Iran Wants to Stay in Syria Forever

Russia and Israel are ramping up pressure on Iran to withdraw. But Tehran is intent on recouping its investment of blood and treasure.


A Syrian man holds the Iranian flag as a convoy carrying aid provided by Iran arrives in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor on Sept. 20, 2017. (LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images)

BY BORZOU DARAGAHI | JUNE 1, 2018 VIA Foreign Policy

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Iran Wants to Stay in Syria Forever

{Iran is making a big mistake.  They should cut their losses and stop throwing good money after bad.  Of course, they won’t.  Their hate for Israel transcends the very well-being of their own people and will only serve to be their undoing.   – LS}

Hamid Rezai was among the latest batch of soldiers to die for Iran in Syria, killed by an alleged Israeli rocket attack on the T4 airbase near Homs. He was a 30-year-old native of the capital, Tehran, a pious young man whose father had also been a soldier and who left behind an infant daughter. At Rezai’s late April burial service, his weeping mother said there was no stopping him from volunteering to fight in Syria. “It offends me when people ask, ‘Why didn’t you stand in his way?’” she said, according to an account in the hard-line Mashregh News. “My son chose his own path.”

Rezai’s death added to the more than 2,000 Iranian military deaths in Syria since Tehran began pouring troops and tremendous amounts of resources into the country to defend the regime of Bashar al-Assad from an armed uprising. Israel is pressing Russia, the main powerbroker in Syria, and other international players to get Iran to leave Syria, threatening more strikes on Iranian positions near its border at the Golan Heights or anywhere inside the country should it remain. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo listed Iran’s withdrawal from Syria as one of 12 preconditions for removing sanctions after the Trump administration withdrew from the nuclear deal last month.

But Iranian officials and other experts say the country has invested too much blood and treasure — upwards of $30 billion to date — to fold to international demands, regardless of Israeli airstrikes, or even Moscow’s pressure. Having already made such a massive investment, Iran is determined to reap the potential long-term strategic rewards Syria has to offer — even if it comes at the expense of more lives and money in the short term.

“I don’t think Iran is willing to abandon its presence in Syria,” said the editor of a leading Tehran news outlet, who spoke to Foreign Policy on condition of anonymity. “It gives Iran good leverage against Israel. The ground is very important, and Iran is very skillful at managing the ground — the one area where even Russians are weak. The one who has control of the ground doesn’t take seriously those who don’t.”

Iran insists it is in Syria at the behest of Damascus and will only leave at its request. “As long as necessary and as long as terrorism exists there and the Syrian government wants us to do this, Iran will maintain its presence in Syria and will offer its contribution to the Syrian government,” said Bahram Qassemi, the spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry, according to the BBC.

Assad said in a Russian TV interview this week that there have never been Iranian troops inside Syria. “We have Iranian officers who work with the Syrian army as help,” he said. “But they don’t have troops.”

Iran, along with its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, originally intervened in Syria to defend a regime that had long been its loyal ally at a time when much of the world had written off Assad as another casualty of the Arab Spring uprisings. Over the last seven years, the Iranian investment in Syria has escalated to billions of dollars in military and economic pursuits, sometimes intertwined. Iran has recruited and trained militia recruits from across the Middle East and South Asia deployed to Syria, and provided for the families of those killed. According to calculations by Mansour Farhang, a United States-based scholar and former Iranian diplomat, Iran has spent at least $30 billion on Syria in military and economic aid. The estimates by Nadim Shehadi, a Middle East scholar at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, are even higher, at $15 billion a year and some $105 billion in total. Either figure would be politically controversial at a volatile moment when Iranians at home are demanding accountability and fiscal prudence.

“They’ve made so much economic and political investment,” Farhang said. “It’s very difficult for them to pick up their bags and go home.”

Iranian forces currently operate out of 11 bases around the country, as well as nine military bases for Iranian-backed Shiite militias in southern Aleppo, Homs, and Deir Ezzor provinces as well as about 15 Hezbollah bases and observation points mostly along the Lebanese border and in Aleppo, according to Nawar Oliver, a military researcher at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies, a think tank in Istanbul.

Military analysts said Iran is already under Russian pressure to relocate troops and militias now in Syria’s south to Deir Ezzor, west of the Euphrates River. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned this week that Israel would strike against any attempt by Iran to “establish itself militarily” in Syria, “not just opposite the Golan Heights, but any place in Syria.” Former Israeli United Nations envoy Dore Gold insisted Netanyahu was not being hyperbolic, but meant the entire country. “From a clear military standpoint, Israel wants Iran out of Syria,” said Gold, now director of the Jerusalem Center, a think tank. “That means Syria within its boundaries.”

But Iran’s involvement in Syria goes beyond a conventional military presence, and it has already begun to plant there the seeds of its unique financial and ideological institutions. Along with about a dozen other Iran-linked organizations, the Iran-backed Jihad al-Binaa, the Islamic charitable foundation that financed and organized the reconstruction of southern Beirut after the 2006 summer war, is already working on large projects to rebuild schools, roads, and other infrastructure in Aleppo and other towns, as well as providing aid for the families of slain Iran-backed Syrian militiamen.

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