Some commentators have recently asserted that the Islamic Republic of Iran has been the greatest loser in Syria, in terms of blood and treasure and a corresponding decline in Tehran’s soft power influence in the Arab world. There is no reliable statistics to back up exactly how much Iran has lost financially and how many Iranian fighters have shed blood in Syria in the last three years, though Tehran’s decline on the soft power front appears substantial. Many Arabs and Muslims negatively view Iran’s overt backing for the Assad government and are worried about its regional strategic ambitions and goals.
Despite that, closer scrutiny reveals that, instead of losing, Iran is actually maximizing its gains by fighting on President Bashar Al-Assad’s side. Iranian gains may even multiply if Assad finally manages to survive the civil war. Recent military successes against the fatally divisive rebel groups, including the capture of Yabroud, the last major rebel bastion close to the Lebanese border, on March 16 last, indicate that Assad has a good chance to win and survive the war. His self-confidence to crush the rebels has reportedly increased following Russia’s firm stance on the Ukraine crisis – that he would not be abandoned by Moscow.
It is difficult to deny that the credit of Assad’s military successes largely goes to Iran and its ally Hezbollah. So, it would be no mistake to call the Syrian war an Iranian war, a war Tehran is fighting to maintain a regional strategic balance favorable to itself. Assad’s survival may also change the regional political and security pecking order to spin in Iran’s favor. Like Assad, Iran also stands to reap benefits from Moscow – Washington rift over Ukraine to outmaneuver its principal regional competitors – Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Iran and the Syrian Civil War
Initially, Iranian leaders viewed and welcomed the Arab Spring as ‘Islamic awakening’ inspired by their own 1979 Revolution to reject America’s meddling and dominance in the Middle East. But soon they discovered that they were grossly mistaken. The young Arabs who risked their lives in Egypt, Libya or Tunisia were more motivated by human security needs to achieve freedoms from poverty and squalor, political and human rights, and the right to live with dignity. Iran’s Islamic Revolution itself stands for these rights –for the dispossessed and for the oppressed people everywhere. Yet, after the Arab Spring had landed in Syria, Iran was compelled to compromise its ideological rhetoric and stand by its only strategic Arab ally – the Assad government. Realpolitik soon came to its full circle in Tehran.
For Iran, the Syrian Arab Spring brought more strategic dangers than real benefits. First and foremost, it seriously threatened to disintegrate Tehran’s strategic partnerships with Syria and Hezbollah. Iran has largely fought its post-1979 political, diplomatic and ideological battles with the US based on its solid ties with the two allies. In fact, Tehran’s refusal to make concessions on the nuclear issue, despite UN and unilateral US and EU sanctions, speaks of its highly valued strategic maneuverability accrued from alliance relationships with Syria and Hezbollah. The fall of Damascus to rebel forces could open the gateway to Iran’s gradual surrender to the West, particularly on the nuclear front.
If the fall of the Assad government could not be averted, there were two specific scenarios available to the Iranian policy-makers. First off, a roll back of their nuclear program under coercive Israeli and Western pressures; and secondly, a possible regime change in Tehran – the ouster of the four and half decades-old religious authority brought to power by late Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979. The threat of regime change was real after the US had toppled the Taliban in Afghanistan, Iran’s eastern neighbor, and dislodged Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, Iran’s arch foe on the western border. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei publicly complained in early February this year that the US was after regime change in Tehran. To avoid this gloomy outcome, Iran had opted to join the fight on Assad’s side, and immediately responded by sending military advisors, arms shipments and by bankrolling its beleaguered Syrian ally. Hezbollah followed the Iranian lead by sending fighters to save the Assad government from rebel onslaughts. The imminent fall of Assad was averted.
The significance of Assad’s survival
Assad is not someone adorable, nor is his family’s long rule in Syria. But his possible survival would mean a lot for Syria and the whole Middle East region. A victorious Assad will not simply mean the defeat of the rebel groups and their regional and Western backers; its real significance lies in how Middle East politics and history unfold in the future with a triumphant Iran holding the key strategic position.
Iran and Hezbollah’s war efforts in Syria have achieved at least one thing – a roll back of the policy of regime change in the volatile Middle East. If the rebels were to emerge victorious, that would set a dangerous precedent of regime change initiated by regional medium and small powers, including the tiny Gulf emirate of Qatar. The US had already unleashed dangers by pursuing regime change in Afghanistan, Iraq; and lately, Libya. Qatari, Saudi, Israeli and Turkish efforts to chase the same objective in Syria could throw the Middle East, and possibly other world regions, into a Hobbesian ‘state of nature’, a situation where no semblance of law and order exists but is dominated by conflict, violence and brutality. The Middle East has less possibility of running into that abyss now. The failure of the West, Qatar, Saudi and Turkey-backed rebels to bring down the Assad government is a powerful disincentive for future promoters of regime change in the region.
Perhaps a greater significance of the rebels’ backslide in the three years’ old war lies in containing the region-wide gravity of terrorism and religious extremism, both fomented by the so-called US ‘war on terror’. Since the 9/11 attack, the US has found itself locked in an endless war against the shadowy al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan. In 2003, the radius of the war zone extended to Iraq, a total of 1418 miles to the northwest from Kabul to Baghdad. Al-Qaeda forces moved down from Iraq to Syria, further northwest to the Mediterranean shores, to bring down the Assad government and establish their Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In a similarly dangerous move, the religious extremism and sectarian warfare that broke out in Iraq in 2006 under US occupation also moved northwest after 2011 to engulf Syria and Lebanon, aided and abetted by regional states.
The survival of the secular Assad government would mean a good check on religious extremists and their national, regional and global patrons. If anything, the Syrian war teaches a harsh lesson that religious and sectarian warfare backfire, producing unacceptably high costs – human carnage and massive material destructions. If not stopped, the black forces of religious frenzy and terrorism stand to sweep away the whole region, taking everyone deep down to a dark path back to the Medieval Ages.
Reordering the regional order
The single most important effect of Assad’s probable survival is how it would shake up the pre-Arab Spring geopolitical framework of the Middle East. A new regional strategic order granting Iran a pivotal position is likely to take shape in a post-Syrian war Middle East, if the rebels are finally defeated or contained within a tolerable limit. Iran has historically sought, but never achieved, its primary strategic goal of becoming the primus inter pares (first among the equals) power in the Middle East or, at least, in its own Gulf neighborhood, a goal severely hamstrung by the US and its Gulf Arab allies. Iran’s military resilience in the Syrian war and recent tremendous boost in defense capabilities have pushed it a step forward to this goal, and perhaps motivated the US to negotiate with, instead of confronting, Tehran to iron out differences on the nuclear issue.
The interim nuclear agreement, struck on 24 November 2013, has opened up a window of strategic opportunity for Iran in two important respects. It adds a certain degree of legitimacy to Iran’s religion-based authority system, so long rejected by the US and Israel. A few other developments from the Syrian war, such as a solid proof of Tehran’s commitment to stand by its Syrian ally and an extension of its sphere of influence up to the Mediterranean via Syria and Hezbollah add up to its competitive strategic edge. Iran is also mending fences with Turkey, their contradictory policies towards the Syrian war notwithstanding, to promote mutually beneficial business relations and economic cooperation. Their historical legacy of imperial rivalry is giving way to booming bilateral trade volumes expected to reach US $30 billion by the end of 2015, a $10 billion increase from 2013.
Iran’s two regional adversaries, Israel and Saudi Arabia, do not seem to fare well strategically. In fact, the end of the Syrian war in favor of Assad may prove more detrimental to Israeli interests. Prior to the start of the war, Tel Aviv brought its relations with Turkey to a standstill by storming the Gaza aid flotilla and the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak greatly reduced Tel Aviv’s strategic leverage in Cairo, a development that did not change much, other than improved military ties to battle the Sinai Peninsula-based Jihadi groups, even after the deposition of the Islamist President Mohammed Morsi. Assad’s likely survival would further reduce Israel’s strategic wiggle room, a scenario Israel has tried to avoid by seeking to take out the Assad regime, the keystone in the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance.
Towards that end, Tel Aviv has cooperated with anti-Assad forces, including religious extremists and al-Qaeda fighters, bombed Syrian military posts and sites at different times to slow down Assad’s military efforts to defeat the rebels quickly. The policy was neatly summed up by Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, in September 2013: ‘We always wanted Bashar Al-Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran’.
But Assad’s survival would not only deny Israel what it has sought in Syria, Tel Aviv is likely to face mortal threats from a battle-hardened Syrian army and highly effective Hezbollah fighters on its northern and eastern borders. The Islamist and al-Qaeda fighters, who Tel Aviv nurtures now, may also turn their guns to liberate Palestinians from Israeli occupation once the echoes of the Syrian war subside. That only adds to Israel’s matrix of insecurities.
Saudi Arabia, Iran’s fierce competitor on the west coast of the Gulf, has come out isolated and bewildered out from the Syrian war. On the one hand, it is challenged by a rising Iran, and, on the other, it is running into difficulties with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) member states. Riyadh finds it extremely difficult to outdo Iran, a reality it is experiencing in Syria. On top of that, the Iran –West nuclear deal has put Saudi Arabia’s regional influence to a test, this time more so from intra-GCC differences.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, after the nuclear deal was concluded, visited all GCC countries except Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, a chilling reminder of their acrimonious relationships with Tehran. Riyadh tried to put up a collective GCC front by launching a confederation involving all GCC members to contain the post-deal regional power shift but Oman refused and even threatened to withdraw from the union. Qatar, faced with recent Saudi threats of land, air and naval blockade to cut off ties with Muslim Brotherhood and shut down the Al Jazeera news channel, is also reaching out to Iran. The March 25–26 Arab League summit meeting in Kuwait has been marred by unprecedented tensions between Qatar and Saudi Arabia over the role of Muslim Brotherhood, which Riyadh has recently banned as a terrorist organization, in future Arab politics. Qatar views Saudi actions as politically motivated and has firmly refused to surrender its foreign policy independence to Riyadh.
Previously, the Saudis were simply shaken by America’s vacillating security commitment to the kingdom. They resented President Obama’s refusal to keep Hosni Mubarak in power, Washington’s last minute decision to back away from a military strike to unseat the Assad government last year and expressed anger for keeping them in the dark about secret negotiations with Iran. Isolated by regional and international allies, Riyadh is now diversifying sources of security arrangements with China, India, Indonesia and Pakistan but this is unlikely to match the traditional security guarantees extended by the US. China is highly unlikely to defend Saudi Arabia against its ally Iran while India has no credible strategic capacity to shoulder the defense responsibility for Riyadh. That promises to bring back Riyadh to the door of Washington while leaving Iran more or less free to run its course in the Gulf and in the Middle East region.
Tehran’s bid for regional supremacy may further benefit from the ongoing Moscow – Washington relations over the Ukraine crisis. Russia, after the annexation of Crimea, is facing combined US and EU economic sanctions and growing isolation. Iran provides a window of strategic opportunity for President Putin to lessen sanction pressures by cooperating on the economic front. Iran is planning to build additional nuclear reactors at a cost of billions of dollars and Moscow can definitely take advantage of that. Both countries are also making good progress towards an oil-for-goods deal, a barter exchange agreement that would allow Iran to export oil to Russia for goods and thus help Tehran defy Western sanctions. This is a smart way for Tehran to zoom by Western financial restrictions.
The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has already threatened to retaliate Western sanctions by altering Russia’s position on Iran nuclear talks aimed at reaching a permanent deal by June this year. For the West, Russian support is crucial to resolve the Iran nuclear issue, the conflict in Syria and the Israel-Palestine impasse. Viewed from that angle, the crisis in Moscow–Washington relations will jeopardize their mutual interests and is not expected to move beyond control seriously.
Conversely, Moscow –Tehran relations thrive on mutual interests and they need each other to face the dominant West; what may be called a marriage of convenience. Their relations may consolidate in the face of a confrontational Western approach towards Russia, setting the context for a solid alliance relationship between them. More Western sanctions against Moscow mean more Iran – Russia strategic cooperation to undercut Western sanctions regime altogether. That holds the potential for Iran to enhance its capacities to further outmaneuver its regional rivals and also play a bigger role on the global stage. Much, however, depends on how President Putin makes the next move on the geopolitical chess board.
Dr. Mohammed Nuruzzaman is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Gulf University for Science and Technology, Kuwait. He specializes in international relations theories, global political economy, security studies, and politics and international relations of the Middle East.