Don’t Believe Predictions of a Rift Between Iran and Syria
Last week, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad reportedly expelled Javad Ghaffari, the top Iranian commander in Syria, spurring hopes that Damascus is on the brink of a realignment that would draw it closer to the Arab Gulf states, while distancing it from Tehran.
But don’t hold your breath.
When Assad’s downfall seemed imminent during the first years of the Syrian uprising, Iran came to his aid with billions of dollars, a steady supply of oil, and the deployment of Revolutionary Guard Corps advisers and Hezbollah militia fighters. At the height of the Syrian war in 2016, Tehran sent its own troops to fight and die on Assad’s behalf.
Still, gratitude is unlikely to drive Assad’s foreign policy. His grip on power is now secure, so Assad may consider whether a pivot from Iran to the Gulf states would unlock the billions of dollars of foreign capital he hopes would fuel Syria’s reconstruction. Saudi and Emirati investors played a prominent role in the partial economic opening that Assad implemented during his first decade in power, especially in the construction industry.
Diplomatically, Russia is a far more valuable ally than Iran. Moscow continues to leverage its permanent seat on the UN Security Council to shield Assad from sanctions or other punitive action. Russia has also proven itself as a key interlocutor with the United States, securing local ceasefires and deconfliction agreements on terms that favor Damascus.
Militarily, Moscow provides air power that was integral to the counteroffensives that broke the insurgency (in no small part, by deliberately targeting civilians).
In contrast, Assad’s partnership with Iran is a source of constant tension with both the United States and Israel. The latter has conducted an increasingly aggressive bombing campaign to disrupt Tehran’s efforts to turn Syria into a staging ground for future operations against Israel, as well as a conduit for shipments of advanced weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Washington maintains tough sanctions on Assad, yet the Biden administration has dialed down their enforcement, partly to facilitate Arab government’s re-engagement with Assad. If Damascus accepted that invitation, it could potentially secure formal or informal suspension of the most potent US sanctions, including those mandated by the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019, whose goal was to limit Assad’s ability to inflict war crimes on his population.
Despite all this, there are two critical flaws in the logic behind scenarios of a rift between Iran and Syria.
First, it presumes that Assad is prepared to trade the certainty of Syria’s 40-year partnership with Iran for the potential benefits of improving relations with Gulf states. Recall, these are the very states that bankrolled the insurgents who almost brought down the regime.
Second, there is a tendency to forget that the war in Syria is far from over, with Iranian advisers and Shiite militias still playing a critical role — hence the presence in Damascus of Ghaffari, the Revolutionary Guard commander apparently expelled last week.
There remains more than a little uncertainty about what happened to Ghaffari. Al Arabiya and al Hadath, the Gulf media outlets that broke the news of Ghaffari’s expulsion, tend to frame the news in a manner that coincides with the interests of Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, who are actively promoting the notion of a Syrian split with Iran.
While a spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry seemed to confirm Ghaffari’s departure, he described it as the completion of a successful tour of duty. The Gulf outlets’ characterization of that departure as an expulsion drew on a range of anonymous sources, mainly in Damascus. For now, it is best to take the news with a sizable grain of salt and to examine the broader forces tethering Syria to Iran.
Assad controls about 70 percent of Syria’s pre-war territory and population. The areas northeast of the Euphrates River are under the control of the US-led anti-ISIS coalition, with Syrian Kurdish forces governing the region. In the northwest, Turkish and Turkish-aligned forces control part of the region, while jihadi insurgents who oppose Assad and have ties to Al-Qaeda govern the rest.
The war in the northwest remains bloody. After the insurgents bombed a military vehicle in Damascus last month, the regime launched air strikes on a marketplace, killing children who were on their way to school. In the months just prior to the pandemic, Assad launched a major offensive, with Russian and Iranian support, that had the apparent goal of retaking much of the northwest. It was partly successful and displaced more than 900,000 civilians, who sought shelter in tents and bombed out buildings in the middle of winter.
There have been no operations of comparable size since the pandemic began, but Assad is likely biding his time. His own ground forces are dilapidated, and Russia fights mainly from the air, so the regime still depends on Shiite militias organized and directed by Tehran to carry out its military operations. The most effective is Hezbollah, but there are significant Iraqi and Afghan Shiite formations as well.
Tehran also continues to send a steady stream of crude oil tankers to Syria, supplying refineries whose output supports both military operations and civilian needs. Tehran initially provided a multi-billion line of credit to finance the regime’s oil imports, but in practice, what it now sends is likely gratis.
At the height of the US sanctions campaign against Iran, which the Trump administration branded as “maximum pressure,” there were moments when Tehran’s ability to bankroll Damascus seemed questionable. Iranians demonstrated en masse, calling on the clerical regime to use its resources to care for its own rather than spending them on exporting the revolution to Syria and elsewhere. A top Iranian lawmaker said the regime had already spent as much as $30 billion to prop up Assad.
Yet Tehran outlasted the Trump administration, whose successor has tempered sanctions enforcement to facilitate the revival of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Iran’s reserves are growing rapidly, better positioning it to support Damascus, whose finances are in greater disarray than ever thanks to an economic meltdown in Lebanon next door, where Syrian assets are now locked up in an insolvent banking system.
Syria’s former president, Hafez al-Assad, father of Bashar, forged the Syrian partnership with Iran in the early 1980s, after Saddam Hussein launched the Iran-Iraq war. The elder Assad was Saddam’s bitter rival, so he made the enemy of his enemy his friend, putting the imperative of Arab solidarity aside in favor of a Persian alliance. The Syrian-Iranian relationship deepened under Bashar, a response in part to the backlash against Damascus, including US sanctions, that followed the 2005 assassination of Lebanese premier Rafic Hariri. A few years later, Washington re-engaged Syria without expecting Bashar to downgrade ties with Tehran. As noted above, Gulf capital poured in.
Assad has every reason to believe that his diplomatic rehabilitation will continue even if he remains as close to Tehran as ever. Arab kings and princes may come bearing gifts, but they cannot buy the loyalty that Tehran has earned.
The Biden administration pledged to “put human rights at the center of US foreign policy,” but has tragically lost interest in maintaining Assad’s isolation. Even though US citizens remain in Assad’s prisons, the White House has signaled to the Gulf states that sanctions won’t get in the way of their normalization with Syria. Key White House officials have expressed misplaced hope that the Gulf states can wean Damascus off of Iranian support. Washington is pursuing a misinformed policy of realpolitik, premised on hopes of promoting stability by tolerating a regime once considered intolerable. The beneficiaries will be Assad and Tehran.
David Adesnik is a senior fellow and director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.