What Exactly is Iran Doing in Syria?
The state of Iran has a deep involvement in Syria entailing expensive and well coordinated efforts to help extend president Bashar al-Saad’s grip on power. All together, the nation is busy creating the perfect circumstances under which it may retain the capability to exploit the Syrian territory and resources to safeguard its regional interests if the Assad’s regime falls.
Iran is using its security forces and intelligence services to give strategic advice to the Syrian military, which in turn helps Bashar al-Saad stay in power. The evolution of these Iranian efforts has now taken the form of an expeditionary training force spearheaded by several units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). By commiting the IRGC’s Ground Forces to war abroad, Iran is sending a strong signal that it can and will assert its military force beyond its territory.
Assad has also benefited from Iranian weapons supplies send to his country, specifically by air. This help has proved meaningful with various restocking routes on the ground between Baghdad and Damascus having been shut by the advancing opposition. The military hardware delivered has injected appreciable impetus into the Syrian forces, helping them win numerous encounters with militia.
Iran has also been extending help to shabiha militia that’s been fighting on the side of the Syrian government. To some extent, Tehran is doing this to gain a hedged position in case of Asaad’s fall or the shrinking of the government’s grip to just Damascus and the coastal enclave of Alawite. The militias will find Tehran very useful in such an event, and their engagement will allow Iran to continue operating inside Syria and asserting its military influence from there.
There are other military missions in Syria with interests and strategies aligned to Iranian operations. For instance in 2012, Hezbollah from Lebanon got actively involved in the Syrian conflict once anti-government militia started gaining ground in the country. Hezbollah has been propping Damascus by providing robust and highly-skilled troops whose involvement in the war is tied to the same strategic interests that Iran bears.
For sure, forces that Tehran cannot defeat have prevented the state from having control all over Syria. Additiionally, it’s highly unlikely that Tehran will retain its current capacity to showcase military power in the event that the war ends and Asaad loses power. Nonetheless, Tehran has a hedging strategy meant to guarantee that, in case of the fall of the Syrian regime, its strategic regional interests do not suffer. Such interests are feasible if Iran is able to operate from certain bases in parts of Syria under rule of friendly groups after the downfall of Asaad, provided that anti-government militias are unable to fully take over all Syrian territories.