While the narrative behind Iran’s involvement in Syria is often convoluted, or misrepresented by Iranian regime officials as the protection of Shiite shrines from terrorists, the real reason that Iran has spent so much of its national capital on a war that is taking place a thousand miles away is best portrayed by the Iranian regime’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei.
“If the ill-wishers and seditionists, who are the puppets of the U.S. and Zionism, had not been confronted [in Syria], we should have stood against them in Tehran, Fars, Khorasan and Esfahan,” stated Khamenei during a January 5 meeting with the families of Iranian commandos killed in Syria.
Khamenei’s remarks, which echoed earlier statements made by the Supreme Leader himself and other top regime officials during the five-year-course of the Syrian crisis, reflect Tehran’s vested interest in Syria and the incumbent regime of Bashar al-Assad.
The extension of the war has cost both Tehran and Damascus dearly, and has resulted in the death of more than 400,000 civilians and the displacement of millions of others. However, Khamenei and other top officials adamantly continue to insist on supporting Assad. Here’s what’s behind Iran’s involvement in Syria.
Syria’s strategic value to Iran
Meddling in the affairs of neighboring and regional countries, which the Iranian regime frames as “export of revolution,” is one of the main pillars of its survival and continued hold on power. Therefore since its establishment after the 1979 revolution, the clerical regime has allocated vast amounts of resources on its foreign and regional incursions, which are often manifested in terrorist activity and the propagation of extremist ideology.
Within this context, Syria falls in line with other countries such as Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen, where the Iranian regime is actively involved, both politically and militarily, through proxy groups and militias.
Following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which eventually turned into a quasi-occupation by Iran, Syria became of even greater value to Tehran, because it could provide it with a direct land corridor to the Mediterranean Sea, as well as a supply channel to the Hezbollah, a internationally known Lebanese terrorist group that acts as an Iranian proxy. Iranian officials have on several occasions described Syria as Iran’s 35th province.
Upon the eruption of popular uprisings in Syria, the Iranian regime moved fast to protect its interests, which resulted in a prolonged war and a crisis that later found regional and global proportions.
Iran’s troops in Syria
Given Syria’s strategic importance to the Iranian regime, prior to the crisis, 2,000 to 3,000 of Iran’s IRGC officers (Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps) were present in the country, managing supply routes of arms and money to neighbouring Lebanon.
From the onset of the Syrian uprising, the Iranian regime became directly involved in quelling protests, helping Assad with equipment, weapons, technical knowhow and the experience acquired in more than three decades of crushing dissent and opposition in Iran. Iranian and Hezbollah agents also mixed-in with security forces cracking down on protesters.
However, as it became evident that Assad was in dire straits and was hard pressed against the rising tide of protests and the growing opposition movement, Iran became militarily involved in the crisis, using Iranian troops in Syria and dispatching reinforcements to help Assad maintain his hold on power.
Iran put Qassem Soleimani, the shady commander of the IRGC Quds Force (IRGC-QF), renowned and sanctioned for his key role in orchestrating Iran’s foreign terrorist operations, at the helm of the effort.
By December 2013, Iran was said to have over 10,000 operatives in Syria, including IRGC commanders as well as Basij paramilitary forces, Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Shiite militias from Iraq.
According to a report published by the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI), by 2016, Iran’s forces in Syria had grown to more than 70,000, outnumbering Assad’s 50,000-man strong military by a large margin. In a frantic effort to prevent the collapse of the Assad regime, Iran ended up adding Afghan and Pakistani militias to its military composition in Syria, as well as a large chunk of the Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), a militia force Iran had assembled under the guise of fighting the extremist group ISIS. The PMF has been accused of war crimes against Sunnis in Iraq on several occasions.
Russia’s late 2015 military intervention in Syria in favor of Assad was also initiated at the behest and request of Iran, discussed in a controversial visit by Suleimani to Russia in mid-2015.
Russian warplanes played a complementary role to Iran’s ground forces in Syria, laying waste to entire cities and towns.
Iran’s casualties in Syria
The Iranian regime’s military incursion in Syria came at a great cost to Tehran. According to reports obtained by the NCRI from within the regime’s own ranks, Iran’s death toll in the Syrian war are estimated to be over 12,000.
IRGC and Iranian soldiers along with Iraqi and Afghan militias account for 3,000 of the casualties. The Lebanese Hezbollah also paid dearly for having rallied to the call of Tehran, losing 2,000 of its fighters in the course of the conflict. Another 7,000 dead go to Syrian forces funded and trained by Iran.
Tehran also lost scores of its officers and generals in Syria, including IRGC Brigadier General Hossein Hamedani, who was killed in late 2015 while leading the Iranian effort in Syria.
Hezbollah lost Mustafa Badreddine, one of its veteran commanders who had played a major role in planning and staging the 1984 bombing of U.S. Marines’ barracks in Beirut.
Iran’s expenditures in Syria
The Syrian crisis erupted at a time where Iran was under heavy economic sanctions for its illicit nuclear program. The restrictions nonetheless didn’t deter Tehran from pouring money into the conflict in order to preserve its interests.
In 2012, The Economist reported that Iran had spent $9 billion to support the Assad regime. At the same time, Tehran was providing fuel, arms and supplies to the Syrian military. This was happening while Iran was under an arms export embargo by the UN.
In the summer of 2013, Syrian officials said Iran was to provide $3.6 billion in financial aid, on top of a January credit line valued at $1 billion.
In June 2015, a spokeswoman for UN envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said to Bloomberg the body estimates Iran to spend an annual minimum of $6 billion in Syria. Nadim Shehadi, the director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University, said that his research puts the actual number at $15 billion annually, even at a time where Iran’s banks were cut off from the global financial system.
During the same period, diplomatic sources in Beirut told the Christian Science Monitor that Iran spends between $1 billion and $2 billion a month in Syria in cash handouts and military support.
As Iran’s negotiations with world powers came to a conclusion, there were fears that Tehran would spend economic benefits resulting from sanctions relief to notch up its support for the Assad regime, a concern that was echoed by U.S. officials in Washington.
In August 2016, the Iranian resistance exposed secret documents obtained from inside Iran which revealed that the regime in Tehran had spent as much as $100 billion on the war in Syria.
Iran’s future in Syria
The Iranian resistance has clearly pointed out that the Iranian regime can have no role in the future of Syria, and as the main source of crises in the region and the massacre of the Syrian people, its eviction from Syria, Iraq, and other countries in the region, will be key to the establishment of peace and the uprooting of extremist groups such as ISIS.
Despite statements made by Iranian officials after the military retake of Aleppo from opposition forces, Iran’s hold on Syria remains shaky and filled with doubt. After half a decade of bloodletting and war crimes, it is improbable that the Iranian regime would be able to carve a future for itself and its ally Assad in Syria.
Dragging Russia into the fray also didn’t do the Iranian regime any favor as the strategic goals of the two states do not converge in the region, and they’re likely to be at loggerheads over their conflicts of interest in the future.
As the fog of war settles, it is expectable that Iran’s apparent gains in Syria will start to unravel.