Iran and the Assad Regime

This study summarizes the strategic dimensions of Iranian interest in its relationship with the Syrian regime through the following arguments:

  • Why does Iran consider Syria more important than Ahwaz?
  • The Iranian relationship with the regime and its complexities.
  • The particularity of the relationship between the two regimes.
  • The history of the relationship and its dimensions.
  • The relationship with Syria under Al-Assad junior.
  • The relationship under the Arab Spring.


“If we hadn’t intervened in Syria, Damascus would have fallen within a week”; this inflammatory statement of Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah the Secretary General of Lebanese Hezbollah is one among others that had identified to a large extent the course of struggle in Syria. It is an equal statement to a parallel one declared by one of the Iranian leaders in which he said that Syria is: “the Iranian province number 35”, and that Syria is of strategic importance to Iran overweighs the importance of “Ahwaz”, that is because Ahwaz could be regained after losing it while losing Syria means losing Tehran itself.

On the other side, the emerging Syrian opposition found itself confronting an unusual alliance, and a ferocious defense of the regime of Damascus by Tehran. So that one of the prominent Syrian opponents, namely Burhan Ghalioun, said: “Bashar Al-Assad had sold Syria to Iran in order to maintain his regime”, the thing that drove the Syrian opposition to enter into a regional trap, forced perhaps, through its absolute prejudice in favor of the regional side against Iran, besides realizing this axis that if Syria entirely fell in Iran’s hand, it might indicate the latter’s dominance over the region, and their submission to the Iranian power factor that would threaten their capitals today or tomorrow, which made Syria another arena of regional conflict where those countries compete; the arena that expands to Yemen, Sudan, the Horn of Africa, Somalia, Iraq, Central Asia, Northern Africa and also, of course, Palestine.

On the banks of this regional, and of course international, conflict, many axes were formed from 2011 till today. Some were disbanded and some survived after undergoing many transformations and being marred by many turnovers which were not expected to happen as they were considered like an earthquake in the science of political coalitions that were built on an unchangeable geopolitical dimension, because changing it means changing the whole international system. Isn’t that what is happening in the world and in the region today? Did anyone expect that an agreement would be made with Tehran? And the Syrian regime would abandon its chemical weapons? And that Iran, Russia and Turkey would be in the same axis? And America would be against Turkey in the region? And an Arabic alliance would be formed in Yemen? And countries like Syria, Yemen and Iraq would be drained up in the wars and conflicts of these axes?

Among the axes that have been formed we could recently monitor the emergence of the axis of Iran, Turkey, Russia and Qatar, the one that has been formed out of the transformations produced by the ongoing and increasing regional issues. But as long as the transformation prevails in the whole region, this formed axis remains subject to disappearance or alteration in its turn, whilst its poles become enemies or competitors at least, that is to return to their former attitudes. Taking into consideration that the axis was essentially established on the basis of those incidents and their transformations, the thing that makes us focus in this issue on the Iranian role in Syria, in order to read it in the light of complexity, divergence and disagreement with the other components of the axis, as to prove the matter through reading the historical incidents and the turnovers that occurred throughout the history of the region.

Complicating the Issue

Many western studies were basically interested in the fate of the Syrian-Iranian relationship that was further complicated by the Turkish-Qatari-Iranian consensus in dealing separately with the conflicted parties in Syria, and their triple agreement that exceeds the usual coordination to the limits of forming cross-regional partnerships, in parallel existence of Qatari-American relationships and other Iranian-Russian ones within this complicated network of alliances and co-ordinations.

Thus, the increasing complexity in extrapolating this relationship is caused by some measurable factors and other incorrect ones in the political analysis, considering that the relationship between Tehran and Damascus is based on the sectarian convergence only. One of those factors that no doubt affects on the geo-strategic background of the Middle Eastern scene but doesn’t constitute the whole truth about it, because Damascus has chosen this relationship from more than 35 years as a strategic pillar in the face of the Arab dispersion itself as well as in the face of the Arab permanent displacements from the Arab central issues as Damascus sees them according to its national vision to the Arab World.

At the time of establishing the relationship, Saddam’s Iraq was denoting Damascus with car bombs via Muslim Brotherhood, and obstructing the Syrian solution in Lebanon. Similarly, Egypt had gone to Camp David and was relieved from the Palestinian concern. The Gulf was at the time very cautious about the political and social change happening by its close neighborhood. This doesn’t negate the fact that their relationship had intensified under an Arabic declared support with money and weapons to the armed opposition in Syria after the emergence of the Syrian movement, the thing that is equally done by Tehran and Turkey. Of course we don’t discuss here the reasons that led the Syrian situation to reach to a level of regional and international conflict.

Where does the relationship between Tehran and Damascus acquire its particularity?

There are a number of factors that give this relationship strength, importance and particularity at the same time. These factors are distributed on levels and each level forms an angle of extrapolation of this relationship; the local, the Arabic, the Middle Eastern and the international level, then the essential level that is associated with the project of “the axis of resistance and reluctance” as it’s called against the American-Israeli-Gulf project. The conflict between these two projects is the biggest characteristic of the region since the foundation of the State of Israel from one side, and the revolution in Iran from another, and recently the conflict has attained an additional scope after the Arab Spring.

First: Bilaterally between the two countries: caution and agreement:

Damascus was the first country to give attention to what was happening in Tehran. It was the first country to acknowledge and support it, knowing that the relationships with Iran of Shah before the revolution were restricted to ambassadorial level without any kind of high level of coordination, especially that Shah was a pro-Western, and also especially, after signing Algiers agreement in 1975 with Saddam Hussein the sworn enemy of Damascus. On the contrary the Khomeini revolution raised the slogan “Death to America” and declared its support for the liberation of the occupied Arab territories from Israel and handed the Washington Embassy to the Palestine Liberation Organization. It further worked on “wiping Israel off the map” according to its literature, which went in line with the Syrian policy that found itself at the time alone confronting individual peace agreements from its Arab brothers with Israel, and enemies everywhere especially after the outbreak of the Lebanese war.

“Mohammad Hussein Montazeri” the founder of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps was the Relations Designer with the Arab World. Montazeri (or Montazeri Jr.) was one of the significant cadres of Khomeini in his exile in Iraq. Also he was known as a devoted student to him. Before the triumph of the Iranian Revolution, Montazeri Jr. represented a link between Khomeini and a number of political forces in the Arab arena including the Palestinian National Liberation Movement (Fatah), as mentioned by a number of researches in the Iranian and Syrian affairs including Patrick Seale in his book “The Struggle for Syria” who justifies that relationship by saying: “those who aspire to have a role in the Middle East must deal with Damascus, the one who dominates Damascus or deals with it would be able to isolate the other Arab countries and wouldn’t need them”, therefore Damascus with that position represents “the golden gift of fate to it”.

There is no doubt that this transformation was a strategic shift under the tilted balance of power at the time in disadvantage of the Syrians and Iranians. And it seemed that this relationship would form a bridge, through which Tehran might cross into the Middle East, as it would contribute to getting Damascus out of its Arab isolation. Although the relations between Damascus and Baghdad were severely broken after Saddam Hussein’s coup against Ahmad Hassan Al-Baker, the Iraqi war against Iran, which didn’t wait for two years after the success of the revolution to begin, had obstructed the Syrian-Iranian rush on both sides, as Tehran knew that Damascus is a main center of the Arab nationalism, therefore, along with the existence of Al-Baath in Iraq too, Iran didn’t ask for any military support from Damascus, nevertheless Damascus had repeatedly declared its supportive attitude towards Tehran.

In the eighties faced the relationship between the two parties some troubles; some were due to the conflict and disagreement in Lebanon between Hezbollah and the Amal movement that was closed to Damascus. At the end of this stage Syria was still the only Arab ally of Iran, and the image of the Syrian-Iranian alliance appeared as the following: a de facto alliance, while each party started to diversify its regional relations; “the greatest common denominator between Damascus and Tehran was represented in the agreement to maintain the Lebanese resistance and its weapons as a deterrent against Israel, but the roles of both parties of the alliance in Lebanon started to adjust in favor of Iran which had become an effective partner to Damascus there” according to Levant Center for Studies.

During Hafez al-Assad years, the relationship between the two countries remained within the state political framework, and didn’t develop outside the institutional relationship, due to the fears that Al-Assad Senior had towards the theocratic governance in Tehran. Iranians were surprised with Syria’s declaration of its intention to participate in the Second Gulf War. The decision that was made at the highest level in the country and as a result of Syria’s precise calculations, which allowed it to open the closed Arab wall from one side and to win the satisfaction of the international community from the other as one of the pillars of the war against the international terrorism represented in the Iraqi president. In 1991 “Damascus Declaration” was issued by an Arab agreement and it stated in one of its articles the stationing of Syrian and Egyptian forces in the Gulf, which Tehran didn’t admire. So they sent their delegations to Cairo, Damascus and Beirut, “some of these delegations heard from the Syrians what could discard some of their concerns, so they responded to it by saying that the rage and objection on Damascus Declaration were not associated with the Syrian policy but rather with the Egyptian. At this point the whirlwind of Damascus Declaration with its related part to the Syrian-Iranian relationship was over” according to Al-Jazeera website.

Things didn’t calm down later, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the strong historical ally of Damascus and its economic, security and political supporter, along with the collapse of the bipolarity and the Cold War, then what happened in the European spring in 1988 which drove a large mass of the supporting countries (Romania, Czech) away from Damascus, all led to reduce the margin of the political maneuvering in front of the two countries and made them, whether forced or having a choice, come closer to each other, and so there were shuttle visits from both sides to each other with the hard work to consolidate the possible tools between them on the economic and political levels, especially the role of Hezbollah after the end of the civil war in Lebanon.

The second transformation was the Second Gulf War, this time to expel Iraq from Kuwait. Then what followed the war of American wide-scale military deployment in the Arab Gulf region. Then the embargo against Iraq that lasted for more than ten years, in which Iran saw a big threat to its national security. Nevertheless, it dealt very cautiously with it, so it didn’t collide with Washington but rather offered help when the US Navy lost a number of its soldiers whose boat deviated towards the Iranian shores.

By the end of nineties, a military, substantive and technical cooperation between the two countries was launched especially on the level of missile industry. The available western and Israeli reports indicate that this cooperation has already started with a Syrian support for the emerging Iranian programs before Iran becomes a main supporter of the Syrian military manufacturing in general and the missile one in particular. This cooperation has taken a geo-political dimension with the mutual Syrian-Iranian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon, where Syria practically transferred its missile experience to the party; the experience that had a great influence on the course of the July 2006 war that was launched by Israel on Lebanon.

The first decade of the current century has witnessed an additional paradigm shift in the relationship between Tehran and Damascus, in spite of the significant openness of the latter on Ankara and Doha but the reliance remained always on the main axis with Tehran, which started in the era of Bashar Al-Assad to develop a new approach to the situation in the Middle East, then to come the withdrawal of Israel from southern Lebanon as a second great present to the axis of resistance and reluctance after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein regime by the Americans. Here comes the entry of Turkey and Qatar into the relationship line with Damascus in the context of a smooth confrontation to Iran, as we witness in this stage the emergence of Qatar role concerning the Palestinian issue and later on the entrance of Turkey into the same line too in an attempt of them to withdraw the Palestinian issue from Iran’s hand from one side and to break the relation between Damascus and Iran from the other. This issue fell within an international conflict to curb Iran and prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, and then the height of the conflict was in 2006 when Condoleezza Rice the US Secretary of State then announced the birth of a new Middle East, which was then ruined by Syria-Iran-Qatar axis, amidst the neutrality of Turkey that moved later on to pave the road for the relationship with Damascus regime under Qatari sponsorship, and it is the relationship that lasted till 2011.

The third transformation embodied in the US invasion to Iraq in 2003. It came after its accusation of the play of chemical weapons after the end of the role of its president “the commander of necessity”; this event placed each of Syria and Iran on a crater. The two countries were the next target on its path according to what memos and documents say today. Although Syria and Iran have adopted two different approaches to deal with the US invasion to Iraq, they shared the sense of imminent, not virtual or far-reaching threat.

Against the backdrop of these major developments, Syrian-Iranian cooperation accelerated the pace and expanded to include a board set of the bilateral and regional issues. In the same context, the political repercussions of the war, including the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, were not a factor of enhancing the opportunities of maneuvering in front of the Syrian policy, but rather a factor of pressure on it, and Damascus went to these negotiations without Iranian objection since the balance of power was in dire straits for both countries together.

Syria didn’t win from the Gulf War but avoiding the strikes of the international coalition (which will come later after 2010), Iraq, Syria and Iran were on the American axis of evil, and despite the symbolic participation of Damascus in the war in order to soften the international attitude towards it, but this war ended the military strength of Iraq, departed it, ruined it completely and later on made it a source of evils against Syria, and so revealed the eastern front and afterwards revealed Syria.

The bilateral level after 2011

Many changes have been affected the Middle East and the Arab world since the emergence of Arab Spring, thirty years after the end of the Eastern European Spring end of the nineties of the twentieth century. There was a clash and complexity in the Arab region in terms of development, politics and democracy, which opened the door in front of floods of demonstrations demanding for the developmental and democratic change. The Arab spring in its Tunisian and Egyptian years was the focus of attention of Iran and Turkey.

After that, Tehran stood by the popular demonstrations that began in Tunisia and Egypt, portraying the Arab uprisings in their Islamic picture. The Iranian leadership announced that “the Arab Spring promises an era of Islamic unity in the Middle East and Africa, where dictatorial governments will be replaced with Islamic governments”. “The popular tide has turned on the West and its regimes”. The Iranian attitude remained so until it reached Libya, which had good relations with Tehran. However, removing Colonel Al-Qaddafi didn’t bother Iran.

The Arab Spring in Syria caught Iran between a rock and a hard place, as there is a popular uprising (at least as it seemed to be then) and demonstrations burning in many of the Syrian cities and villages every day, and there is a political system: the only one that has special relationships with it. Consequently Iran was caught between the flames of recognition of the movement and losing its friend regime or standing by the regime and accordingly being accused of political hypocrisy and losing its popularity in the Arab world, which has really happened, that is the popularity of Iran after its supportive attitude for the Syrian regime has significantly declined in the Arab world.

It is clear that Iran under an Islamic and Arabic rush (obviously supported from the two neighbors Qatar and Turkey) expected that in case of the fall of the regime in Damascus, the alternative would be an Islamic counter directed against it, and soon the Syrian movement proved it, as the civil currents started to retreat after less than four months of demonstrations.

This wouldn’t bother Tehran if the alternative might be in its orbit or at least not openly hostile to it. But the strongest candidate was the Islamic movements, which are its religious and political enemies (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) and others from the different organizations supported from Qatar and Turkey. This led Iran with its full forces to the Syrian Holocaust to confront Qatar, Turkey and others from the opposed axis, which illustrates that the relationship among the advocates of this axis has been moved from the natural or neutral relationship before 2011 to the struggling exclusionary relationship in Syria, and transformed today to an axis, which confirms what we went to at the beginning of this file, that is subject to the political transformations from one side, not to mention “ideologies crash” inherent within, which ensures the explosion of the whole region and not the axis alone from the other.

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