Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Tehran’s waning strategy in Damascus

Whether or not it cooperates with Russia, Iran is beginning to run out of options in Syria, writes Lina Khatib

Al-Ahram Weekly

Iran has been investing significant resources in the Syrian conflict since the early days of the uprising in 2011. This support is not so much about Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad as about maintaining Iranian interests in the Levant, however.

Syria is the lifeline for Iran’s ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah. It is through Syria that Iran sends weapons to the group. While Iran’s strategy towards Syria has certainly helped keep Al-Assad in power, it has failed to eradicate his enemies or winning pro-regime hearts and minds.

Now, with Russian intervention in Syria growing, Iran’s strategy in Syria is facing even greater challenges than before.

Iran’s deployment of Qassem Suleimani, the leader of the Al-Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), to mastermind creative ways of supporting the Syrian army has helped the regime’s forces fight the rebel groups. But the methods used by Iran in Syria have been neither wholly original nor entirely successful.

The crackdown that Iran advised Al-Assad to use against peaceful protesters in 2011 was a replica of what Iran did with its own dissidents back in 2009, but in this case it failed to suppress the Syrian uprising.

Iran later paralleled the summoning of Hezbollah to fight inside Syria when Al-Assad’s troops failed to crush what had become a militarised opposition with an attempt to create a Syrian version of Hezbollah. But both versions suffered significant losses among their ranks of fighters in their battles with Syrian rebels.

Iran also played the sectarian card by starting a process of Shia-isation inside Syria in a bid to cultivate grassroots-level loyalty in a country that, unlike Lebanon, does not have a sizeable Shia community. This process was coupled with increased propaganda about the rise of what Iran called “takfiri jihadist” Sunni groups and their threat to stability in the Middle East.

Although groups such as the Islamic State (IS) do indeed present a security risk, Iran’s invocation of them was more geared towards legitimising its intervention in Syria and covering up its attacks on the moderate Syrian opposition.

Syria also witnessed a loose replication of the model of the Iranian Basij militia with Iran’s sponsorship of the creation of the National Defence Forces (NDF) in Syria, which are citizen militias loyal to the Al-Assad regime. The NDF carries sectarian undertones since the majority of its members are from non-Sunni communities.

Iran’s sectarianization of Syria has continued with attempts at population transfers. Iran has proposed moving Shia residents out of the villages of Kefraya and Foua in Idlib Province and into the border town of Zabadani, while transferring Zabadani’s Sunni population to Sunni-majority areas like Hama.

With Idlib being mostly under the control of Sunni Islamist groups and Zabadani lying on the border with Lebanon, such a population transfer would help consolidate Iran’s control over what it regards as strategic areas that are either regime strongholds or located on essential supply routes for the regime and its allies.

Having the residents of such areas as hardcore loyalists would allow Iran to exert the kind of influence that Hezbollah currently exerts in southern Lebanon. The dominant faction in southern Lebanon today is the pro-Hezbollah Shia population.

This is despite the persistence of communities from Christian, Druze, and Sunni backgrounds in the area, as well as Shiites who are not affiliated with Hezbollah. No population transfer policy has been actively pursued there.

To counter the negative associations of the sectarianism of this approach, Iran later tried to create a Syrian version of Hezbollah’s “Saraya Al-Moqawama” (Resistance Brigades). The Syrian version, militias called “Keshab,” involves Sunni and Alawite youths as well as members from other communities. However, the Saraya Al-Moqawama has proven to be a rather unconvincing effort to present Hezbollah as being inclusive of all Lebanese.

If Iran’s strategy in Syria continues to echo the Lebanese model, then one can safely assume that it will not be in Iran’s interests for Syrian state institutions to be strong. In Lebanon, as well as in Iraq, Iran’s sponsorship of nonstate actors has been a way to exert pressure on the government, even if the government itself may be pro-Iranian.

Heightened sectarianism will also lead Syria towards fragmentation, especially since extremist groups like IS capitalise on sectarian divisions to increase their power.

Iran’s strategy has only been partially successful. So far, Iran’s support has been fundamental for keeping the Al-Assad regime alive.

However, despite all its investment, Iran has not been able to shift the trajectory of the conflict as a whole to its benefit. Moreover, Al-Assad loyalists are mostly secular. To them, there is little appeal in Iran’s sectarian-based approach and the way it would set the scene for Syria’s future.

Russia’s approach to Syria is based on retaining strong state institutions. Because of this, Russia’s increased military intervention in Syria has been mostly welcomed by regime supporters. To them, an increased presence for Russia in Syria does not mean lifestyle changes, especially since there are longstanding links between the Syrian military and Russia that go all the way back to the days of the former Soviet Union, during which a large number of Syrian officers trained in Moscow and even returned to Syria with Russian wives.

Pro-regime Syrians tolerated the alliance with Iran before 2011 because it was deemed beneficial, and they acquiesced to the change in power dynamics between Damascus and Tehran after 2011 out of necessity. The Russian intervention, even though it is also not well thought out and is likely to lead Russia down a regrettable path, presents these Syrians with a more attractive alternative.

Although Iran appealed to Russia for increased help this summer, out of recognition that its own strategy was not succeeding, Russia has not been making an effort to fully secure Iranian interests in Syria. Eighteen high-level Iranian officers have been killed in Syria, the most recent being Hossein Hamedani, who led the “Keshab” initiative.

Iran is beginning to run out of options in Syria. If it cooperates with the Russian military intervention by supplying ground troops to support the Russian air force this will result in still more Iranian lives being lost. If it does not coordinate with Russia, it will find itself marginalised by both Russia and Al-Assad supporters.

And in either case, despite the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition it will continue to exert significant pressure on the regime and its allies. In short, Iran’s strategy in Syria is on the wane.


The writer is a senior research associate with the Arab Reform Initiative.


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