Analysis & Opinions - Iran Matters

Hezbollah 'Delivers' Assad: Implications of Iran's Involvement in Syrian Crisis

| April 17, 2015

Thirteen years ago, Secretary of State Colin Powell famously warned President George W. Bush in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, "If you break it, you own it." Today, Iran has demonstrated its own variation on the Pottery Barn rule, a reality that Middle Eastern capitals are slowly realizing: "if you fix it, you own it." Nowhere is this paradigm more evident than in Syria, where President Bashar al-Assad and his regime owe their lives, quite literally, to Iranian military and economic support. Iran has invested 20 billion dollars in Syria to keep Syria functioning and, according to recent Arab media reports, is now conditioning further support on "sovereign guarantees" from Syria (Al-Nahar, 21 March, Al-Hayat, 3 February). Such "guarantees," according to the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, include hotels and real estate, thousands of hectares of land, and a Shiite pilgrimage site outside of Damascus.

The dramatic increase in Iranian control of Syria began in 2012, when Iran instructed Hezbollah — arguably the most formidable non-state actor in the region — to throw its military weight behind a deteriorating Syrian army. The goal was to stop the opposition forces from advancing toward Damascus and cutting the Syrian capital off from the Mediterranean coast. The 5,000 troops Hezbollah deployed to Syria snatched back some strategic strongholds, including the key town of Al-Qusayr on the Lebanese border. This helped to reverse the tide of the war and largely ended the debate over the regime's prospects for survival.

Hezbollah's military intervention in Syria, which has cost it up to 1,000 troops so far conveyed the message that from the standpoint of Syria's allies, Bashar al-Assad and the country's "strategic choices" (that is, Syria's political orientation) constituted a "red line" that Iran and Hezbollah would not allow to be crossed. In fact, this was exactly what Hezbollah Secretary General Hasan Nasrallah informed Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov last December in Beirut.

Syria-Hezbollah relations have thus come a remarkably long way. To put this relationship in a historical perspective, it is worth noting that one of the basic assumptions underlying the diplomatic negotiations between Israel and Syria during the 1990s and the subsequent efforts to revive them had been that Damascus would "deliver" the Lebanese organization in any peace agreement. Hezbollah, however, evolved fairly quickly from a mere Syrian and Iranian proxy to a full ally of Syria, and then to a regional actor that is currently taking part in shaping Syria's future and is involved in Iraq as well. With Iran's backing, it was Hezbollah that ended up "delivering" Syria. The entire Middle East, Nasrallah said last month, "has been molded anew" and was "now being recreated from scratch...whoever is absent from making the fate of the region is in fact telling others to do so."

Regardless of how and when the dust settles on the crisis in Syria, it is difficult to see Damascus restoring the ability to shape its own strategic orientation anytime soon. Last month, for instance, Syria and Iran signed an economic cooperation agreement, which according to the Syrian finance minister will enable Iran to play a "primary role" in his country's postwar reconstruction. Other reports have indicated an increased Hezbollah presence in the Syrian capital — which can perhaps explain Nasrallah's recent statements to the Syrian TV, in which he stressed that Syria was an independent state, that Iran was not occupying Syria, and that "Hezbollah is not a regional power."

In his recently published memoirs, Farouq al-Shara, the former Syrian foreign minister and vice president, uncovers an intriguing historical tidbit, which reflects the extent to which the balance of power has shifted in Iran's favor: as Israeli troops advanced toward the outskirts of Beirut in the summer of 1982, Iran's supreme leader Khomeini conveyed a "proposal" to Syrian president Hafiz al-Assad to the effect that Tehran would dispatch 100,000 volunteers to help resist the Israeli army. Upon receiving the proposal, says Al-Shara, the Syrian president reacted with "simultaneous interest and concern," which is why he allowed the passage of no more than 400 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps into Lebanon. Al-Assad, his former confidant continues, used to bring up this anecdote whenever he wanted to explain to an interlocutor "the limitations of Syria's position toward Iran." In other words, Al-Assad was willing and capable of keeping Iran at arm's length. Three decades later, and under dramatically different conditions, Iran set up the National Defense Forces in Syria, which according to a 26 February report by Al-Hayat veteran reporter Ibrahim Hamidi, is funded, trained and controlled by the IRGC and is 100,000-strong. If anything, Bashar al-Assad's Syria is likely to become answerable to Tehran, which, for its own part, will be in a position to exert its own influence to keep Syria safe within its anti-Israeli "resistance axis." This may have strategic implications on the balance of power between Israel and the "resistance axis," as well as on the prospect for renewed violence on Israel's northern arena.

Israel's 18 January air raid across its border with Syria, which killed six Hezbollah commanders and fighters in addition to an Iranian general, was the first resounding indication that Israel, in the words of a senior Israeli security source, "does not intend to allow Hezbollah or Iran to establish a presence on the Golan Heights. That is a red line." Yet upholding that red line will prove elusive, as Israel has learned from Hezbollah's post-2006 success at gradually turning southern Lebanon into Israel's most threatening front and establishing mutual deterrence vis-à-vis Israel. Hezbollah's retaliation for Israel's air raid — an attack on an Israeli convoy that killed two soldiers — was carried out from southern Lebanon, following which the organization declared Lebanon and Syria as a single front. This means that Hezbollah could — or is already trying to — extend its deterrence to cover its moves in the Syrian arena as well, and to gradually establish facts on the ground on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Last month, the Syrian army, along with 2,000 Hezbollah troops and an unknown number of "Iranian volunteers," launched a military offensive to break up what they view as an Israeli- and Jordanian-supported "security zone" comprised of the Al-Nusra Front and other opposition forces. While that military offensive has encountered significant difficulty, in the long run the outcome of that joint effort could have a strategic effect on Israel's northern arena, as it could create another de facto border between it and Iran, in addition to the border that in many senses they already share — albeit indirectly — in Lebanon. While Israel cannot afford to let this happen, Iran and Hezbollah view the opposition's presence on the Syrian Golan Heights as an Israeli asset and a potential strategic threat to the Syrian capital. This balance of interests is likely to produce more violent bargaining along the Israel-Syria border. If anything, the pending nuclear deal with Iran will only motivate Israel to demonstrate more assertiveness in denying Iran further gains close to Israel's borders.

Dr. Sobelman is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs International Security Program

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Sobelman, Daniel.“Hezbollah 'Delivers' Assad: Implications of Iran's Involvement in Syrian Crisis.” Iran Matters, April 17, 2015.

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