Iran has managed to entrench itself in Syria and is fast becoming an immovable force in the country.
Since the outbreak of the war in Syria, Iran has been the most important supporter of the Assad regime. The Iranian military, financial and political aid to Damascus was crucial to prevent the fall of the regime. For five years, Iran managed to keep Assad alive, and only in 2015, the Assad regime felt the need for direct Russian intervention.
Since then, Iran’s role has been overshadowed in the media, but on the ground, Iran continues to entrench its presence in Syria, permanently. Russia's rivalry with Iran, while important, is limited, and Israeli airstrikes can’t compete with Iran’s long-term strategy.
While many focus on the presence of Iranian Shia militias in Syria, in reality, the most important assets for Iran are social, not military. Over the years, Iran has increased its outreach to the Alawite minority to whom the Assad family also belongs, and vied to bring them closer to the Shia understanding of Islam. To achieve this goal, Iran has built up shrines to use them as centres of Iranian propaganda and to facilitate the visits of Iranian citizens to the country based on religious motivation.
Iran explicitly tries to convert Alawite beliefs towards a pro-Iranian position and tries to increase their affiliation with Iran's understanding of Islam.
Iran's second strategy is to play with the demographics of Syria. While at least 6.5 million Syrians fled the country, only 8.5 million Syrians live in areas controlled by the Assad regime. While most of the refugees were Sunni Arabs who oppose the Assad regime, the relatively small populations in regime-held areas provided Iran with a new opportunity.
Iran has established small Shia neighbourhoods in Damascus by providing foreign citizens with Syrian citizenship, mostly made up of Afghan refugees. Moreover, Iran has certain geographical targets in its demographic change. Among others, one of them is the area around the International Airport in Damascus to secure the Iranian air transfer route into Syria, the second is the region along the Euphrates between Deir Ezzor and Abu Kamal to secure Iran’s land route into Syria, and another one is the Syrian-Lebanese border region.
While the first is done by demographic engineering and the third by employing Hezbollah to secure the strip, the second is more sophisticated. The province of DeirEzzor composes of Sunni Arab tribes with very strong tribal traditions.
However, as the region has plenty of desert territory and is far away from Israel, Iran does exploit it to its advantage to build up military bases outside of populated areas. At the moment, one of the biggest accumulations of Iranian Shia militias can be found in Deir Ezzor.
Nevertheless, Iran does not limit its activities to military bases. Iran has established several cultural centers and religious institutions in Deir Ezzor. Iran has ambitions to convert the local population to Shiism by providing financial benefits to the converts. Due to poor living conditions, many tribesmen have already converted.
On the Iraqi side of the border, Iran has managed to control the entire desert strip with pro-Iranian militias from the Popular Mobilization Forces. Israeli airstrikes against Iran occur in Deir Ezzor as well, but their effect is limited.
Another way Iran secures its presence in Syria is by investing in the political establishment in Damascus and Latakia. Micro-management strategy enables it to assert itself and have a hand in important decision-making. Iran recently increased its influence over the Assad regime through manipulated parliamentary elections.
The Assad regime itself is explicitly using Iran to counterweigh Russia and to circumvent Russian pressure for political change. For instance, Assad's Foreign Ministry has become vastly infiltrated by Iran which allows it to check up on Russia and to prevent diplomatic exchanges and agreements without Iranian consent.
However, the rivalry between Iran and Russia is most visible in the armed forces fighting on behalf of the Assad regime. Russia does work centrally to empower the central army units, increase the capabilities of pro-Russian army units like the Tiger Forces, and try to incorporate former rebels into the Syrian Arab Army.
Iran invests in militias and works locally. The National Defence Force, Shia militias, and pro-regime Syrian militias are on Iran’s paycheck and under Iranian supervision. Additionally, Iran employs Hezbollah and other Shia militias as loyal vanguards in the country to protect its interests.
For instance, Iranian presence along the Euphrates allows Iran to have control over the oil trade between the Assad regime and the US-backed YPG terror group. The tactic to use a military presence to gain lucrative economic contracts is regularly employed by Iran and sometimes challenged by Russia.
In this manner, Russia has deployed the 5th Corps into Deir Ezzor to counterbalance Iran. Keeping in mind that the 5th Corps is made up of former rebels who are categorically anti-Iranian, this move by Russia demonstrates that Russia can’t counterbalance Iran.
The pro-Russian military elements in Syria are not willing to confront Iran as they have a certain level of sympathy for Iran due to its predominant role from 2011 to 2015. Most see Iran as the main reason for the survival of the Assad regime. Therefore, Russia tries to instrumentalise former rebels against Iran, but their effect is limited. The capabilities of the 5th Corps and their numbers as well as their geographical presence is limited. Moreover, overuse of them might endanger a loss of pro-Russian units to Iran.
While Israel does not have the means to stop Iran, Russia does not have the necessary local partners or infrastructure to be an effective counterbalance to Iran. Additionally, Russia has to maintain its relationship with Iran in Syria as both nations need each other to maintain their Syria policy. In short, Iran is playing the long-game in Syria, and playing it effectively.
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