by: Joshua Spurlock, The Mideast Update
Iran and Syria have long been allies in the fight against Israel and the West, with Iran generally the more powerful benefactor in the relationship. But the civil war in Syria—and Iran’s military involvement there—has given Iran the opportunity to not just help their ally, but to use them as a testing ground for a burgeoning regional empire. As a result of the benefits of the Iranian nuclear deal with the major world powers, the Iranians are making their move, which could someday extend even beyond Syria.
Dr. Emily Landau, head of the Arms Control and Regional Security Program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) think tank, believes that one “unintended consequence” of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal is that it helped embolden Iran in the region. Dr. Landau told The Mideast Update that it took Iran little time to act. She noted that around 10 days after the deal was concluded, Iran held a “crucial meeting” with the Russians to coordinate their military efforts in Syria. Today, Iran is “heavily involved in Syria,” according to Dr. Eyal Zisser, Vice Rector at Tel Aviv University and an expert on Middle East affairs who has written for the INSS.
Dr. Zisser, in an email to The Mideast Update, estimated there were 60,000 or more Shiite Muslims from multiple nations—recruited by the Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran—in Syria to fight. These are in addition to 15,000 militants from the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah, another Iranian proxy, and several thousand Iranians. Said Dr. Zisser of Iran’s presence in Syria, “Clearly it is not only to save an ally but to gain influence and presence.”
In June, Iran struck terror targets in Syria with medium-range missiles—a notable step. Dr. Landau noted to The Mideast Update that Iran hadn’t launched missiles like this since the 1980s. She thought it was more about issuing a warning to others considering a strike on the Iranians, even as United States President Donald Trump has taken a new and tougher approach towards them. “I think definitely part of it is feeling emboldened, that they can strike out,” said Dr. Landau. “They are stronger, they are testing, and also wanting to get a message across, ‘Don’t think to attack us.’”
Israel has repeatedly warned that Iran wants a permanent military presence in Syria and has asked the world powers to not permit that scenario in any future resolution of Syria’s conflict. Iran isn’t hiding this interest either. In November 2016, a report in the Fars News Agency said that Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, expressed a desire to someday expand its naval bases, if they deem it necessary. “We need bases in distanced areas and perhaps we might one day come to have bases on the coasts of Yemen or Syria,” Baqeri was quoted as saying at the time. Dr. Zisser noted to The Mideast Update that a naval base in Syria would give Iran a backup access to the ocean, calling it “very important for them. And also, a way to threaten Israel.”
Iran isn’t waiting for some distant future to put down physical roots in Syria. In June, NBC News reported that Iran had built a drone airfield and ground control station in Syria. Dr. Zisser said the long-term goal of Iran is to turn the entire Levant region into a “security zone that will protect Iran from regional and external threats.” In the short-term this also “can deter and balance Israel and other regional actors—the Saudis.”
Said Dr. Zisser, “So, clearly they want to establish their military presence in Syria and also to establish a corridor from [the Iranian capital of] Tehran through Iraq and Syria to [the Lebanese capital of] Beirut.”
At the start of the Syrian civil war, it seemed a grand opportunity to deal a crushing blow to Iran’s alliances. But instead of hitting Iran’s sphere of influence by turning Syria into a democratic friend of the West, Iran’s growing power in Syria could enable them to do more than save the status quo. It could bring the Iranian dream of being a world power much closer to becoming reality.
Dr. Landau warned that the war in Syria has given Iran and Hezbollah wartime experience and has been a “good time” to increase the transfer of weapons to Hezbollah, all while learning from the Russians. “Who knows in what scenario they will put [this experience] to use,” she said. Dr. Landau believes that while Iran’s view of using Syria’s regime to become a hegemonic power hasn’t changed, “it’s changed the situation in a manner that Iran has been expanding its influence, it’s getting a real foothold on the ground, and hopes to use that to better advance its goals.” She expects that once there is a settlement to the Syrian war, this Iranian goal will lead to competition with Russia, as Moscow also wants to increase their regional influence.
More seriously, she noted that as Iran gets stronger, that will “enhance” their abilities to someday develop nuclear weapons. “If you’re serious about this [nuclear] proliferation challenge, the time to change messages, to deal squarely with this reality of Iran feeling emboldened…that needs to be taken into account today,” said Dr. Landau. “…The time to understand and to tailor your policy towards Iran accordingly, the time is now.”
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