The Iranian-Syrian alliance stretches back over three decades, constituting one of the most enduring partnerships among authoritarian regimes in the region. Iran views the maintenance of Assad’s control in Syria as a check against Sunni power in Syria and the greater Middle East. Through the Assad regime, Iran is further able to project its influence throughout the Levant.
In a testament to Assad’s utility, the Islamic Republic of Iran and its proxies have played a critical role in saving and sustaining Bashar al-Assad’s regime amidst the ongoing Syrian Civil War, which began as a popular uprising in March 2011 as the “Arab Spring” swept 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.”
Syria has been so strategically vital to Iran because it provides a logistical “land bridge” to Hezbollah and access to Mediterranean ports, which is central to its regional ambitions. The regime also wants to deny a victory to its regional Sunni rivals, and further consolidate its “Shia Crescent” stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
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, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Salary About declared, “Today [Iran is] involved in fighting every aspect of a war, a military one in Syria and a cultural one as well.”
This steadfast support has continued throughout the administration of 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.”
Iranian Economic Support to the Assad Regime
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 Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power. In the early stages of the conflict, Iran offered limited assistance to the Assad regime in the form of technical and financial support, facilitated primarily through the IRGC Quds Force. Beginning in 2012, Iran's economic support increased markedly to forestall the collapse of the Assad regime.
It is unknown exactly how much Iran has spent to prop up the Assad regime, but estimates range from $30 billion to $105 billion in total military and economic aid since the onset of the conflict. In 2017, Iran, through its state run Export Development Bank, extended Syria an additional $1 billion credit line, adding to the $5.6 billion total credit lifeline Iran provided the Assad regime in 2013 and 2015 to keep the Syrian economy afloat and facilitate Syrian purchases of petroleum. Iran’s provision of credit to the Assad regime underscores its increased reliance on Iran for its survival.
Tehran has also greatly expanded its economic ties with Damascus during the Civil War, boosting bilateral trade from a peak of $545 million per year before the war to over $1 billion annually by 2017. Trade volume appears to have dipped since then according to Iranian state media reports, but in 2019, an Iranian official stated Iran’s intention to boost trade volume by an additional $500 million to $1 billion annually within two years. To that end, Iran and Syria held a series of bilateral visits and economic delegations in 2019 aimed at cementing stronger economic ties. Most notably, in January 2019, Iran’s vice president traveled to Damascus and inked agreements solidifying banking cooperation, for Iran to boost Syria’s power generation, and for Iran to restore railways and other infrastructure, all with an eye toward boosting trade.
Iran has used its own oil tankers to transport Syria's embargoed crude oil, disguise its origins, and get it to market. Iran stepped up its provision of diesel fuel to the Syrian regime during the Civil War, fueling the Syrian Army’s heavy ground vehicles – including tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, and heavy transport. Tehran has done so through direct shipments as well as by providing Assad with credit lines to purchase the fuel. Additionally, Iran has provided Syria diesel in exchange for gasoline, a boon of hundreds of millions of dollars to the cash-strapped Syrian government.
Reports by Syrian government media indicate that in October 2018, Iran, hit hard by the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions, suspended its credit line to the Assad regime, triggering a fuel crisis. For at least a period of six months, Iran was unable to export fuel to Syria, but in May 2019, an Iranian oil tanker successfully delivered a shipment of oil, easing the crisis.
Iran’s efforts to provide oil to fuel Syria’s war machine have been ongoing, as evidenced by the July 2019 interdiction by British Royal Marines of an Iranian oil tanker off the coast of Gibraltar carrying 2 million barrels of oil suspected of being destined for Syria. The British operation highlighted Iran’s efforts to maintain its lifeline to the Assad regime in violation of EU and other international sanctions.
Iranian Military Support to the Assad Regime
Iran has effectively been in charge of planning and leading the conduct of the conflict. The Iranian regime's support for Syria is broad and comprehensive, and includes deploying Iranian troops inside Syria, technical assistance, and training for Syrian forces. As early as December 2013, Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Maj.-Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari boasted, "[Iran has] special forces transferring experience and training who are doing advisory work."
Initially, Iranian support was limited to advising and training Assad regime forces. Iranian support to the Syrian regime increased markedly in 2012 as Assad risked losing power due to rebel advances and force attrition. Iran began sending hundreds of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Basij fighters to Damascus, stanching and eventually reversing Assad’s losses. Tehran has subsequently greatly expanded its support to include deploying thousands of IRGC, Artesh and Basij fighters to take a direct part in the Syrian Civil War’s battles.
Iran has engaged in the facilitation of arms transfers to the Assad regime and proxy militia forces in Syria, including Hezbollah, in violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231. These arms transfers have helped Assad regain lost territory and have given Iran and its proxies the ability to project power in the Levant militarily, threatening Israel, Jordan, and other U.S. allies and interests in the region.
Iran has sent Syria vast quantities of military equipment throughout the civil war, including rifles, machine guns, ammunition, mortar shells, and other arms, as well as military communications equipment. These arms transfers began prior to the introduction of Resolution 2231 and continue today. Most of Iran's arms shipments to Syria are supplied via air transport. From January 2016 to August 2017, over 1000 flights departed from points in Iran and landed in Syria, indicating an ongoing complex logistical operation to resupply the Assad regime. Israel has referred Iran to the U.N. Security Council on two separate occasions for alleged violations of Resolution 2231 in Syria, once for the launching of an “Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV),” described as having been launched into Israeli airspace to attack Israeli territory, and once for Iran’s delivery of a Khordad air defense system (which Israel destroyed before it could be set up) to an Iranian air base.
As the tide of the war has shifted in Assad’s favor, Iran has moved to establish a permanent military presence in Syria, effectively transforming the country into a forward operating base from which to threaten and occasionally attack Israel. Iran has set about constructing military bases and weapons production and storage facilities to that end. Israel has targeted Iranian weapons depots on numerous occasions, vowing to strike against Iranian military entrenchment in Syria when it feels threatened. One prominent node for Iranian entrenchment is the T4 airbase, where Iran has sought to establish “a large air force compound under its exclusive control,” according to Haaretz military correspondent Amos Harel. Iran shares the large base with Russian and Syrian forces, but operates independently of them, controlling T4’s western and northern sides.
Highlighting the Iranian danger, in February 2018, Iran launched an armed drone from Syrian territory into Israel, an attack that Israel ultimately repelled. In August 2019, Israel struck Quds Force and Iran-backed Shi’a militia targets in Damascus who were preparing to launch explosives-laden “killer drones” into Israel’s north. Iran’s use of Syria as a staging ground for UCAV attacks against Israel illustrates the extent to which Iran has a free hand to operate in Syria, as Assad has allowed Iran to undertake such operations even though they put his own forces at risk.
In September 2019, Western intelligence sources alleged, and satellite imagery confirmed, that Iran’s Quds Force is constructing a military complex, the Imam Ali compound, near the border with Iraq where it will house thousands of troops. Some of the buildings at the compound appear to be heavily fortified, heightening suspicions that they may be used to store sophisticated weaponry including precision-guided missiles. The compound was partially destroyed by airstrikes after its existence was exposed, but as of November 2019, Fox News has confirmed that construction of the base is ongoing. In December 2019, Fox News reported that Iran is building an underground tunnel at the Imam Ali complex to store missiles and other advanced weaponry.
While most of Iran’s military hardware and personnel are concentrated in Syria’s north, Israel is increasingly concerned about the transfer of sophisticated weaponry and precision-guided missiles to Hezbollah forces in the country, and over Iranian efforts to establish a presence in the Golan Heights, overlooking Israel’s northern border. In November 2019, an Israeli military official alleged, "there are Iranian Quds forces in the Golan Heights and that's not fear-mongering, they're there." Iran’s military entrenchment has eroded Syria’s sovereignty and invited increased Israeli strikes on Syrian territory, indicating that as Syria’s civil war calms down, the country may become embroiled as a battleground between Israel and Iran and its proxies.
In July 2020, Iran and Syria signed a comprehensive agreement to enhance their cooperation in the military and defense spheres. Both sides indicated that the agreement was meant to resist U.S. attempts to pressure and isolate Iran and Syria. Iran noted that as part of the agreement, it will “strengthen Syria’s air defense systems within the framework of strengthening military cooperation between the two countries.” Israeli media reported in August 2020 that Israel has carried out over 1,000 airstrikes in Syria since 2017 largely in service its effort to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria and weapons transfers to Hezbollah. During that period, Israel has reportedly taken out over one-third of Syria’s air defenses in order to ensure its continued aerial freedom of operation.
Iran’s pledges to bolster Syria’s air defenses and increase military cooperation with Damascus show that it remains committed to entrenching itself militarily in Syria. As Iran has entrenched, it has used Syria as a weapons transshipment hub, establishing supply lines to provide drones, precision-bombs, and other advanced weaponry to Hezbollah and Iran-backed Shia militias. Israel has shown repeatedly that it is willing to strike Iranian targets in Syria to stanch the Iranian proliferation threat and rein in the arms supply network Iran is building in the region. As such, Syria is likely to remain a battleground for direct Israeli-Iranian confrontation for the foreseeable future.
Provision of Proxies
Iran has deployed an estimated 20-30,000 of its regional proxies from around the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Pakistan into the country. 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. Former IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani was at the head of these forces until his death in a U.S. drone strike on January 3, 2020, coordinating activities among the various Shia mercenary forces and ensuring that their activities fulfilled Iranian foreign policy objectives.
These duties have now shifted to Soleimani’s successor, Esmail Ghaani. Tehran’s command and control over its proxy forces in Syria has likely suffered since the transition, as Ghaani does not have the stature of Soleimani or benefit of close relationships with the heads of various militias that made Soleimani so effective. In June 2020, Ghaani reportedly visited the Syrian side of the Abu Kamal border crossing with Iraq, where he vowed that Iran would continue to fight the “Zionist regime” and U.S. Ghaani’s visit was meant to show that like Soleimani, Ghaani is capable of clandestinely visiting Iranian proxies around the region, and as an opportunity for Ghaani to assert his control over and consolidate unity among the various factions Soleimani previously commanded.
Under Iranian direction, Hezbollah entered the Syrian Civil War on Assad’s side in 2011 and has been critical to his regime’s survival. 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.” Since then, Hezbollah has deployed approximately 5,000-8,000 fighters into the Syrian arena, and between 1 and 2,000 of them have been killed. The group has been involved in almost every major battle of the war, including the repeated offensives in Qalamoun and Zabadani, but most critically the battle of Aleppo. The battle of Aleppo ended with a regime victory in December 2016, irreversibly turning the tide of the Syrian war.
After averting the direct rebel threat to Damascus, Hezbollah has acted to re-extend the regime’s control over all of Syria. In May of 2017, Hezbollah’s Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah announced the withdrawal of his forces from positions on the Lebanese-Syrian border. Rather than demobilizing, however, they were sent deeper into eastern Syria as part of a large-scale operation to retake the country’s borders with Jordan and Iraq and to join with Popular Mobilization Forces charging from the Iraqi side of the border.
Hezbollah has made clear it intends to remain in Syria and is laying permanent groundwork for the day after an eventual Assad victory. Hezbollah has reportedly established missile bases in Qusayr and Qalamoun to better protect its longer-ranger projectiles from Israeli aerial attacks. It has also engaged in large-scale sectarian cleansing of Sunnis from the area to secure its Beqaa Valley and Baalbek strongholds across the border and guarantee its land corridor to Damascus. Critically, an Iranian-Qatari brokered population swap deal in April 2017 transferred almost all remaining Sunni combatants from the area, in exchange for the Shiite residents of besieged Foua and Kefraya.
The group is also aiming to establish a presence on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights, a matter of concern for the Israelis. This would not threaten Israel’s military superiority in the area, since the Israelis occupy the high-ground and the flat terrain between the Golan and Damascus can easily be seized by IDF ground troops. However, it could serve as a base for Hezbollah to carry out limited strikes against soldiers or civilians in Israeli-held territory in a future conflict.
Israeli security officials say Hezbollah is also exploiting the chaos of Syria’s civil war to clandestinely import advanced, balance-altering weapons – allegedly including chemical weapons, SCUDs, and Yakhont anti-ship missiles – from its Iranian patron and the Assad regime. These weapons would be a major upgrade from the short-range and unguided katyusha rockets that have been the group’s traditional mainstay, and which make up the bulk of its oft-mentioned arsenal of 150,000 rockets. Israel considers this a red line and has repeatedly intercepted and destroyed these weapons with air strikes.
Additional Shiite Militia Proxies
In addition to Hezbollah, Iran has mobilized, funded, and armed thousands of Shiite fighters to defend Assad’s regime, inflaming Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions in the process. These fighters, under the unified command of Qassem Soleimani, have been recruited from across the Arab and Islamic world, including Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
An estimated 3,000 Afghans, primarily immigrants and refugees residing in Iran and Syria, form the Liwa Fatemiyoun (Fatemiyoun Division). Approximately 1,000 Pakistanis, who receive training from the IRGC Quds Force in Mashad, comprise the Zainabyoun Brigade, which the Iranian press describes as an elite assault force. The core forces of the Zainabyoun Brigade reportedly initially came from Al-Mustafa International University, an Iranian network of colleges and seminaries tasked with disseminating Iran’s religious ideology around the world.
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. 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 train 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 “labaykya 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.
One of the most important and notorious of those groups is Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, which played a critical role in the battle for Aleppo and is alleged to have summarily executed 82 civilians – including 11 women and 13 children. Harakat al-Nujaba, an offshoot of Kataib Hezbollah and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, recently formed a “Golan Liberation Brigade” to fight the Israelis.
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. Iran’s Qassem Soleimani and Hezbollah personally oversaw the creation of the NDF, whose local Syrian recruits receive training in urban and guerilla warfare from both the IRGC and Hezbollah at facilities in Syria, Lebanon and Iran.
The NDF operates as a part-time volunteer reserve force of the Syrian Army which has 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. In a similar vein to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed NDF operate in a localized context and are ostensibly Syrian actors, but their true raison d’etre is the propagation of Iran’s supranational revolutionary project.
In addition to replicating the Hezbollah model in Syria, Iran’s role in creating the NDF also 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.
Iran’s Gains in Syria
The successes of Hezbollah, the NDF, and affiliated Iranian proxy forces 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 provision of economic, military, and proxy support was critical in stabilizing Assad’s rule until Russia’s entry into the Syrian Civil War in 2015. Following the regime’s 2016 victory in Aleppo, the war’s momentum swung decisively in Assad’s favor. In 2018, the Assad regime further consolidated its control in brutal fashion, pressing an offensive in Eastern Ghouta, the last rebel-held bastion in the Damascus suburbs. The Eastern Ghouta campaign forced the remnants of rebel forces and thousands of civilians to flee to Idlib province, which is now Syria’s last-remaining rebel-held enclave on the western Syrian corridor that runs from Damascus-Homs-Hama-Idlib-Aleppo.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has euphemistically declared that Idlib, whose population has doubled to 3 million people since the war broke out due to internally displaced refugees, must be “cleaned out” of opposition forces. The U.N. has warned that a regime offensive backed by Iran and Russia would result in the “worst humanitarian catastrophe” of the century as there are no longer any opposition-held areas left in Syria where those fleeing can evacuate. In September 2018, Russia and Turkey negotiated a tenuous truce to forestall a bloodbath in Idlib, but the Assad regime has referred to the deal as a “temporary one.”
In October 2019, President Trump hastily announced the withdrawal of U.S. forces from northeast Syria and signaled his intention to eventually fully end U.S. involvement in Syria. The announcement effectively strengthened Iran’s hand in Syria and will facilitate further Iranian military and commercial entrenchment, presenting a self-inflicted setback to the administration’s concerted effort to pressure Tehran.
The U.S. military presence in northeast Syria provided a deterrent that allowed the Kurdish-led SDF to control a full third of Syria’s territory, home to the country’s richest oil and agricultural resources, keeping it out of the hands of the Russia-Assad-Iran alliance for seven years.
The U.S. withdrawal has also increased the chances of a Russian-Syrian-Iranian onslaught in Idlib. Turkey, concerned that an offensive would further increase refugee strains, had stood as a major impediment to an Idlib offensive. In the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal, however, Turkey has had to draw closer to Russia, neutralizing its protestations over a “fait accompli” in Idlib.
At a December 2019 summit in Kazakhstan as part of the Russia-Iran-Turkey negotiation track, Turkey joined Russia and Iran in expressing concern over the increased presence of “terrorist groups” in Idlib, and pledged to work cooperatively to pacify the situation. The pledge came in the wake of increased activity by Syrian armed forces, in conjunction with Russian air power, on the outskirts of Idlib in the weeks prior. In November 2019, Syrian and Russian forces killed at least 22 civilians in attacks on an internally displaced person (IDP) camp and a maternity hospital in villages around Idlib, according to opposition monitoring groups. These events indicated that a full-scale offensive in Idlib was imminent.
The Kazakhstan summit ended without a definitive ceasefire agreement, and in the days that followed, Syrian government forces, Russia, Hezbollah, Iran and other pro-Assad militias launched an offensive to retake Idlib. Nearly one million Syrians, roughly half of them children, were displaced by the fighting, straining U.N. relief efforts. In March 2020, Russia and Turkey agreed to a ceasefire, but the situation remains volatile.
Iran’s Long-Term Influence in Syria
The Assad regime’s re-consolidation of power, a project in which Iran played an indispensable role, has given Iran and its proxies a foothold to project economic, military, and cultural influence into Syria for years to come. Iran’s Syrian intervention has paid off, guaranteeing both Assad’s survival and dependence on Tehran given his weakened position both domestically and within the international community. For its efforts to shore up Assad, Iran and the IRGC – which has a hand in virtually every sector of the Iranian economy – have the opportunity 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.
In September 2017, Iran’s Research Institute of Petroleum, a governmental research institute affiliated with the National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), announced that Iran is planning to build an oil refinery in Syria’s western city of Homs once the civil war ends as part of a consortium involving Iranian, Syrian, and Venezuelan companies. The consortium has already begun pursuing international investments for the project, which will take an estimated $1 billion to construct and will have a projected refining capacity of 140,000 barrels per day.
The Homs oil refinery is one of a series of business deals Iran has announced that indicates that the Islamic Republic is poised to take a leading role in the rebuilding of Syria, after playing a pivotal role in the nation’s destruction. Also in September 2017, Iran signed a series of lucrative agreements to restore Syria’s power grid and in January 2017, the Iranian government and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)-affiliated entities inked major mining and telecommunications agreements with Damascus. The telecommunications agreements are particularly alarming, as they may provide Iran with communications-monitoring and intelligence-gathering tools.
In January 2018, Iran announced plans to establish Islamic Azad University branches in Syrian cities, a development that indicates that Iran is investing in spreading its Islamic Revolutionary ideology in Syria.
In November 2019, Iran and Syria announced a memorandum of understanding to establish three joint state-owned companies that will focus on reconstructing infrastructure and residential properties.
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 ensures that Iran will be the dominant military and cultural power in Syria for the foreseeable future. As Iran has further entrenched its control and influence over Syria, it and its proxies have taken on increasingly confrontational postures against the U.S. and Israel. Iran has engaged in armed drone skirmishes with Israeli forces, and conducted a missile strike against ISIS fighters that landed within three miles of U.S forces. These incidents indicate that Iran plans on using Syria as a base from which to provoke the U.S. and its allies and is not concerned about dragging Syria into its proxy battles.