Iranian influence in turbulent Syria

nagar fayaziIran’s regional ascendancy is largely enhanced by its involvement and actions in the Syrian civil war, as from 2011. Since 1979, the strategic alliance between Iran and Syria has had a momentous bearing on shaping Middle Eastern politics and forestalling the regional goals of the United States (US) and Israel - which is to maintain their hegemonic position in the Middle East regioni. The question constantly asked today, is: why is Iran using much of its resources to back the Syrian regime and what strategic value does Syria have for the Islamic Republic?

Syria is significantly important to Iran’s strategic interests in the Middle East and has been Iran’s closest state ally. The collapse of the Bashar Al-Assad regime would thus diminish Iran’s ability to protrude power across the Levant and the Middle Eastii. In essence, Iran’s vested interest in Syria and Assad’s regime, is largely driven by political, ideological and geopolitical factors.

Both the Iranian and Syrian regime share common traits, which instigates their support for one another. They are palpably independent even at political or economic cost and share a common religious belief. Iran is primarily Shi’ite and Syria is run by a ruling family from the Alawites, which is a Shi’ite sectiii. Hence, “both ruling cliques [assert] affinity with the heterodox Shia, who are a minority in an Islamic world populated by orthodox Sunnis”iv.

It is argued here that their common religious identity is the core reason why Iran is sustaining Syria’s regime, however there are a few other strategic factors involved. For instance, maintaining Assad’s regime sustains Iran’s control over a corridor of influence extending from Tehran through Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut to Maroun al-Ras, a hilltop town on Lebanon’s southern border that provides a view of northern Israelv. In addition, Syria creates a front for Iran to provide arms and support to Hezbollah (A Lebanese terrorist organisation) in order to serve Tehran’s regional interest and in turn Hezbollah has been assisting Syria’s regime to survivevi.

According to Iran, interfering in the affairs of neighbouring and regional countries is a form of ‘export of revolution’ and maintaining geopolitical control in its region. This is the core pillar for the survival of its regime and continued hold on powervii. Despite the fact that Iran is still under heavy economic sanctions, to this day the country has still been able to militarily fund and support Assad’s regime. It is clear that Iran will go at all costs to preserve and advance its interests in the region. Most importantly, if “Iran wins this conflict and the Syrian regime survives, Iran’s interventionist policy will become wider and its credibility will be enhanced”viii. In turn, this will also increase Iran’s emerging power position and the country will be able to exert its influence abroad more.

Ultimately, without Iran and Russia’s support, which was initiated at the behest and request of Iran, the Syrian regime would have not survived for such a long period. Clearly, Iran has no incentive to back down from the conflict and thus, now the question remains, whether the conflict can be resolved with Iran’s involvement along with possible renewed relations between the US and Russia?

Ms Negar Fayazi holds a BA Hons in International Relations from the University of Pretoria and is a research assistant at the Institute for Global Dialogue (IGD) associated with the University of South Africa (UNISA). Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the IGD.

i Goodarzi, J. 2010. Iran and Syria. Available at: http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/iran-and-syria  [Retrieved 11 May 2017].
ii Fulton, W., Holliday, J. & Wyer, S. 2013. Iranian Strategy in Syria. United States of America: Institute for the Study of War and AEI’s Critical Threats Project.
iii Goodarzi, J. 2010. Iran and Syria. Available at: http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/iran-and-syria  [Retrieved 11 May 2017].
iv Barfi, B. 2016. The Real Reason Why Iran Backs Syria. Available at: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-real-reason-why-iran-backs-syria-14999  [Retrieved 12 May 2017]
v Sly, L. 2013. Iran emerging as victor in Syrian conflict. Available at: www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/iran-emerging-as-victor-in-syrian-conflict/2013/06/11/345d92b2-d2c2-11e2-8cbe-1bcbee06f8f8_story.html?utm_term=.bbd529bff28f  [Retrieve 13 May 2017].
vi Barfi, B. 2016. The Real Reason Why Iran Backs Syria. Available at: http://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-real-reason-why-iran-backs-syria-14999  [Retrieved 12 May 2017]
vii INU Staff. 2017. The facts behind Iran’s involvement in Syria. Available at: http://irannewsupdate.com/news/terrorism/3430-the-facts-behind-iran-s-involvement-in-syria-2.html  [Retrieved 14 May 2017].
viii Iran emerging as victor in Syrian conflict. Available at: www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/iran-emerging-as-victor-in-syrian-conflict/2013/06/11/345d92b2-d2c2-11e2-8cbe-1bcbee06f8f8_story.html?utm_term=.bbd529bff28f  [Retrieve 13 May 2017].