Amid all the debate about what the West (read: the US) should or shouldn’t do about the Syrian civil war, few if any commentators acknowledge the reality that the political outcome in Syria matters more to regional states than it does to the West.
That isn’t a criticism of the West — it’s simply a reflection of reality. Damascus is a long way from Washington (and Canberra for that matter), but not so far from Tehran. And of all the external actors involved in the Syrian morass, no one wants an outcome favourable to its own interests more than Iran.
Syria is pivotal to Iran’s desire for strategic reach in the Middle East because it allows it to overcome some of its structural deficiencies. Iran is an outlier in the Arab world — it is Shia, not Sunni; it is Persian, not Arab; and it speaks Farsi, not Arabic.
As a consequence, it seeks to exert influence through proxies and allies. It established Hezbollah in Lebanon in the early 1980s as an armed Arab proponent of militant Shi’ism loyal to the Iranian concept of vilayet-e faqih and therefore beholden to the edicts of Iran’s supreme leader.
The Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus shares no such religious links. Rather, the Syrian-Iranian relationship has been a pragmatic alliance. Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s wily father, was an adept navigator of regional politics and saw in Iran a useful ally when it suited Syria’s purposes.
Damascus was alone among the Arab states in supporting Tehran during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. And it has proved to be a reliable and strategically vital logistics hub for resupplying Hezbollah in Lebanon.
That Iran is committed to retaining Syria within its regional orbit is shown by its willingness to commit blood and treasure to shoring up the Assad regime. It has granted Damascus a line of credit of nearly $5 billion and has spent billions of dollars more on providing direct military support to the Syrian government.
It is equally true that on the opposing side of the conflict, other regional states and the US also have spent enormous sums on weaponising, training and paying various anti-Assad groups in the country.
Unlike these states, though, Tehran also has committed troops to the cause. Though they have been deployed as advisers and specialists for several years, they have been taking a more active role in the past few months.
Best estimates place their numbers at 2000 or more, and the include Afghan and Pakistani Shia militiamen drafted to take the place of more experienced Iraqi militiamen who returned to their country once the security situation there collapsed.
On top of that, Lebanese Hezbollah forces also have been taking part in the Syrian conflict for years now. The increasingly active role has led to a commensurate rise in Iranian casualties, including scores killed in the past few months.
These deaths also have increasingly featured in public discourse in Iran, alerting the public to the cost of their nation’s Syrian intervention and likely steeling them for further losses. But at a time when Islamic State’s atrocities are widely reviled across the region, the presence and sacrifice of Iranian troops reinforces the government’s narrative of standing up to terrorism and defending the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab, located in Damascus and revered by Shi’ites.
In a country of 80 million and with the carnage of the 1980 Iran-Iraq war still alive in many Iranians’ minds, the losses in Syria are politically sustainable.
The relationship forged between Damascus and Tehran under Assad the elder was very much one of equals. But as the conflict in Syria has dragged on and Bashar al-Assad’s forces have grown weaker through desertion, avoidance and battle casualties, the relationship has been transformed.
Assad and Iran know that without Tehran’s practical assistance and Moscow’s diplomatic and latterly military support, the Syrian regime would have collapsed. The dynamics of the Tehran-Damascus relationship inevitably have changed and Iran in all likelihood will have much greater influence post-conflict than it did in the past.
What that means is that the Iranians will be unlikely to tolerate any negotiated political outcome in Syria that is antithetical to their interests.
Iran has expended blood and treasure to preserve the political status quo in Syria with respect to its regional political orientation and it is unlikely to allow any outcome that threatens its vital interests in the country.
Given Iran’s links with Hezbollah in Syria’s western neighbour Lebanon and its influence in Syria’s eastern neighbour Iraq, it is more than capable of spoiling any outcome that doesn’t preserve its interests in Syria.
Those are powerful bargaining chips to be holding when Iran sits down at the negotiating table to which it belatedly has been invited.
Rodger Shanahan is an associate professor at the Australian National University’s National Security College and a research fellow at the Lowy Institute for International Policy