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Iran’s Rising Role in Syria: Q&A with Nader Hashemi

Bashar al-Assad’s increasing dependence on Iranian military support on the battlefield, according to Iran expert Nader Hashemi, has not only led to a war of influence between Moscow and Tehran in Damascus, but has deepened the growing sectarian divide in Syria and throughout the region.

Written by Dylan Collins Published on Read time Approx. 9 minutes

BEIRUT – Iran’s rising influence both on the ground in Syria and within President Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle may prove to be a stumbling block in international efforts to find a political solution to the country’s five-year civil war, a leading analyst has said.

The increasing number of Iranian deaths on the battlefield, the presence of Iranian diplomats at the Vienna talks this fall, and Russia’s military intervention in September are all connected to Iran’s steadily strengthening grip within the Assad government and throughout Syrian territory, according to Nader Hashemi, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic politics at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

“From Iran’s perspective,” said Hashemi, “the Assad regime is a key regional ally whose survival is fundamental to Iran’s own sense of its national security dilemma and anxieties in the broader region.”

A large portion of Syria’s armed opposition is backed by regional Sunni power players like Saudi Arabia and Turkey – states wary of Iranian and Shiite influence in the Middle East.

As long as both sides of the Shiite-Sunni divide steadily entrench themselves and their interests throughout the war-torn country, international attempts to reach a political solution become increasingly unlikely.

“Without some sort of agreement or modus vivendi between Riyadh and Tehran on the broad outlines of a potential peace settlement,” said Hashemi, “the talks in Vienna have little chance of effecting positive results.”

Syria Deeply spoke with Hashemi about Iran’s growing presence in Syria, the significance of its presence at the talks in Vienna and the growing sectarian war of influence on the ground.

Syria Deeply: How did Iran’s presence at the talks in Vienna influence the proceedings? To what extent will the Saudi/Gulf-Iran divide prove to be a stumbling block going forward?

Nader Hashemi: On the second point, I think the very deep crisis in Iran-Saudi relations is extremely important in terms of understanding the longevity of conflict in Syria today. Arguably, relations between Tehran and Riyadh have never been worse. This situation has deteriorated significantly in recent months over a number of regional issues (especially Yemen and Syria) and the September 24, 2015 Hajj stampede that killed over 2,000 people (mostly Iranian pilgrims) has only added fuel to a raging fire that has been burning off and on between both countries since 1979.

Some form of reapportionment between Saudi Arabia and Iran is a prerequisite for solving the conflict in Syria. Both sides are the biggest regional backers of the key players on the ground. Without some sort of agreement or modus vivendi between Riyadh and Tehran on the broad outlines on a potential peace settlement, I cannot see the Vienna talks producing positive results. I think we are still a long way away from that happening, given the entrenched interests, deep acrimony and the profound suspicion and paranoia that exists between both regimes in terms of the other sides’ motives and intentions, not just in Syria, but across the region.

With respect to the first part of your question on the effects of Iran’s presence at the Vienna talks, I was surprised to hear from members of the Syrian opposition that they were cautiously optimistic about Iran’s participation. Yes, Iran is viewed as an enemy state, but the Syrian opposition members that I spoke with (off the record) viewed this as a possible step forward because, for the first time in four years, all of the key regional and international players who had a stake in the conflict were in the same room.

While there were reports of heated exchanges between the Iranian and Saudi delegations, particularly during the first meeting in Vienna, the fact that you had everyone sitting around the same table and allegedly working toward the same goal (to end to the conflict), and no one left the table and everyone returned for a second meeting in Vienna, provides some cautious grounds for optimism. After the Paris massacre, the urgency for a resolution of the conflict has never been greater in Western capitals and regionally there is a sense that the conflict in Syria is tearing the region apart and it must end as soon as possible.

I remain deeply skeptical, however, about the Vienna peace process. The key issue at the heart of the conflict in Syria – the one topic that produced this conflict in the first place in 2011 – remains unresolved and there seems to be no common ground on how to resolve it. I’m referring to Assad himself and his role as head of state. The opposing sides have diametrically different views on the topic and to expect the Syrian regime and the opposition to kiss and make up after four and half years of a borderline genocidal conflict – as the Vienna process implies – is totally unrealistic. John Kerry’s recent comment on the topic supports this assertion.

Syria Deeply: Is there a war of influence taking place within Assad’s inner circle between Russia and Iran?

Nader Hashemi: Well there was this fascinating piece that I would direct your readers to, by Christopher Reuter in Spiegel Online, where he made a convincing case that the Russian intervention and Assad’s embrace of Russia’s more interventionist role, was in part motivated by Assad’s desire to balance Iran’s growing influence within Syria. There have been several reports – of course we don’t know how accurate they are – that Iran is in full control of the planning, organization and execution of the war against the Syrian rebels (especially around Aleppo and in other major battle zones in the West of the country). These reports suggest that Assad himself really is not in command of what’s happening on the various battlefronts, and it’s really the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and various Shia militias that are leading and organizing the fight while Assad is at best nominally in charge. This is a reflection of the overall weakness of the Syrian army that has been riddled with defections, weak morale and battlefield losses. A consequence of this is that Assad has become heavily dependent on Iranian support to survive militarily. Reuter argues that this dependence on Iran influenced Assad’s decision to turn to Russia for greater support to balance the interests of his two closest allies off against each other.

Ultimately, we don’t know for sure what’s going on within the Assad’s inner circle but based on the reports and the stories that are coming out of Syria, it’s accurate to say that Iran’s influence has significantly increased over the course of the last four years (especially in the last few months). This fact is openly acknowledged in Iran by senior political and military leaders. For example, prior to his death near Aleppo, Hussein Hamedani, a top Revolutionary Guard commander, delivered a lecture in Qum (on March 9, 2015), where claimed that 85 percent of Syria was in the hands of rebel forces until Iran stepped up its intervention to save the Assad regime.

Syria Deeply: Since Assad began his push two months ago, with the help of allied militias and Russian air power, to regain lost territory, we’ve seen the deaths of several prominent figures in the Revolutionary Guard. What does this tell us about Iran’s level of involvement and control on the battlefield in Syria?

Nader Hashemi:Since the Russian intervention that began in early October, at least 70 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps soldiers, including several senior commanders, have been killed in Syria around Aleppo. This suggests a major coordinated military ground offensive by Iran, in conjunction with Russia who is providing air cover, to try and change the battlefield conditions. I think that’s the only logical explanation that can explain the rising numbers of Iranian deaths in Syria. There was hint of this several months ago when it was revealed that Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds forces, travelled to Moscow.

Recently, the Persian press is reporting that 16 Iranian and Pakistani Shia soldiers were buried in Iran after being killed in Syria. The Washington Post reported over the weekend a figure of 67 Iranians, including three senior commanders, who’ve been killed since early October. I suspect the numbers are far greater, but these reports and the rising number of funerals, which really can’t be hidden in Iran, suggests that Iran realizes that Assad is weak and that if they don’t make a major attempt to try and rescue him and his regime now, their heavy investment in Syria will be lost.

This could very well be the last desperate attempt by the Iranian regime to sustain and keep the Assad regime alive. It is perfectly consistent with everything that the Islamic Republic has said about the Assad regime since the start of this conflict. From Iran’s perspective, the Assad regime as a key regional ally whose survival is fundamental to Iran’s own sense of its national security dilemma and anxieties in the broader region. Thus, Iran is willing to invest considerable resources to keep the Assad regime alive. This was reaffirmed yesterday in comments by Iran’s unofficial foreign minister Ali Akbar Velayati when he stated that keeping Assad in power was Iran’s “redline.” Without the Assad regime, Iran feels that it would be significantly weakened in relation to its regional and global adversaries. The big question is: is Iran willing to settle for a de facto partition of Syria as part of a peace settlement?

Syria Deeply: There are rumors that Revolutionary Guard commanders are actually leading brigades within the Syria army. What’s your take on it?

Nader Hashemi: I wouldn’t be surprised. I suspect this is what is happening. Credible reports suggest that on the battlefront, particularly around Aleppo, it’s largely a Revolutionary Guard Corps-led operation. This is where most of the Iranian deaths have taken place. They are providing the leadership and advisory role and the soldiers are coming from various Shiite militias from across the region: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Lebanon. There are Hezbollah fighters there as well, and remnants of the Syrian army that have been cobbled together. So yes, that makes perfect sense to me.

Iran has the military capabilities (and the incentive) to organize these types of military operations. The big challenge though for Assad has been the foot soldiers, which is why you’ve seen these recruitment drives to manipulate the religious identities of poor Shiite young men, in attempt to mobilize them to fight in Syria in defense of Shiite sacred shrines. Thus the claim that you have advanced makes perfect sense to me, but of course we don’t know with absolute certainty because one would have to have an inside look at what’s happening on the battlefield, particularly with respect to the Assad regime’s side of that conflict.

Syria Deeply: What are the consequences of this growing sectarian split, influenced by major Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and Shiite powers like Iran, throughout Syria?

Nader Hashemi: This sectarian split is not new. It has been underway for several years now, and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq was a key turning point. The sectarian split is simply a continuation of what has already been put in place, and the conflict in Syria has made it 1,000 times worse. The consequences for Syria and the broader region are going to be enormous. But we’ll only be able to appreciate those consequences if we can ever get to a peace settlement. Syria has been destroyed. The previous social fabric that allowed for relatively amicable relationships between religions and sects has been fundamentally disrupted and radical forces have been unleashed. Patching them up and restoring those relationships will be an enormous challenge. I doubt if it can happen within one generation. Without an adequate process of transitional justice – i.e. the creation of a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission – that can promote justice, reconciliation and collective healing on what has taken place in Syria, I don’t think sectarian relations can be fixed any time soon. So I think the consequences are enormous, but I think they fundamentally have to be situated and understood not just in a Syrian context but within the broader regional context of sectarian tensions that really can be traced back to 1979 when Iran and Saudi Arabia started to compete for regional hegemony and leadership of the Islamic world on various battlegrounds – Syria being the most recent and catastrophic battleground. I’ve written about this recently and it is part of new book project our Center for Middle East Studies is working on.

Top image: Iranian mourners carry the flag draped coffin of Abdollah Bagheri Niaraki, a onetime bodyguard of former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad who was killed while fighting in Aleppo in Syria, during his funeral service in front of his home in downtown Tehran, Iran, Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015. Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported last Friday that Niaraki was killed while fighting alongside Syrian government forces against “terrorists” in the northern city of Aleppo. Iran is a longtime ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad and has provided crucial economic and military backing throughout the uprising and subsequent civil war. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

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