TSG IntelBrief: Iran and the Fight for Syria’s Future
November 2, 2015

Iran and the Fight for Syria’s Future

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Iran’s presence at the late October meeting on Syria in Vienna reiterates the U.S. admission that Iran will have to be a central player in any political solution

• Iran’s core interests in Syria are similar, but not identical, to those of Russia, which is far less concerned about Lebanese Hizballah’s survival than is Iran

• Iran’s ties throughout the Syrian security structure give it a significant advantage in finding a replacement for Assad, if a transition does take place

• Iran’s participation in the negotiations on Syria contradicts the pronouncements of Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that U.S.-Iran talks be confined to nuclear issues, and complicates U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia.

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With its participation in the October 29-30 multilateral meetings in Vienna on Syria, Iran has become a full partner in the renewed negotiations to try to end the four-year-long civil conflict in Syria. The United States has blocked Iran’s participation in previous Syria-related meetings, but Iran’s signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement with the P5+1 facilitated a shift in the U.S. position. The JCPOA has legitimized Iran’s inclusion in international diplomacy; including Iran in the Vienna meetings comports with the U.S. strategy of broadening its dialogue with Tehran beyond nuclear issues.

Iran’s inclusion in the Vienna meeting—which was also attended by all of the P5+1 countries, four Gulf states, Turkey, and several other Arab and European countries—represented the recognition by the U.S. that Iran is a key stakeholder in Syria. Iran maintains a large and growing presence of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) personnel in Syria, some of whom are in combat roles. Testifying before Congress on October 27, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford estimated the IRGC-QF presence in Syria at just under 2,000. Those comments came one day after IRGC deputy commander Brigadier General Hossein Salami said that Iran would be increasing the ‘quality and quantity’ of its presence in Syria. The UN Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has estimated Iran’s military and economic aid to Assad to be about $6 billion per year, and social media is rife with pictures of Syrian military personnel using Iran-made jeeps and other military vehicles. To augment the shrinking ranks of the Syrian military, Iran has recruited foreign Shi’a militia forces to fight in Syria, including Iran’s key protégé, Lebanese Hizballah, as well as Iraqi Shi’a militias and Shi’a fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Iran itself has publicly announced the deaths of about 200 of IRGC-QF personnel in Syria since the civil war began, including those of some top IRGC-QF commanders.

Underpinning Iran’s participation in the Vienna talks is uncertainty about the prospects for success of the Russian military intervention. Iran, by all accounts, strongly urged the intervention after assessing in the summer of 2015 that Iran and Hizballah’s own intervention had failed to halt the deterioration of Assad’s military position. Russia’s airstrikes and military advisory mission—coupled with an Iranian buildup—have produced only minimal Assad battlefield gains to date. With both Russia and Iran apparently reluctant to increase their involvement in Syria much further, the Russian intervention has underperformed to the extent that Russia and Iran may have concluded that they should begin seriously considering a political solution. The Vienna final statement did not specify the fate of President Assad—an outcome hailed by Iranian media as a victory for Iranian diplomacy—but the communiqué’s call for a new constitution and elections strongly implies that Assad will not lead Syria if the Vienna roadmap is followed.

Should the Vienna-stipulated transition take place, Iran will have key advantages over other international actors in shaping Syria’s political future. Iran possesses a granular knowledge of Syria’s military, security, and political structure, honed over many years of IRGC-QF and Iranian political interactions with these elements of the Syrian state. Iranian diplomats will certainly work to ensure that any Assad successor is trusted in Tehran, whether that successor is an interim leader anointed by the Vienna contact group or chosen through eventual elections. Iran’s goal is for Syria to continue to be led by the Alawite community, if for no other reason than the Alawites, who practice a version of Shi’a Islam, would likely continue to allow Iran to use Syria to channel military aid to Hizballah. Iran’s core interest in Hizballah explains, at least in part, why Iran attended the Vienna meeting—to avoid the potential for Russia to neglect Hizballah’s interests in any Syria settlement. Russia shares Iran’s interests in trying to preserve the Assad regime, but Russia is unconcerned about Hizballah’s future. If engineering an Alawite as a successor is not feasible, Tehran will deploy significant financial and political resources to try to ensure that any Sunni Muslim who leads Syria be amenable to protecting Tehran’s interests.

Working against Iran to shape a post-Assad Syria, if one emerges, will be the Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia. The Vienna meetings reportedly included sharp exchanges by the foreign ministers of Iran and Saudi Arabia, accusing each other’s country of attempting regional hegemony. Saudi Arabia will work to use its alliance with the United States—which has suffered strain over the JCPOA and the U.S. outreach to Iran more generally—to try to ensure that Syria’s future tilts in Riyadh’s—and not Tehran’s—direction.

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