The war won’t end until Assad’s most powerful backer has a seat at the table — and that isn’t Putin.
Whenever there has been a glimmer of light in the Syrian war, it has always been quickly extinguished. Take the cease-fire agreement reached in September by Washington and Moscow. After Red Crescent trucks delivering aid to the besieged city of Aleppo were bombed by suspected Russian aircraft, the deal quickly fell apart.
The many skeptics of the cease-fire were not surprised by its fate. But its dissolution had less to do with Russia’s duplicitousness than with the fact that Russia never should have been the main interlocutor to begin with. Of the outside backers of the Bashar al-Assad regime, Iran — which has sent hundreds of its troops to Syria and facilitated the involvement of several thousand non-Syrian Shiite militants to prop up Assad — has the most influence in Syria.
Russian and Iranian objectives in Syria are not the same, and there’s no reason to think Iran’s interests are well represented by Russian negotiators. If the United States hopes to achieve any measure of peace in Syria, it can’t avoid directly negotiating with Iran — which is not to suggest that peace will be the immediate result.
Washington first needs to understand why Iran’s stake in Syria runs so deep. Syria under Hafez al-Assad was the only country in the Middle East to back Iran in its devastating war with Iraq during the 1980s. Iran’s military leaders are all veterans of that conflict. They still bear the scars, emotional and physical, of fighting in a war fueled by Iran’s Sunni neighbors that killed and maimed hundreds of thousands of their countrymen. Tehran has a very small cadre of allies, and it will sacrifice plenty to avoid losing its oldest friend.
But the alliance is more than just about personal affection. Iran and Syria grew even closer during the 1990s over their shared antagonism to Israel. Syria became the conduit for support to Lebanese Hezbollah, which ever since has been used as proxy by Iran to threaten and pressure Israel and to serve as a pillar of Iran’s deterrence strategy toward Washington.
Losing access to Syrian territory, in other words, would undermine Iranian deterrence and make it more vulnerable to Israeli and U.S. coercion. As one former official with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) put it, Syria is so strategically important that Iran considers it to be its “35th province.” It would be better for Iran to lose its oil-rich southwest province to adversarial forces (as had happened in the Iran-Iraq war) than to lose Syria, he reasoned. “Because if we hold Syria, we would be able to retake Khuzestan [province]; yet if Syria were lost, we would not be able to keep even Tehran.”
From its perspective, the Islamic Republic has little reason to support any variation of regime change on offer in Syria. The country’s Sunni rebels have displayed a strong bias against Shiites. Jihadi groups like the Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham, and the Islamic State advocate a virulently anti-Shiite worldview. The Islamic State has put that ethos into practice through massacres of Shiite Alawites in Syria and mainstream Shiites in Iraq. Iran assumes other rebel groups would act similarly if given power in Syria and that such Sunni extremism would quickly spill over into Lebanon and Iraq, threatening Shiites in those countries. Iran also has its own problem with Sunni sectarian militants, particularly within its western and southeastern provinces.
A bigger threat is the coalition of support behind the Syrian rebels. The United States and Saudi Arabia have led international backing for the rebels, with Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan, and Turkey playing important roles. Washington remains Iran’s foremost enemy, Saudi Arabia is a hostile rival, and the other states are all critics or competitors of the Islamic Republic. An anti-Shiite regime in Syria, backed by these states, would not only devastate Iran’s strategic investments in the Levant, it could unravel the entirety of its regional influence.
That is why Iran has sent its lead military, the IRGC, to act as the architect of Assad’s military strategy on the ground. Since early 2011, the IRGC has sent funding, weapons, and hundreds of its soldiers to Syria. Under the command of Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, senior IRGC officers have advised Syrian counterparts and helped plan operations against the rebels. The IRGC has formed the crucial components of the pro-Assad forces, of which actual Syrian government troops are only a part. It facilitated the involvement of Lebanese Hezbollah and Iraqi Shiite militias, both IRGC clients, which provided needed frontline troops. It organized a paramilitary among native Syrians, which has become an effective auxiliary to government forces. It established mercenary divisions composed of Afghan and Pakistani Shiite expatriates. The latter were recruited through various inducements — from monthly stipends to promises of Iranian citizenship — but are also said to serve out of sectarian loyalties. Soleimani is also reported to have personally persuaded Moscow to intervene militarily in September 2015.
The reason Iran has made itself such a central actor in the Syrian conflict is to influence its postwar future. That’s why it never bode well that Tehran was excluded from the September cease-fire negotiations between Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Moscow and Washington may have formally represented the two main sides of the war, but neither was in a position to dictate terms to the numerous actors fighting on the ground. Unlike Iran, neither power has ever committed to having a formidable presence on the ground, where it matters most.
Given its deep involvement in Syria, and outside of a military victory by the rebels, Iran will have to be part of any political solution. The United States and Iran already have common cause against jihadis and support the same side of the war against the Islamic State in Iraq. U.S.-Iranian engagement on Syria could help both states advance their objectives. That alone should be enough to warrant bilateral negotiations.
If Iran saw the war in strictly strategic terms, such talks might also have the potential to produce immediate progress toward peace. But the war is seen differently in Tehran than in Washington or Moscow. Iran is far less inclined to compromise than Russia or the United States, because its interest in Syria is not only strategic: It considers the war a personal, sectarian, and even existential matter for the Alawites in Syria and Shiites in neighboring states. If the Assad regime loses Syria, Iran and its allies feel they may lose the region. Iran has thus not wavered from its support for Assad and has not appeared to have done anything to temper Assad’s ambitions in the conflict.
It’s also worth noting that Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has rejected the expansion of U.S.-Iranian talks beyond the nuclear deal. Last year, he made this policy clear: “We agreed to talks with the United States only for the nuclear issue. … In other areas, we did not allow talks with the U.S., and we will not negotiate with them.” In August, he reiterated that stance, saying, “They [the United States] want us to negotiate with them on the regional issues, but the nuclear deal experience tells us that [negotiating with the United States] is a lethal poison and we cannot trust the Americans’ words in any issue.”
Khamenei has been backed by Iran’s military, which has similarly rejected compromise with the United States. Iran’s chief of staff, IRGC Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, said in September that the “IRGC doesn’t accept talks with the enemy. The enemy, especially the U.S., thinks that talks mean the other side’s making concessions and the imposition of [American] demands, but this type of negotiations is not even worth [a] thought and the IRGC doesn’t accept it. The IRGC is vigilant and cannot be fooled.”
The outright rejection of compromise with Washington on regional issues is not a bargaining ploy for the Iranians. It is policy. “Assad or we burn the country” — a slogan used by pro-government troops — could just as easily serve as Iran’s motto. America is not trusted by the IRGC, and nothing short of fully acceding to the Islamic Republic’s demands will change that.
Iran will back down from its maximalist, all-or-nothing Syria strategy only if it feels obliged to do so. Right now it has little such incentive. Russia has buoyed the Iranian position and provided a counterbalance to U.S. pressure. Iran’s leaders also seem unconcerned with the reputational and moral cost of pursing victory. They are willing to sacrifice more for their side than their Sunni neighbors are for theirs. The question for the United States and its allies may be whether they are willing to explore the limits of Iran’s commitment. Iran has already lost more than 400 of its troops in the conflict, including some of its top IRGC commanders — more casualties lost than in any conflict since the Iran-Iraq war. The war is expensive and burdensome. Iran might be open to compromise, but only if it sees it as the best way to ensure Iranian gains. If both sides maintain maximalist positions, the war will end only when one side loses. Absent that, war and the destruction of Syria will perpetuate indefinitely.
Iran could be part of the solution to the Syrian conflict and help end the suffering of millions of innocent civilians. It has earned a seat at the table. But it would also be foolish not to recognize that for now it remains unlikely to use that position to pursue a compromise.
By Afshon Ostovar