The Iranian-Syrian alliance stretches back over three decades, constituting one of the more enduring alliances among authoritarian regimes in the region. Officials of the Iranian regime have gone so far as to refer to Syria as "the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us." Today, in a testament to this enduring partnership, Iran has come to play an integral role in sustaining the Syrian regime amidst the ongoing civil war, which began as a popular uprising in March 2011 as the "Arab Spring" swept the region.
In support of the Syrian regime's campaign of mass murder to suppress the popular unrest, Iran has conducted "an extensive, expensive, and integrated effort to keep President Bashar al-Assad in power as long as possible while setting conditions to retain its ability to use Syrian territory and assets to pursue its regional interests should Assad fall." Not only does Iran remain the country's "closest ally," declaring it will "support Syria to the end," but Iran increasingly plays the commanding role in the Syrian Civil War against the rebel forces. In August 2012, IRGC General Salar Abnoush declared, "Today [Iran is] involved in fighting every aspect of a war, a military one in Syria and a cultural one as well."
In 2012, Iran's military and economic support to the Syrian regime increased markedly in order to prevent the collapse of Assad's rule. This steadfast support has continued with the inauguration of new Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, a purported moderate. Speaking with Syrian Prime Minister Wael al-Halqi in August 2013, Rouhani vowed, "the Islamic Republic of Iran aims to strengthen its relations with Syria and will stand by it in facing all challenges. The deep, strategic and historic relations between the people of Syria and Iran… will not be shaken by any force in the world."
The Iranian regime's support for Syria is broad and comprehensive, and includes "the presence of Iranian troops inside Syria, technical assistance, and training for Syrian forces." As recently as December 2013, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Ali Jaffari boasted, "[Iran has] special forces transferring experience and training who are doing advisory work."
Arms shipments and other military equipment
Throughout the conflict, "Iran has sent Syria vast amounts of rifles, machine guns, ammunition, mortar shells, and other arms." Iran has also provided Syria with military communications equipment.
The majority of Iran's arms shipments to Syria are supplied via air transport. According to a Syrian official, Iran provides military support to Assad through "regular clandestine flights between Tehran and Damascus… Up to three supply flights occur each week between the two cities, none of them appearing on public timetables." These flights are organized by the IRGC.
Since the beginning of the Syria conflict, the U.S. "has sanctioned three Iranian airlines [Yas Air, Iran Air, and Mahan Air]… for transporting military equipment and personnel from Iran to Syria." On multiple occasions, Turkish authorities have intercepted Iranian weapons cargo bound for Syria. In the first month of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, Turkish authorities seized "19 crates containing assault rifles, machine guns, ammunition, and mortar shells" from an Iranian Yas Air cargo aircraft that had listed its goods as "auto spare parts."
Iraqi airspace is Iran's primary avenue for arms transportation into Syria. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari has said his country does "not have the ability to stop" the Iranian transport of weapons to Syria via Iraqi airspace. In fact, "Iraq could take several steps to stop the flights, including insisting that cargo planes that depart from Iran en route to Syria land for inspection in Baghdad or declaring outright that Iraq's airspace cannot be used for the flights."
Provision of Military Personnel, Military Training & Intelligence Support
According to U.S. defense officials, Iran is "helping the Syrian regime build and train a militia to assist the Syrian regime forces." Such assistance rose sharply during the summer of 2012 as the Assad regime's grip on power looked increasingly tenuous in the face of rebel advances and force attrition. Concerned for the continued survival of its closest ally, Iran began sending "hundreds of rank-and-file members of the IRGC and the basij… to Damascus," eventually reversing the rebels' advances. Today, Iran "[deploys] IRGC commanders to guide Syrian forces in battle strategy and Quds commanders to help with military intelligence." They are "backed up by thousands of Iranian paramilitary Basij volunteer fighters as well as Arabic speakers including Shi'ites from Iraq."
Among these commanders is Major General Qassem Suleimani. Heading the Quds Force for the past fifteen years, Suleimani has long fought to increase Iranian power in the Middle East through violent means, including "assassinating rivals, arming allies, and, for most of a decade, directing a network of militant groups that killed hundreds of Americans in Iraq." According to a Colonel of the rebel Free Syrian Army, Suleimani is "now running Syria… Bashar is just his mayor." American defense officials agree: "He's running the war himself."
Assisting Suleimani are a number of senior IRGC officers notorious for their engagement in egregious acts of violence. These include Generals Hossein Hamadani and Yadollah Javani, both of whom "oversaw Tehran's 2009 crackdown on Iranian democracy protesters."
As a result, the Syrian Armed Force's missions increasingly align with Iran's strategic interests in the country. For example, Assad's forces launched a series of offenses in 2012 targeting the "Damascus suburb of Zabadani, even though the opposition had a greater presence in Homs." While the suburb is close to Syria's capital, this offense may have taken place because it is "the IRGC's main support facility for Hezbollah."
Iranian influence is also visible in the military strategies of Syrian militia groups. The Shabiha, a ruthless Syrian Alawite militia group that has perpetrated atrocities against Sunni Muslim civilians, closely resembles the Iranian Basij militia, according to U.S. State Department officials. The Basij are notorious for their role in "crushing student protests, detaining activists, writers, and journalists in secret prisons, and threatening pro-democracy speakers and audiences at public events" in Iran.
In coordination with its patron Iran, Lebanese Hezbollah has become increasingly involved in the Syrian Civil War. The militant group's role in the conflict became official in April 2013, following a secret visit to Tehran by Hezbollah Chief Hassan Nasrallah in which Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei "made public [his] desire for Hezbollah to join the battle to save Syria's President Bashar al-Assad." Upon his return to Beirut, Nasrallah gave a public speech "making it clear that Hezbollah would fight alongside Assad to prevent Syria falling 'into the hands' of Sunni jihadi radicals, the United States and Israel."
Hezbollah has reportedly sent "thousands of fighters into Syria in coordination with the [Iranian Revolutionary] Guards." Today, Hezbollah "independently runs Qusayr [a city in western Syria], and its commanders are in charge of maintaining discipline among Mr. Assad's forces." Hezbollah also has a growing presence in Damascus, where "its main task is to prevent rebel groups, mainly Sunni jihadis linked to al Qaeda, such as the al-Nusra Front, from entering the heart of the capital." Through its cooperation with Hezbollah, Iran hopes to "develop proxies that will survive Assad" in case he falls, solidifying its influence in the region regardless of the conflict's outcome.
Iran's support for Hezbollah in Syria is not limited to ensuring the Assad regime's survival. The chaos gripping the war-torn state has provided an opportunity for both Hezbollah and Iran to further their broader military interests, including through weapons smuggling. U.S. officials now believe that with Iran's help "members of Hezbollah… are smuggling advanced guided-missile systems into Lebanon from Syria piece by piece to evade a secretive Israeli air campaign designed to stop them." To facilitate the weapons transport, "Iran's elite Quds Force has been directly overseeing the shipments to Hezbollah warehouses in Syria."
For Hezbollah, "such guided weapons would be a major step up from the 'dumb' rockets and missiles [the group] now has stockpiled, and could sharply increase the group's ability to deter Israel in any potential new battle." The smuggling benefits Iran as well, as it seeks "to upgrade Hezbollah's arsenal to deter future Israeli strikes—either on Lebanon or on [its] nuclear program." U.S. officials also believe weapons transfers are "meant to induce Hezbollah to commit to protect Syrian President Bashar al-Assad."
Shi'a Foreign Legion Training
In addition to sending its own forces into battle, training Syrian troops, and supporting its Hezbollah proxies, Iran has begun "mobilizing thousands of fighters from Arab countries, primarily Lebanon and Iraq, to fortify Mr. Assad's security forces." According to a September 2013 Wall Street Journal article, "busloads of Shiite militiamen from Iraq, Syria and other Arab states have been arriving at [an] Iranian military base near Tehran, in recent weeks, under cover of darkness, for instruction in urban warfare and the teachings of Iran's clerics." At the base, known as Amir Al-Momenin, these fighters are instructed "that the war in Syria is akin to [an] epic battle for Shiite Islam, and if they die they will be martyrs of the highest rank."
Iraqi Shi'a involvement in Syria has grown particularly rapidly. In April 2013, Iraq's Kata'ib Hezbollah (KH) and Asa'ib Ahl al-Haq (AAH)—Shi'a militant groups formed under the auspices of the Qods Force during the U.S. counter-insurgency in Iraq —"confirmed their involvement in the Syrian conflict."
Ultimately, through its proxy strategy, Iran seeks to "guarantee that the mostly Alawite remnants of the Assad regime continue to provide support for Iranian activity in the Levant even if an opposition government takes power in Damascus." In doing so, Iran not only prolongs the incessant violence that has come to define the Syrian conflict, but also continues to widen the already immense schism between Shi'a and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East.
Paralleling military support, Iran has provided the Assad regime with intelligence technology and training. In a June 2011 sanctions action, the U.S. Department of Treasury stated that Iran's Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) had "provided material support to the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate and dispatched personnel to Damascus in April to assist the Syrian government in suppressing the Syrian people." The same report notes the LEF's designation on a list of those "responsible for or complicit in serious human rights abuses in Iran since the June 2009 disputed presidential election." In addition to the LEF, the IRGC Intelligence Organization, Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS), and Iran Electronics Industries (IEI), have also provided the Syrian government with intelligence training and technical support.
Provision of Diesel
According to a report by Human Rights First, "diesel fuel is the 'lifeblood of the killing regime.' Nearly all heavy ground vehicles in Assad's arsenal, including tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and heavy transportation vehicles run on diesel." Critically, "Syria is highly dependent on foreign provision of diesel," and Iran has stepped in as a key supplier of diesel to the regime, through direct shipments and credit lines to purchase the fuel.
Without outside provision of diesel from Iran, the Assad regime's military machine would grind to a halt.
Iran's already robust economic ties with Syria have greatly expanded through the Civil War, providing a vital lifeline to the financially stricken Assad regime as it suffers under the weight of a war-torn economy and global economic sanctions. In April 2012, Iran and Syria implemented a free trade agreement to "boost bilateral trade to $2 billion from around $700 million."
By October 2012, the Times of London reported that Iran had spent around $10 billion in backing the Assad government. This considerable funding has continued in 2013. In January 2013, Iran provided Syria a $1 billion credit line, followed by another $3.6 billion credit line in July to buy oil products such as diesel needed to fuel the Syrian Army's military vehicles.
With Syria's oil embargoed by much of the world, Iran has also used its state-owned oil tankers to transport Syria's crude oil, disguise its origin and get it to market. Additionally, Iran has provided Syria diesel in exchange for gasoline. This is a boon of hundreds of millions of dollars to the Syrian government's depleted coffers.
According to Human Rights First, "This financial assistance helps the Assad regime maintain capital, thereby enabling it to sustain its power and continue its crackdown."
Chemical Weapons Assistance
On August 21, 2013, the Syrian government launched an unprecedented chemical weapons attack on the opposition-controlled Damascus suburbs of Eastern and Western Ghouta. The attack left hundreds of innocent civilians dead, including many women and children.
Despite Iran's own history of being targeted by chemical weapons, the Islamic Republic has repudiated the large body of evidence holding the Syrian regime responsible. A day after the attack, Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif declared, "If the information concerning the use of chemical weapons is accurate, very definitely they were used by terrorist groups." The chemical weapons systems, according to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) investigation, were "known and documented to be in the possession of, and used by, Syrian government armed forces."
HRW further found that the 330mm surface-to-surface rocket believed to be used in the deployment of the chemical weapons on August 21 has dimensions "compatible with the Iranian-produced 333mm Falaq-2 launcher, or close copies and derivatives thereof." Crucially, according to the report, "Iran is believed to be the only country in the world to produce rocket launchers in the 333mm category." While the rockets were likely manufactured in Syria, they were "apparently designed to be deployed with the Iranian 333mm launchers or derivatives thereof." It is clear that Iran's extensive military support for the Assad was instrumental in the August 21 chemical weapons strike.
Iran's support for Syria's chemical weapons program, however, goes much deeper. As The New York Times stated, "Syria's top leaders amassed one of the world's largest stockpiles of chemical weapons with help from the Soviet Union and Iran." In October 2005, for example, military magazine Jane's Defense Weekly quoted a diplomatic source who said that Damascus was pursuing "an innovative chemical warfare [CW] programme in co-operation with Iran." The cooperation, the source explains, "is Tehran's contractual commitment, made to Syria a few months ago, to provide Iranian CW technical assistance to facilitate Syria's CW programme." Later, in 2012, The Washington Post reported about a 2006 cable in which a U.S. diplomat describes Iran's assistance in building the Syrian chemical weapons program. According to the cable, "Iran would provide the construction design and equipment to annually produce tens to hundreds of tons of precursors for VX, sarin, and mustard [gas]… Engineers from Iran's DIO [Defense Industries Organization] were to visit Syria and survey locations for the plants, and construction was scheduled from the end of 2005-2006."
Despite the Iranian regime's calls to abolish chemical weapons, it in fact helped Syria develop its own expansive chemical weapons program.
Iran's Double Game: Support for al Qaeda in Syria
On February 6, 2014, the U.S. Treasury Department charged that “Tehran has allowed senior al Qaeda members operating from Iranian soil to facilitate the movement of Sunni fighters into Syria,” indicating that “elements of Iran's government or military were at least tacitly supporting the opposing sides of Syria's civil war.”
In its sanctions action, the U.S. Treasury Department designated Jafar al-Uzbeki, a senior Uzbek member of al Qaeda, for moving fighters into Syria through Iran. Mr. Jafar “is part of an al Qaeda network operating from Iran… with the knowledge of Iranian authorities.” According to Treasury, the network “uses Iran as a transit point for moving funding and foreign fighters through Turkey to support al Qaeda-affiliated elements inside Syria, including the al-Nusrah Front.” Additionally, the network has moved fighters into Pakistan and Afghanistan from Iran.
In July 2011, Treasury designated the head al Qaeda facilitator in Iran, Ezedin Abdel Aziz Khalil (also known as Yasin al-Suri), who “is responsible for overseeing al-Qa’ida efforts to transfer experienced operatives and leaders from Pakistan to Syria, organizing and maintaining routes by which new recruits can travel to Syria via Turkey, and assisting in the movement of al-Qa’ida external operatives to the West.”
Two weeks before Treasury released its designations, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif rebuffed accusations that Iran was backing al Qaeda, stating, "It would be preposterous to claim Iran, which is a target of al Qaeda, is backing them.” Despite these denials, such Machiavellian double-dealing is not foreign to the Islamic Republic, which employed a similar strategy during the insurgency in Iraq following the 2003 U.S. invasion. Even though Iran is seeking to uphold Assad in Syria against the primarily Sunni opposition, supporting al Qaeda in Syria is advantageous to Iran because (1) it has helped transform the anti-government uprising into a full-blown sectarian civil war in which Syria’s minority groups naturally gravitate to the Assad regime as a better alternative to Sunni Islamist rule and (2) the more robust the threat from radical jihadist groups like al Qaeda in Syria, the more focused the U.S. and the EU will be on containing that danger than removing Assad from power.
While the international community has sought to stop the Syrian regime’s campaign of mass murder and remove Bashar al-Assad from power, Iran’s robust military and economic support to the Syrian regime has been critical in keeping the brutal Assad in power and saving his regime from collapse. Further, Iran’s involvement in Syria has been instrumental in transforming what was initially a popular uprising into a full-blown sectarian war, which has spilled over into Lebanon and Iraq, and has fostered the growth of radical terrorist groups in the region. Worse still, Iran has facilitated the violent suppression of popular unrest that has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of innocent civilians, including by chemical weapons.
Not only does Iran’s support for Assad continue unabated, it has actually increased in recent months. According to a February 2014 Reuters report, “As Syria's war nears the start of its fourth year, Iran has stepped up support on the ground for President Bashar al-Assad… helping to keep Assad in power at a time when neither his own forces nor opposition fighters have a decisive edge on the battlefield.” This surge in support “means Assad felt no need to make concessions at currently deadlocked peace talks in Geneva.”
- "Iranian Strategy in Syria" | Institute for the Study of War and AEI's Critical Threats Project (May 2013)
- "Enablers of the Syrian Conflict: How Targeting Third Parties Can Slow the Atrocities in Syria" | Human Rights First (March 2013)
- "Attacks on Ghouta: "Analysis of Alleged Use of Chemical Weapons in Syria" | Human Rights Watch (9/10/2013)
- "Iran boosts military support in Syria to bolster Assad" | Reuters (2/21/2014)
- "Treasury's Charge Sees Tehran Enabling al Qaeda in Syria" | The Wall Street Journal (2/6/2014)
- "Hezbollah Upgrades Missile Threat to Israel" | The Wall Street Journal (1/2/2014)
- "IRGC: Iran will do whatever's necessary to 'save Syria'" | Al-Monitor (12/11/2013)
- "Iran's secret night flights to arm Syria's Assad revealed" | The National (10/27/2013)
- "The Shadow Commander: Qassem Suleimani" | The New Yorker (9/30/2013)
- "Special Report: Hezbollah gambles all in Syria" | Reuters (9/26/2013)
- "Iranians Dial Up Presence in Syria" | The Wall Street Journal (9/16/2013)
- "Iran's Unwavering Support to Assad's Syria" | Combating Terrorism Center (8/27/2013)
- "Iran grants Syria $3.6 billion credit to buy oil products" | Reuters (July 31, 2013)
- "Head of Ammar Strategic Base: Syria is Iran's 35th Province; if we lose Syria we cannot keep Tehran" | Al-Monitor (2/14/13)
- "'Syrian pro-Assad militias similar to Iran's Basij'" | The Jerusalem Post (11/1/2012)
- "Iran Hides Behind Exotic Flags to Help Syria" | The Wall Street Journal (11/1/2012)
- "Iran and Syria swap fuels as both aim to dodge sanctions" | Reuters (10/31/2012)
- "Iran Supplying Syrian Military via Iraqi Airspace" | The New York Times (9/4/2012)
- "Iran Said to Send Troops to Bolster Syria" | The Wall Street Journal (8/27/2012)
- "Syria has expanded chemical weapons supply with Iran's help, documents show" | The Washington Post (7/17/2012)
- "Iran helps Syria defy oil embargo" | Financial Times (May 18, 2012)
- "Treasury Targets Iranian Arms Shipments" | U.S. Department of Treasury (3/27/2012)
- "Treasury Sanctions Syrian, Iranian Security Forces for Involvement in Syrian Crackdown" | U.S. Department of Treasury (6/29/2011)
- "Iran Aids Syria's CW Program" | Jane's Defense Weekly (10/26/2005)