Analysis & Opinions - Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Iran in Syria: Securing Regional Deterrence

| Oct. 23, 2018

WHAT ARE IRAN’S PRIMARY INTERESTS IN SYRIA?

Iran is primarily concerned with preserving Syria’s prominent role in the Axis of Resistance and its overarching goal of securing its regional deterrence. Accordingly, the collapse of Damascus was intolerable because it would have negatively affected Iran and its allies in the region. This includes securing supply routes to Lebanon; enhancing the deterrence capabilities and operational experience of the Axis of Resistance against Israel and the United States, especially with Trump’s renewed hostility; and balancing Turkey in northern Syria. In addition, preserving Syria’s significant position within the Axis of Resistance serves to showcase Iran’s effectiveness in supporting allies and in its leadership role in the axis.

WHAT IS IRAN’S PREFERRED OUTCOME IN SYRIA, AND HOW IS IT SEEKING TO ACHIEVE SUCH AN OUTCOME?

While initially opposing a military solution in Syria, Iran and its allies gradually moved to using military means to pave the way for a negotiated political settlement after the military balance on the ground shifted drastically against the Syrian regime. This transition was evidenced clearly in the Iran-Russia partnership, which aimed at stopping the opposition’s advances in Syria and provided a lifeline to the Syrian government. The premise of this strategy was that with the reversal of its advances, the opposition in Syria would be incentivized for a political settlement. While Iran still insists on this general political blueprint, Tehran’s preferred outcome is one in which the Syrian regime and state would survive and the opposition would be tamed and ideally integrated. It also wants takfirists and their backers completely excluded. Deterring the United States along the eastern Euphrates is also important for Iran. To achieve this, Iran banks on its own allies on the ground and on its counterparts in the Astana process, which has proved successful in mitigating negative effects from the civil war.

HOW CAN AN IRANIAN-ISRAELI CONFLICT IN SYRIA BE AVOIDED?

First, to avoid a conflict it is very important to avoid misperceptions on Iran’s policy and priorities in Syria, which include prioritizing the balancing of Turkey and pushing back against the United States in northern Syria. A conflict with Israel is not a priority. Iran will also stay in Syria until its strategic concerns with keeping Syria in the Axis of Resistance are met. That includes a Syria free of foreign troops, especially with regards to U.S. and Turkish forces. Second, there is the possibility of unintended conflict. Iran cannot turn a blind eye and refuse to respond to Israeli assaults on itself and its allies without putting its reputation in jeopardy. Therefore, it is possible that Iran’s secondary priorities could, at any time, cause unintended conflicts that go beyond Syria. International partners, especially Russia, can be intermediators of crucial effect to contain such a knock-on effect and conflagration that could quickly envelop the larger region.

TURNING TO YEMEN, WHAT IS THE BEST WAY TO PRODUCE A NEGOTIATED PEACE SETTLEMENT IN THAT COUNTRY?

Iran’s main driver for the limited support to Ansar Allah (the formal name of the Houthi movement) is to help keep Yemen independent of Saudi domination, which is in and of itself a strategic gain over Riyadh. Bogging down Saudi Arabia in Yemen is part of a strategy of exhausting Riyadh’s anti-Iran campaign in the region. Based on this clear and precise goal, Iran brought up an initiative for a political settlement in Yemen stressing an end to the Saudi war in the first clause, which in effect would mean a Saudi defeat, demonstrating that any scenario (either peace or war) is a defeat for the Saudis. As such, despite its close ties with Ansar Allah, Tehran was not welcomed as a mediator by Saudi Arabia. Theoretically, a peace in Yemen is only achievable when realities on the ground, namely the political primacy of Ansar Allah, are acknowledged, but it does not appear that Saudi Arabia is ready to recognize Ansar Allah and negotiate.

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For Academic Citation: Ahmadian, Hassan.“Iran in Syria: Securing Regional Deterrence.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, October 23, 2018.