Syria represents another case of Iran replicating the Hezbollah model it has applied in Lebanon and Iraq to become the dominant power within a country. Iran has dramatically escalated its support for the regime of Bashar al-Assad, enabling it to reverse key setbacks and regain the upper hand in the Syrian Civil War. The conflict has severely degraded the Syrian Army’s fighting abilities and weakened President Bashar al-Assad’s political authority, leaving the Assad regime beholden to Iran and the proxy militias it has marshalled for its continued survival.
Iran is effectively in charge of planning and leading the conduct of the conflict and has provided the Assad regime with a nearly $6 billion line of credit, underscoring its increased reliance on Iran. Iran ordered Hezbollah into the conflict and recruited thousands of Shia mercenary fighters from the Middle East, Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight in Syria who now form the core of pro-Assad forces in the country. Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani has emerged as the primary overseer of the Syrian war effort, coordinating activities among the various Shia mercenary forces and ensuring that their activities fulfill Iranian foreign policy objectives. As the Assad regime has weakened, it has become increasingly reliant on the local and foreign Shia militias beholden to Iran to seize and hold territory.
Iran’s efforts to recruit Shia militants to the Syrian war effort from around the Middle East and beyond center upon the salaries it offers its disaffected conscripts. Recruits are offered monthly salaries on a sliding scale dependent on country of origin, basic and advanced military training, and Iran offers to pay the families of “martyrs” for their children’s education and to send family members on annual pilgrimages to holy sites in Iran, Iraq, and Syria.
Beyond cash and benefits, Iran relies heavily on religious and ideological appeals to find recruits willing to be martyred for the cause. Hezbollah spent the first two years of the civil war denying its involvement, but in April 2013, Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah openly declared Hezbollah’s foray into the conflict, urging his followers to not “let Syria fall in the hands of America, Israel, or Takfiri (radical Sunni) groups.” The New York Times detailed how recruiters affiliated with the IRGC appeal to the Shia faith and identity of potential fighters, reporting that once recruited, fighters are trained near Tehran where “Iranian officers delivered speeches invoking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the revered seventh-century Shiite figure whose death at the hands of a powerful Sunni army became the event around which Shiite spirituality would revolve. The same enemies of the Shiites who killed the imam are now in Syria and Iraq, the officers told the men.”
Iran has also sought to frame the fighting in Syria as an urgent necessity to defend Shia shrines. The golden-domed Sayyeda Zainab shrine, strategically located in south Damascus, is especially central to this narrative of Iran and its proxy fighters. Attendees at funerals for Lebanese Hezbollah and other Shia militia fighters killed in Syria frequently chant “labayk ya Zainab (At your service, O Zainab), and these same groups have also produced propagandistic songs featuring the slogan and prominently placed the shrine’s iconic dome in the background of martyrdom posters of fallen fighters.
Much as Iran has tried to promote its regime ideology in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf, Iran has sought to transform the Sayyeda Zainab shrine into “a regional focal point for Iran’s attempt to extend its religious and political influence among Shiites.” This effort extends to establishing educational and charitable outfits around the shrine geared toward proselytizing Iranian regime ideology to Shia pilgrims and tourists. Iran’s usage of the shrine is largely oriented toward portraying Iran as the defender of all Shia and calling for pan-Shia unity under Iran’s ideological mantle. Iran has especially sought to exploit this messaging as the wars it has poured accelerant onto have been increasingly overtaken by sectarianism.
One of the most pernicious ways in which Iran has sought to bolster its influence along sectarian lines in Syria has been by providing ideological guidance for the transformation of elements of Bashar Al-Assad’s Popular Committees – small, localized defense units – and other irregular pro-Assad armed groups into increasingly “regularized” militias, known as the National Defense Forces (NDF), modeled after Hezbollah. The NDF operate as a part-time volunteer reserves of the Syrian Army which have opted to fight on behalf of the Assad regime against rebel groups, filling the void created by the depletion of Assad’s Syrian armed forces since their creation in mid-2012. Iran has taken the lead in the “rebranding, restructuring, and merging” of the Popular Committees into the NDF, with Hezbollah playing a critical role in providing military and ideological training.
As a result, the NDF have been coopted into a vehicle for the fulfillment of Iranian objectives, wherein “Iran's Iraqi and Lebanese Shiite proxies helped transform various Syrian Twelver Shiite militias into copies of Lebanese Hezbollah, all espousing Iran's ideology of absolute velayat-e faqih (the doctrine granting the Supreme Leader his authority). In many cases, preexisting NDF groups accepted assistance and guidance from the IRGC, Hezbollah, and Iranian-controlled Iraqi Shiite militias.” In a similar vein to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed NDF operate in a localized context and are ostensibly Syrian actors, but scratching beneath the surface reveals that their true raison d’etre is the propagation of Iran’s supranational revolutionary project.
Iran’s role in creating the NDF mirrors the establishment of the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in Iraq. Both the Syrian NDF and Iraqi PMF are governmentally sanctioned and financed paramilitary outfits whose fighters are more numerous and powerful than their respective states’ official defense forces. The NDF is now by far the largest militia network in Syria, estimated at approximately 50,000 primarily Alawite members as of late 2015. The NDF has participated in critical battles, including the 2016 Aleppo offensive and the campaign to dislodge ISIS, contributing to Assad’s surging territorial reconquests.
The successes of Hezbollah and the NDF in the Syrian theater have expanded Iran’s objectives within Syria. What began as an Iranian-sponsored attempt to create a “Useful Syria” from the regime’s major cities and economic centers has now become a more ambitious campaign to retake the entire country. With the Assad regime and allied forces – including Hezbollah and other Iranian proxy militias – retaking the key Iraqi-Syrian border crossings of al-Tanf and Abu Kamal, and Iranian-sponsored members of the Popular Mobilization Forces reaching the Syrian border from the Iraqi side, Iran has completed a critical link in its project to create a land corridor to the Mediterranean.
Iran’s Syrian intervention has paid off, as Assad’s survival seems assured while his weakened position both domestically and within the international community all but guarantees he will remain a subservient Iranian client. For its efforts to shore up Assad, Iran and the IRGC – which has a hand in virtually every sector of the Iranian economy – are positioned to further carve out a long-term role for themselves in Syria, utilizing the cover of military and economic projects to export the Islamic Revolution by creating Shi’a militias and quasi-state institutions loyal to Iran and its Supreme Leader within Syria.
Both the NDF and Lebanese Hezbollah appear to be permanent fixtures in Syria as well, remaking a country that historically “was home to many competing ideological forms of Shiism” in Iran’s image. Hezbollah and the NDF’s secure Iranian alignment and loyalty to its revolutionary ethos gives Iran a foothold to project its ideological influence into Syria for years to come. As Iran further entrenches its control over Syria, it will increasingly seek to marshal its proxies to project power throughout the Levant, increasing the likelihood of eventual future conflict with Israel.