• Omar Imady

The Iran Deal ... Implications for Syria?

We recently asked our scholars to comment on the possible implications of the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1. These are some of the responses we have so far received:

Iran will not compromise on Syria Thomas Pierret - Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Edinburgh, https://twitter.com/thomaspierret

The recent nuclear deal has revived hopes that Iran would prove more open than before to the idea of a negotiated solution to the Syrian war.* However, a close examination of the interests Tehran is defending in Syria, and of the means it possesses to preserve them, suggests that Asad’s patron is unlikely to change course in the now four-year old conflict. As a consequence, the most probable outcome of the nuclear deal will be to provide Iran with additional financial means to militarily shore up its Syrian protégé.

For Iran, what is at stake in Syria is both huge and remarkably narrow: it is Hezbollah. For sure, the alliance with Damascus used to mean more than that for the Islamic Republic, namely, a significant foothold in an otherwise largely hostile Arab state system. Yet, as Syria turned into a failed state beyond repair, its status in regional politics shifted from that of key player to everyone’s battlefield. For Iran, therefore, the only value of those parts of Syria that remain controlled by Asad is that they constitute Hezbollah’s strategic depth. This strategic depth is not conceived as a mere buffer zone protecting the Shia militia’s dominant position in Lebanon from a potentially hostile post-Assad Syrian regime. Rather, its purpose is to enable Hezbollah to sustain an arms race with Israel by providing state-of-the art weaponry like ballistic and surface-to-air missiles, and resupply in case of a remake of the July 2006 war. In other words, Iran wants a Syrian regime that is not only a neutral, harmless neighbour to Hezbollah, but a proactive strategic ally that puts its ports, airspace, airports, military roads, defence industry, and secret warehouses in service of Nasrallah’s movement.

From that angle, it is clear that for Iran, the Syrian conflict is a zero-sum game because no genuine, that is, inclusive, transition could salvage Teheran’s interests in the country. Were such a transition to happen, Iran’s strategic assets in Syria would face multiple threats from the formerly oppositionist component of the new regime, ranging from critical intelligence leaks to direct military action. In principle, there would be three ways to avoid this, all of which are, in practice, fanciful. First, the new power structure could be designed in such a way that ex-opponents abandon the control of the entire military apparatus to former regime members. In a mukhbarat state whose civilian institutions were long hollowed out by military strongmen, then further weakened by the civil war, this would mean that former opponents would actually exert close to zero power. In other words, such a “transition” would not be a genuine one, and would consequently be rejected by any credible opponent.

Imagining that powerful popular constituencies could pressure former opponents into protecting Iran’s military assets is equally ludicrous. Despite long-standing ties with Syria’s political-military elite, Iran largely failed to acquire meaningful influence within the country’s society. Most of its investments in Syrian economy went through regime members and cronies, rather than through more grassroots networks like those that link the broader private sector to Turkey. Iranian-funded hawzat and shrines essentially catered for a non-Syrian public, and were largely perceived among religious-minded Sunnis as evidence of the regime’s pro-Shia sectarian bias. What remains, thus, is sheer hard power in the form of direct Iranian support for the remnants of the Syrian military and its increasingly powerful auxiliary militias. Yet, the latter principally recruit among a narrow constituency of minorities that would be largely outweighed, in a post-war order, by those who see Iran as an evil empire that bankrolled Asad’s killing of hundreds of thousands, displacement of millions, and destruction of much of the country’s infrastructures.

A third possibility would be for the former opponents’ external patrons to see to it that their Syrian clients do not harm Iranian interests. This hypothesis is even more absurd than the previous ones, since none seriously believes that Iran could ever see the USA or Saudi Arabia as trustful custodians of Hezbollah’s supply lines in Syria.

Whether the opponents that take part in a Syrian transition are “moderates” or “radicals” actually matters very little to Iran: it is any move towards power-sharing that is intolerable to it, as it would be incompatible with the preservation of its core interests in Damascus. Therefore, the only way Iranian influence in Syria can be shared is in a territorial way, that is, as many recent reports indicate, by falling back on a pro-Iranian rump state along Lebanon’s border, and gradually abandoning the country’s peripheries to the opposition. This will be a costly option for Teheran, as it implies a long-term commitment to fund Asad’s war effort and make up for his increasingly acute manpower shortage. Yet, this choice might be less unrealistic than it appears. First, the military standing of loyalist forces remains extremely strong in Damascus and Homs. This results from the concentration of the largest and best part of pro-regime troops in these regions, but also from the fact that displacement has made local Sunni communities easier to manage for counter-insurgents: many left the country, and others have regrouped in population centres that are kept in check through siege and bombardment. Second, Teheran can count on the fact that Western powers are far more concerned with the putative consequences of Asad’s fall than with the apocalyptic cost of its survival. In particular, the Western countries’ tendency to see Asad as a bulwark against Jihadi expansion, rather than as root cause of the latter, means that they are already de facto committed to the preservation of the incumbent regime, hence to the success of the Iranian strategy.

There is no political solution in Syria without Iran, but the latter is unlikely to get on board in the foreseeable future. In practice, this leaves Western countries with two options: the first one is to alter the military balance on the ground so as to change Iran’s calculations by making its strategy unsustainable in the short term; the second one is to keep on uttering ritual calls for a negotiated solution during another decade of war.

It is possible that the author of these lines lacks imagination and creativity. It remains, however, that any serious contribution to the present debate should answer the three following questions: First, what are the interests that Iran should, or should not, be allowed to preserve in a post-Asad Syria? Second, are such interests compatible with a power-sharing arrangement that meets the minimal requirements of the moderate opposition? Third, what logical conclusions can be drawn from the answers to the first two questions? * / I thank Steven Heydemann for his dialectic contribution to this piece.


Iran’s nuclear deal ... the stick is gone!

Ola Rifai - University of St Andrews, https://twitter.com/olarifai

July’s top breaking news was the historical deal signed between Iran and the six world powers which paralyses Iran’s nuclear ambition. Certainly, this marks a watershed in international politics of the Middle East, and would reorient Iran’s foreign policies, particularly, vis-à-vis the Syrian conflict. In essence, the intimate involvement of Iran has been acknowledged since the very beginning of the conflict as the Syrian regime’s survival is critical to Iran’s power and, moreover, to Hezbollah’s de facto existence. This is owing to the fact that Syria has long been a potent ally for both actors, as well as a conduit for providing weapons to Hezbollah. Therefore, Iran and Hezbollah have struggled to defend their embroiled ally, and supplied the Assad regime with comprehensive political and military support. As Mehdi Taeb, a Senior Iranian cleric, asserted in February 2013:

“Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us. If the enemy attacks us and wants to take either Syria or Khuzestan [in western Iran], the priority for us is to keep Syria. If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too; but if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran.”

In the same vein, President Assad admitted in his latest speech (July 26, 2015) that Iran “Syria's sister” plays a crucial role in the war, and that Syria’s “loyal brothers” in Hezbollah are fighting alongside Syrian soldiers. Hence, it might sound naïve to believe that this agreement would decrease the Iranian role in Syria and push Iran to put some 15000 Iranian fighters on a direct flight from Damascus to Tehran, nor would it prompt Hezbollah's thousands of fighters to drive back to al-Dahiya al-Junubiyyah (Hezbollah's stronghold). Instead, this deal would empower Iran’s role and existence not only in Syria, but in the whole region.

The Machiavellian alliance that Hafez Assad and Khomeini constructed 36 years ago between the Islamist Iran and Baathist Syria is based on realpolitik gains and regime survival. For Iran, losing power in Syria would jeopardise its security and signify the demise of its role in Lebanon and maybe in Iraq. A role which Iran paid an extremely high price throughout the last decades to accomplish. Interestingly, the nuclear deal does not only protect this role, indeed it enhances it and this in turn indicates a boosting for the regime in Damascus. Iran will continue to support the Assad regime and furthermore, will work to strengthen the regime’s position on the international theater. As we all know, the main aim for the West now is to eliminate ISIS and other extremist militias in Syria rather than changing the regime there. Therefore, having kept its potential, Iran will seek to mirror the Assad regime as a moderate option compared to Sunni extremism and the failed secular opposition. To this end, Iranian officials would be willing to make some compromises. Whereby on the ground, Iran will maintain its policy of safeguarding the capital, coastal cities and the road to Lebanon while watching the fight between ISIS and various opposition militias north of the country.

In short, Iran’s deal would strengthen the regime and extend its survival. The carrot which would tempt Iran to end a four-decade alliance with the Assad regime is not there yet. On the other hand, the nuclear deal seems to abolish any stick that could force Iran to do so.


... a carte blanche for Asad!

Stéphane Valter - CSS Senior Fellow - Université du havre

As Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stated, just after the nuclear deal was signed with the P 5+1 (United States, United Kingdom, France, China, Russia, plus Germany), the Islamic Republic will continue to collaborate – militarily – with its traditional allies in the region: the Iraqi government and Shiite militias, the Syrian regime, the Lebanese Hizbollah, the Yemeni Houthi rebels, among others. In fact, there is no fundamental reason for Iran to radically change its policy as long as the regional threats remain the same. The Islamic State continues its terrifying expansion, despite some setbacks. The Syrian regime is still weakened and desperately lacks motivated military manpower, probably more than it needs weapons. Saudi Arabia continues to be perceived by Iran as a reactionary anti-Shiite and pro-Western country, which therefore has to be destabilised through the Yemeni battlefield. And Israel remains the both real and ideal scapegoat for the Middle East conflicts. In such a context, it would be absurd for Tehran to change its policy. Yet, the most dangerous external foe is probably the Islamic State (IS) in the sense that this criminal organization aims at modifying borders via a brutal transnational agenda. And as most of its fighters are animated by a morbid aspiration to blow themselves up (in order to get a privileged place in Paradise) along with whomever are viewed as infidels and traitors, its destroying potential remains very high against Iranian interests (in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Bahrain, etc.). Therefore, and as a kind of rapprochement with the West, Saudi Arabia, and its allies are voicing the necessity to confront IS. Reciprocally, the West needs Iran to monitor the crisis in Iraq and Afghanistan, just to mention these two inextricable conflicts.

As far as Syria is concerned, Iranian financial and military support will certainly continue unabated since the stakes have not changed and Damascus is still considered by Tehran as a reliable partner. It can even be assumed that the West’s almost whimsical desires to get rid of the Asad regime have totally evaporated, at least for the time being, as long as IS represents the paramount menace. In fact, Asad had already been portrayed some years ago as a strong bulwark against Islamist terrorism, and this image has been reinforced albeit Western capitals admit that any firm political solution cannot envisage his remaining in power. So if he is considered as a criminal, he is not totally useless.

This assessment of intense regional instability and mutual dependence between Iran and the West has buttressed Tehran’s rhetoric, so as to compensate for the rather humiliating nuclear deal which constitutes a blow to hardliners. A few days after the Vienna agreement had been signed, many Iranian personalities aggressively insisted that the preservation of the national ballistic capabilities must absolutely be preserved and defended. If such nationalistic boasting and intimidating words have been uttered by radicals in order to drum up their followers, it probably reflects more power infighting between diehard revolutionaries and pragmatic reformists than anything else. Iran’s discreet military cooperation with the West, on certain issues, combined with the desperate need for the lifting of sanctions assuredly determine the path to be stridden on if the country is to avoid economic collapse, social upheaval, and political chaos.

The only loser in the nuclear deal is Israel, or at least that is what the Israeli government pretends to believe, but Washington has been quick to reassure its ally and has promised increased military aid, which should appease Tel Aviv’s fears for some time. But concerning Syria and Iraq, the impression is that the situation will not change a lot, if at all. In Iraq, the West will pursue its bombing strikes against IS, with the help of Kurdish peshmergas and Iranian-backed Shiite militias. In Syria, the Asad regime will be allowed to survive owing to Iranian assistance. Hizbollah will not be hampered in its support of the Syrian regime, on the contrary, since this party-cum-militia guarantees Asad’s survival – and thus some kind of fight against terrorism – and incidentally Lebanon’s stability. The only thorny problem is the peril Hizbollah may one day (after having pulled out of the Syrian quagmire) represent towards Israel if it acquires too sophisticated weaponry financed by the huge sums of money Tehran is hoping for from the removal of international sanctions. Sadly, it appears that as long as IS continues its criminal and expansionist activities, the balance of (military) power in Syria will remain unchanged, to the detriment of the people who are intimidated, displaced, abused, murdered. The nuclear deal may even, in the end, constitute a carte blanche for Asad. And between extremist Islamist rebels and unyielding regime personnel, there is not much place for more moderate factions to exist and articulate a program that could save the nation.



© 2018 Centre for Syrian Studies