How the Ukraine war is advancing Iran's influence in Syria
Earlier this month, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad paid a surprise visit to Tehran, where he met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi.
This was Assad’s second visit to Iran since Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011. In Tehran, Khamenei told the Syrian president that Damascus had achieved “victory in an international war” and that Iran seeks stronger bilateral relations with Syria.
“Today’s Syria is not Syria before the war, even though there was no destruction back then, but now the respect and credibility of Syria is much more and all look to it as a power,” said Iran’s Supreme Leader, who also used this meeting to blast Arab states which have formalised diplomatic relations with Israel.
In a reference to the US, Israel, and possibly Turkey, Raisi told Assad that foreign occupying forces and their mercenaries in Syria “must be forced out”.
"As Russia turns its attention increasingly toward Ukraine [...] Tehran is ready to seize the advantage, both militarily on the ground as well as politically and diplomatically"
According to Khamenei’s website, Assad praised Tehran for its regional foreign policy, stating that “Iran’s path is a correct and fundamental path” and that his country’s relationship with Iran has thwarted the Israelis from dominating the Middle East.
One day after Assad came to Tehran, Iran’s chief diplomat Hossein Amir-Abdollahian emphasised that the visit’s “message” is that Iranian-Syrian relations remain “excellent and unshakeable”.
It is important to read this visit within the context of international and regional developments, namely the Russian-Ukrainian war and Arab efforts led by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to bring Assad’s government back into the Arab world’s diplomatic fold.
Both have potentially significant implications for the future of Syria, as well as Iran’s role and interests in the country.
By visiting Tehran, Assad was likely intending to emphasise how much he values the Iranians for all they have done in Syria since 2012. Damascus will continue counting on the Islamic Republic for support, especially with changes in Russia’s position in Syria resulting from the war in Ukraine.
Ultimately, this visit to Iran should be seen as a sobering moment for those who have previously argued that Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members could be on the verge of creating distance between Damascus and Tehran.
The Ukraine shock
The Iranians are preparing for new circumstances in Syria resulting from Moscow shifting its focus toward Ukraine.
This raises questions about vacuums opening in Syria that anti-Assad forces could exploit, which now require Iran to adjust to see to it that the Syrian government does not suffer any major setbacks because of Russia being able to do a bit less for Damascus.
“I would imagine that [Assad] wanted to touch base with the Iranians directly for their assessment of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and how that might affect the Russian commitment to his regime,” said Barbara Slavin, the director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, in an interview with The New Arab.
“Assad’s visit to Tehran could be interpreted as an attempt by the two allies to coordinate and adapt their agenda to the changing international relations of the Syrian crisis,” Hamidreza Azizi, a visiting fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told TNA.
With Russia fighting a war in Ukraine that may not end for a long time, Tehran stands to gain from Moscow reconfiguring its role in Syria.
Already the Russians have reportedly been transferring some of their bases to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), meaning that the further expansion and consolidation of Iranian influence in Syria can be expected as an outcome of Vladimir Putin’s ‘special military operation’ in Ukraine.
“Iran's position in Syria appears poised to benefit from Russia's war in Ukraine. As Russia turns its attention increasingly toward Ukraine - evidenced by the transfer of senior Russian military officials from Syria to Ukraine and a decrease in Moscow's strategic bandwidth on Syria - Tehran is ready to seize the advantage, both militarily on the ground as well as politically and diplomatically,” Mona Yacoubian, a senior adviser at the US Institute of Peace, told TNA.
“The tempo of high-level visits between Tehran and Damascus appears to be on the rise. On the ground, Iranian backed forces have already started to exploit Russia's diminished position in northeast Syria and could well seek to exploit security gaps in the southwest,” added Yacoubian.
From Israel’s perspective, this shift in the balance of power in Syria is worrying.
One of Tel Aviv’s major incentives for maintaining close relations with Moscow has to do with Israel’s desire to see to it that Russia’s role in Syria limits Iran’s influence in the country - an interest that the UAE and some other GCC states share.
"On the ground, Iranian backed forces have already started to exploit Russia's diminished position in northeast Syria and could well seek to exploit security gaps in the southwest"
This dynamic in Israeli-Russian relations has been highly relevant to Tel Aviv’s cautious response to the war in Ukraine, whereby the Jewish state has sought to avoid antagonising Putin’s government, at least at the beginning of the conflict.
Now, with Iran’s presence in Syria set to strengthen against the backdrop of Russia allegedly transferring bases to the IRGC, there is every reason to expect the Israelis to increase their attacks against Iranian and Iran-backed targets in Syria.
This is a cost that Assad and officials in his regime must accept as they turn to the Islamic Republic to fill vacuums created by Russia’s shifting attention to Ukraine.
Keeping Syria in the 'axis of resistance' camp
Notably, Assad’s last major international travel took place in March when he visited the leadership in Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Tehran has welcomed the rapprochement between the UAE and Syria, ultimately seeing Abu Dhabi’s efforts to rehabilitate Assad and decrease his regime’s isolation in the Middle East as positive for Iranian interests.
Yet Iran does view the Abraham Accords as a major threat and Tehran does not want to see Syria normalise diplomatic relations with Israel through Emirati mediation. This factor is important to bear in mind when asking why Palestine was central to Assad’s discussions with Khamenei and Raisi.
The focus on the Palestinian issue during Assad’s meetings with the leadership in Tehran was a “deliberate setting by the Iranian side to emphasise Syria’s status as an integral part of the so-called ‘axis of resistance’ and that Damascus is not going to join the expanding trend of Arab normalisation with Israel,” according to Azizi.
“Assad’s Iran visit was [somewhat] a reaffirmation of his alliance with Tehran, and that he’s not going to abandon or reconsider strategic relations with the Islamic Republic to appease the Arab states.”
"The bigger question is who, if anyone, will rebuild Syria and will Arab countries that had shunned Assad try to prevent Iran from getting those contracts"
Looking ahead, how Syria’s post-war development will occur is extremely important. The Iranians want to secure lucrative contracts in Syria so they can benefit economically from the war-torn country’s reconstruction and redevelopment.
That said, while Syria and Iran have put in place agreements for the latter to secure such contracts, “little progress” has taken place regarding implementation.
The day after Assad’s visit to Iran, Nour News, an Iranian media outlet close to the country’s Supreme National Security Council, encouraged the boosting of economic cooperation between the two countries, stressing that “nothing can stop the expansion of [bilateral] relations”.
Yet when it comes to rebuilding Syria, there are many moving parts as well as unknown geopolitical variables to consider.
“The bigger question is who, if anyone, will rebuild Syria and will Arab countries that had shunned Assad try to prevent Iran from getting those contracts,” Slavin told TNA.
“Will Assad remain a reliable Iranian ally in that event? Perhaps he felt a need to reassure Khamenei on that front.”
Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.
Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero