprising would likely have compromised Iran's access to Lebanon. Propping up Assad more directly, however, has enabled Tehran to enhance its access to the wider region.

A report in The Guardian newspaper recently claimed that Tehran is using its proxies in both Iraq and Syria to establish a corridor stretching from Iran's own border to the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, a regime stronghold.

Such a land-corridor would also increase Iran's access to its Hizballah proxy in Lebanon.

As one analysis on this development noted: “Although a land bridge might not be of major significance to Tehran in terms of transferring weapons, it would provide a larger platform for projecting power and establishing an uninterrupted Iranian presence in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.”

With such a ripe opportunity to exponentially expand its influence and presence across the region to such a hitherto unprecedented degree, it is no surprise Iran's ruler is justifying the human costs required to do so.

Paul Iddon is a freelance journalist based in Erbil, Iraqi Kurdistan, who writes about Middle East affairs.

Follow him on Twitter: @pauliddon