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Iran’s Trouble with Syria

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By William Tucker

Since the inception of the Syrian uprising, IHS has discussed the international dimension of the conflict, but the initial posturing by regional and international powers, though discernible, was largely opaque. As the civil war has drug on the hand of foreign interlopers has become visible in the form of continuing support for the Assad regime from Russia and Iran, while many Arab and Western nations have provided some support for the rebels. Furthermore, the sectarian divisions among the peoples in Lebanon and Syria has created an inevitable expansion of the fighting as each group looks to protect their own and lay the groundwork for political influence in the future Syrian regime. It should be noted that I refrain from using the nonsensical media phrase “spillover” as the sectarian divisions existed far before the existence of contemporary political boundaries. The Syrian civil war has merely re-exposed these divisions to an international audience.

As these regional and far flung powers deepened their involvement in Syria’s conflict their interests for doing so have really taken a toll on their respective policies. Both the pro and anti-Assad movements have much to lose if their chosen side fails, but failure is not always permanent for all players. Stronger international players, especially those not located in the Middle East, will fare better than the regional powers. Among the regional foreign players in Syria, it is perhaps Iran that has the most to lose from an influential standpoint. Iran has cultivated relationships with many regional militant groups, but they are hardly a substitute for a friendly nation-state. Naturally, Western powers, Arab nations, and Israel have an interest in stymieing Iran’s expansionist designs. As such, it has become open season on Iranian military and intelligence assets in Syria.

Initial targeting of Tehran’s presence was carried out primarily by the Syrian rebels. These early targets included IRGC military personnel, Hezbollah, and other Iranian diplomats that were in the country. When the Syrian rebels first made public that they were holding Iranian personnel it proved quite embarrassing for Tehran. Not long after, Turkey and Iran had a few diplomatic spats over activity in Syria. Perhaps the most intriguing was the military strike carried out by Israel on an arms convoy allegedly moving weapons from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Shortly after the airstrike near Damascus a well-known, high-ranking IRGC general was assassinated in Syria. Though Israel has not claimed responsibility for the assassination, it fits with previous clandestine activity the Jewish state has carried out in the past. This is speculative at the moment and does not originate with hard evidence. Any assassination of an individual in a warzone immediately complicates analysis because of the numerous actors that could have been involved and the fluid situation on the ground. Regardless, it didn’t take long for the Iranians to point the finger at Israel and threaten retaliation.

Though Iran sees some utility in blaming Israel, other matters in Syria have forced Iran, along with Hezbollah, to take measures against the Syrian rebels. Two days ago multiple sources among the Syrian opposition reported that small Hezbollah units attacked several villages near the Qusayr region of Homs – a vital midpoint in the north-south logistics train for Assad loyalists. Hezbollah did deny that its personnel were involved in the attack but did say three of its members died in the region claiming they perished in “self defense.” Hezbollah has consistently denied fighting for Assad in Syria, however there is a substantial body of evidence that suggests otherwise. One might assume that Iran and Hezbollah are fighting merely to save the Assad regime, and though it would serve their respective interests, both parties have realized that Assad may not survive and are doing what they can to carve out some influence in a post-Assad Syria. Israel may serve as an easy scapegoat for now, but Iran’s gains in region influence are declining mainly at the hands of Syria’s rebels.

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