The prolonged Syrian civil has exasperated Iran’s foreign policy. For four long years, Tehran feverishly propped up Assad’s regime through various means: extending generous credit to the government, manpower for militias, transforming a once professional army into decentralized sectarian and ethnic militias, logistical support, mobilizing Hezbollah militants for strategic campaigns, propaganda, and provision of ordinance. Iran’s interests in Syria are paramount to its policies in the Levant on three levels. First, Syria ensures Hezbollah’s weapons transit route and control of Damascus deters an emerging threat that could attack the Shia movement in the near future. Second, to contain Saudi-led regional allies who aim to counterbalance Tehran’s rising geopolitical clout. Finally, to support the Assad regime, who remains loyal and supported Iran in its eight-year long war with Iraq, thus Iran feels obligated to support its ally in turbulent times.
Tehran’s investment in Assad’s regime is currently a success, as his regime is intact while retaining control of key infrastructure linking Syria with Hezbollah. However, Tehran is paying a heavy price for its incursions. No doubt, that Iran is embedding itself in a perpetual quagmire, which forces Iran to commit greater military and financial resources in Syria with no clear exit strategy. Unlike in Iraq, where Iran’s long list of loyal Iraqi Shia politicians to replace Nouri Al-Maliki when supporting him was becoming politically taxing, Tehran does not have this option in Syria. Tehran’s regional headache will continue to throb as thawing relations between Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Turkey will resonate and attempt to balance Iranian regional maneuvers, especially in Syria.
Controlling border areas is critical in the Syrian conflict’s future. Border crossing areas provide much relief for resupplying arms, essentials and manpower. In 2013, Tehran deployed Hezbollah to capture the strategic border town of Qusayr, which help tip the civil war in Assad and his allies’ favor. The Syrian regime, along with help from Hezbollah, retain much control over Syria’s borders with Lebanon, exemplifying Qusayr’s strategic importance and providing a major lifeline to Damascus and Iran, while cutting off rebel supply lines. The logic of the Qusayr operation was also implemented in Qalamoun. However, one success does not guarantee another.
Recently, Syrian regime forces witnessed setbacks. King Salman’s policy of supra-national coalition building emphasized creating GCC congruence in order to achieve greater regional collaboration. Thus, Saudi Arabia’s pivotal role in unifying the GCC’s stance on Syria paved the way for Turkey to align its Syria policy with the Arab Gulf states’. This coincides with some rebel gains in the Syrian battleground, as well as some questionable strategies from Iran. Tehran deployed forces loyal to Assad’s regime, particularly Afghan Shias, to the west of Aleppo to gain a stranglehold on strategic transit routes in order to cut off rebel supply lines. They were heavily defeated and within weeks of Tehran’s blunder, rebels counterattacked and captured Idlib province. This was followed by another Syrian regime loss in Busra al-Sham. In early April 2015, rebels seized the last regime-controlled southern border crossing with Jordan at Nassib. Essentially, opening a new supply line frontier to replenish Syrian opposition rebels.
Recent rebel gains in Syria are the first aspect of this new collaboration. The Saudi-led aerial campaign, “Operation Decisive Storm”, while demonstrating Saudi’s military capabilities and competence to the world, could pave the way to a potential similar operation in Syria, with the objective to remove Assad’s regime. This is precisely why Iran cannot let events in Yemen go on unabated. Similar to its situation in Syria, Tehran is relishing the possibility that the Yemeni conflict transforms into a quagmire that will slowly bleed out Saudi Arabia and its regional allies. Riyadh anticipated the operation’s costs by dipping into some of its strategic reserves, and implemented a new phase in its operation.
Iran remains opaque regarding its Syrian policy, even as Iranian casualties from the conflict began numbering in the hundreds. It appears there is little internal debate regarding an exit strategy from Syria, as supposed moderates, President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, continue to lobby support for a nuclear deal at home. Iranian “moderates” continue to use the same arguments on Syria, which does not stray far from the hardline perspective. The argument goes that jihadi rebels and takfiris hijacked the Syrian uprising; Assad won an electoral mandate rendering him the legitimate head of government and priorities in Syria should be fighting terrorism and not deposing Assad and his regime.
This argument continues to erode Iran’s image in the Arab world, essentially undoing its popularity gained from the 2006 Hezbollah-Israeli war. Social media continuously displays Assad’s atrocities in the conflict, especially the casualties from barrel bombs, which reminds the Arab public of Iran’s complicity in Syria. The next few months with be critical for Tehran.
If the P-5+1 and Iran nuclear accord is finalized and signed, Iran must decide on its policies in Syria. It can continue to prop up the Assad regime, or act within the international community to derive a political solution. However, due to Iran’s adventurous foreign policy, analysts are uncertain of Iran’s future behavior should it reenter the international community. Some argue that international inclusion can alleviate Iranian foreign policy and normalize its international engagements. While the other perspective refers to Iran’s strategic thinking and expect its continuation, in other words, you cannot teach an old dog new tricks.