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Why Does Syria Matter for Iran?

Iran is a longtime ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has provided crucial economic and military backing throughout the uprising and subsequent civil war.
Iranian mourners carry the coffin of Abdollah Bagheri Niaraki, a onetime bodyguard of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was killed while fighting in Aleppo in Syria, Teheran, Iran, 29 October 2015. Photo AP/Vahid Salemi ©Hollandse Hoogte ⁃ Vahid Salemi

When the Syrian revolution began in March 2011, there was a heated debate in Tehran on how to react. This stemmed from various historical and recent factors. No Iranian can forget that Syria supported Iran during its eight-year war with Iraq (1980-1988), when almost all Arab nations stood against it and footed the bill for Iraq’s war with Iran. Furthermore, both countries supported Hamas and other radical Palestinian resistance movements. Their cooperation with regard to Lebanon and their coordinated support of the Shiite organization Hezbollah created a legacy that was banked on in regional rivalries with so-called Arab moderates. From a strategic perspective, the common threat-perception after US President Bush branded Iran in 2001 as part of Axis of Evil and Syria as rogue state paved the way for the appearance of what became known as the Resistance Axis, a framework laying out common strategic choices made by both Damascus and Tehran on a regional level.

One can therefore imagine why Iran’s reaction to the developments in Syria, after protests against the Syrian regime began in 2011, could not be compared to its attitude towards the Egyptian or Tunisian revolution. Since 2011, Iran’s involvement in the Syrian crisis can be divided into four phases:

1.     Hesitation towards the uprising, accompanied by a heated debate in Iran on how to react.

2.     Political and media support from August 2011, after the Saudi Ambassador’s withdrawal from Damascus and the start of Riyadh’s support of Syrian rebels.

3.     Sending volunteers to protect Shiite holy shrines and sites, coupled with Hizbollah’s intervention in Syria after it became obvious that the Syrian army could not protect them.

4.     Sending military advisers to Damascus and then to other provinces to reestablish the balance of power on the ground.

Iran’s involvement is not a secret, and there are unofficial reports suggesting that there is a large number of Iranian military personnel operating in Syria. Funerals of generals and other high officers who have been killed in Syria are being given much public attention. And, although there is much information on Iran’s involvement in Syria, there is still the question why Iran is so obsessed with preserving Assad’s Syria.

Iran’s own narrative is based on three elements:

1.     Preserving the Resistance Axis: according to the Iranian narrative of the Arab Spring, there is a plot against Syria because of Assad’s alliance with Iran and its allies. Iran is the main target, and Assad is nothing but a peripheral target used to contain Iran’s regional role in the Middle East. Defending Assad is thus the means of defending Iranian interests and security in the region.

2.     Maintaining “Syrian choice”: Iran’s second narrative is that there are those who attempt to impose their own strategic choices on the will of the Syrians. That is, according to Iran, a conspiracy from outside aimed at challenging any sort of independent ruler, no matter whether dictator or democratically elected. In contrast, Iran insists on the Syrian right of self-determination and that any change in Syria should be a Syrian choice, not one imposed on them—this according to Iran’s supreme leader.

3.     Protecting “minorities”: the beheading of the Syrian government is not comparable with the removal of Mubarak or Ben Ali, because it will lead to the elimination of the rights of the minorities and even of their existence in Syria. Therefore, the struggle of the minorities in support of Assad—and Iranian support of him—is viewed as protecting their very existence.

Yet beside these points one can, reading between the lines, easily follow the Iranian narrative’s implications and other root causes of Iran’s desire to preserve the status quo in Syria. There are four points that summarize the root causes of Iran’s strategic behaviour in Syria:

1.     Regional balance of power: the rationale of Iran’s involvement in Syria can be understood only in a regional framework. The Syrian war is seen in Tehran as a step by Iran’s rivals and enemies to curb its influence in the region. Thus, defending the Syrian regime is defending Iran’s regional role against the Saudi axis. In this chaotic situation Tehran has no choice other than to to fight on the front lines of this war to re-establish the regional balance of power.

2.     Balancing the Israeli threat: the Israeli threat against Iran is of grave importance to the Iranian leading elite. They have always been preoccupied with Israeli threats against Iran’s nuclear facilities, the killing of Iranian nuclear scientists, meddling in neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan, and other issues related to Iran’s national security. Protecting allies on its borders is the main counterbalancing measure Iran can take during the arms embargo imposed on Iran.

3.     Fighting extremism abroad: to Iranians, Sunni extremist groups pose a threat against Iran and its allies, so it is important to keep these away from the Iranian borders. That was obvious when Islamic State advanced into Iraq in 2014. Iran declared that any advance towards its borders would be considered a national security threat and would be dealt with accordingly. Thus, keeping Islamic State and its sister organizations away from Iranian territory and degrading and defeating them is of the greatest importance. According to Foreign Minister Zarif, it is an Iranian priority in 2015.

4.     Regional and international prestige: charisma and prestige are important for Middle Eastern ruling elites, including Iranians. Sticking to ones own narrative and defending allies despite its huge costs is a prestigious matter in a region filled with rivalries. Next to the strategic perception that leads Iran to defend its allies against its rivals, preserving the nation’s image, as perceived internally, makes it necessary to stand with its allies. Assad himself is thus unimportant in this regard, but Iran’s stance against an international plot—according to the prevailing narrative—is an important issue, both internally and regionally.

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©Hollandse Hoogte ⁃ Vahid Salemi

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