In a Middle East beset by shifting alliances, the Iran-Syria relationship has been one of the region's most enduring axes. Since its establishment following Iran's revolution in 1979, the alliance has weathered several challenges, from the interstate conflict seen in the Iran-Iraq War, to popular uprisings and now, most recently, Syria's own protracted and bloody civil war. It is a relationship that has endured because of both states' shared aims in the region and their positions as vanguards of resistance against U.S. and Israeli interests in the Middle East. These common aims are vitally important in understanding what is at stake for Iran in the current Syrian conflict. Iran's involvement in Syria stems from the shared strategic outlook of Tehran and Damascus regarding key regional issues such as the plight of the Palestinians and maintaining a presence in Lebanon. There is also a strong defensive element in the Islamic Republic's thinking towards Syria, with Iran seeking to maintain its position in the region. As time passes, the Syrian conflict grows ever more complex, and a whole range of state and non-state actors become involved. It has also drawn in both regional and global powers.
Before delving into the myriad complexities of the Islamic Republic's involvement in Syria, it is worthwhile pausing for a quick methodological note. First, the Iran-Syria alliance, despite being one of the longest standing in the Middle East, has not historically been subject to much scrutiny in academic publications. While this paper concerns "the present," the history of the relationship is key to understanding why the alliance persists. The focus of this piece is more on explaining the reasons behind Iran's involvement in the Syria conflict, than educated guesswork on possible outcomes. I do not seek to gaze into the future, or offer policy recommendations or potential scenarios. Finally, because of the very immediate nature of the subject, I have had to make use of current awareness, news and sources that give an insight into the views of key figures where necessary.
Before exploring what is at stake for Iran in the Syria conflict, it is first necessary to examine the historical roots of the relationship, to gain a fuller understanding of what drives Iran's actions there. This is a relationship based on a long-held, common strategic outlook in the region. It is an alliance that has strengthened and acquired greater institutional depth over the last 37 years, as both states face similar threats from Israel and the United States, and see themselves as constituting a so-called Axis of Resistance in the Middle East. For this reason, the alliance has been characterized by scholars as primarily defensive in nature.1
The relationship between the Islamic Republic and the Assad dynasty has its roots in the sanctuary that Hafiz Assad provided to members of the Iranian opposition who were seeking the ouster of the shah during the 1970s. Although Assad had established limited relations with the Pahlavis, it was the Lebanese context that helped provide the initial impetus for relations between the Syrian regime and those who were to become key figures in post-revolutionary Iran. Lebanon has long provided a key link between the two countries, and, while the religious element has arguably not been a determining factor in the Iran-Syria alliance,2 it does play a significant role via the shared value that both place on Lebanon's Shii community. As Von Maltzahn notes,3 Musa al-Sadr, the prominent Iranian-born cleric who was to become vital in the awakening of Lebanese Shii political consciousness, developed a close alliance with Assad. Al-Sadr knew the value of having a powerful external ally, while Assad viewed Lebanon's Shia as an important tool in his bid to maintain influence over Lebanon. Furthermore, Al-Sadr conferred religious legitimacy on Assad's Alawite community,4 recognizing them as Shii, and acted as a key go-between with Iran's revolutionary leader Khomeini.5 A large number of key revolutionary figures were given diplomatic protection by Syria in the run-up to the revolution, and Khomeini was also offered asylum in Syria after he was exiled from Iraq in 1978.6 The historical confessional linkages, and connections made in the pre-revolutionary era by key figures in the Islamic Republic, were also to become crucial in Iran's establishment of Hezbollah in Lebanon.7
Subsequently, Syria was the first Arab country to recognize the new government in Iran. Assad saw the birth of the Islamic Republic as a positive development, especially in light of its sympathy towards the Palestinian cause, the similar stances held on key regional developments and relations with other Arab states,8 most notably, Saddam Hussein's Iraq. To this end, the burgeoning Iran-Syria alliance can be seen as a classic form of "hard balancing" against Iraq, Israel and United States.9 The relationship was born of a sense of shared purpose which is foundational in both states' foreign policies towards key regional issues. Finally, a relatively underexplored element of the Iran-Syria relationship, significant in reinforcing the foundational links between the two, is the cultural diplomacy Iran has practiced towards Syria. Von Maltzahn ably explores how cultural exchange and Iranian religious tourism to Shii shrines helped foster closer bilateral relations.10 This is part of a wider approach by the Islamic Republic to utilize soft-power strategies as a means of projecting its influence.11 It also acts as a useful vector for projecting its "hard" power, as seen in its harnessing of a religious narrative to justify its involvement in the Syria conflict.
COMMON FOREIGN-POLICY INTERESTS
At the core of the Iran-Syria relationship lie common views on a number of key foreign-policy issues dating back to the establishment of the Islamic Republic. Shared interests on Iraq and Lebanon, relations with key external powers such as Russia/the USSR and the United States, and opposition to Israel are the most important. While they are all interlinked, some disaggregation of these key issues helps shed light on how the alliance has developed and why it endures, despite early analyses deeming the Iran-Syria relationship purely an alliance of convenience.12 These common foreign-policy outlooks vary in their ideological confluence, as with Israel, and practical realpolitik interests, as with Iraq, often combining the two. It is in the foundation of these shared outlooks that one can discern much of the rationale for Iran's current involvement in Syria.
Throughout the 1980s, Iraq and Lebanon acted as key geopolitical pivots where Iranian and Syrian interests converged. Perhaps the most pragmatic theater for cooperation initially, and one that no doubt helped shape the "alliance-of-convenience" argument being advanced during the 1980s,13 was towards Saddam's Iraq. Realpolitik predominated in Assad's thinking as he sought to maintain a position of strength against his rival neighbor, Saddam's Iraq. Cognizant of the dangers of siding with Iran against the majority of the Arab world, who had thrown their weight behind Saddam, Assad pitched his support in terms of Iran's position against Israel and support for the Palestinian cause. For him, it was the "wrong war against the wrong enemy at the wrong time" detracting from what should be the real unifying cause in the region.14
Assad's cautious public backing for Iran belied deeper military cooperation, such as Syrian logistical assistance in the devastating Iranian raid on Iraq's al-Walid airbase, which wiped out some 15-20 percent of Saddam's air force15 and helped further entrench the alliance. In return for its support, Syria received Iranian oil and gained a crucial check on the power at its eastern border. For Iran, having an Arab ally in a conflict that was so often pitched as Arab versus Persian was also vital. It gave the war and wider regional aims greater legitimacy, in harmony with the universal pretensions of Khomeini's revolutionary message. The alliance shaped in the heat of the Iran-Iraq War thus gave Iran greater access to the Arab-Islamic world, helping to counter claims of uniquely Shii and Persian interests.16 Such formative experiences were key in helping deepen intelligence and military cooperation between the two over the years.
The common opposition to Saddam's Iraq persisted after the end of the Iran-Iraq War, through the first Gulf conflict (1991), and into the new century, which saw the ouster of their erstwhile regional foe. In the post-Saddam era of chaos and conflict that has plagued Iraq since 2003, Iran and Syria have again found common cause there. Though some analysts sought to emphasize how Tehran-Damascus ties stagnated as Iran's ties with Iraq expanded after 2003,17 the arrival of the so-called Islamic State onto the world scene further deepened the impetus for cooperation. This will be discussed further in the next section in terms of how it relates to Iran's involvement in the Syrian conflict. However, as far as both states' relations with Iraq are concerned it is also vitally important. In its quest to challenge the very normative foundations of the world order, the Islamic State group does not recognize international borders. Consequently, Iran-Iraq interdependence has increased due to the Syrian crisis, with Iraq acting as a potential bridge between the two.18 The three states, along with Russia, have been involved in intelligence sharing since September 2015, as they seek to unify their effort against the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq.19
The area where Iran-Syria ties were cemented historically has been Lebanon, most notably in regard to Iran's Levantine protégé Hezbollah. The roots of this relationship are key to understanding why Iran is so heavily invested in the current Syria conflict and also helps shed light on Hezbollah's role. Indeed, many scholars have argued that Iran's desire to protect Hezbollah is perhaps the main reason for its continued involvement in Syria.20 Prior to Hezbollah's entrance into the current war, its main focus was securing domestic political power in Lebanon and acting as a vanguard of resistance to Israel. With both Syria and the Islamic Republic shaping their worldviews in the context of such resistance, the Lebanese theater provided a prime location to deepen their cooperation. The Syrian view of Lebanon as constituting an errant province of its own,21 which fueled its decades-long involvement in the country, and the newly founded Islamic Republic's desire to support and extend its revolutionary message to Lebanese Shia, helped set the scene for increased collaboration. Also, as noted previously, Lebanon provided a common ground for nascent contacts between the Assad regime and Iranian opposition activists prior to 1979.
Both states had an interest in mobilizing Lebanese Shia against the pro-U.S. government in Lebanon and the Israeli forces occupying the south of the country. As such, Iran and Syria coordinated policies to expel Israeli and Western forces from Lebanon between 1982 and 1985.22 There were some tensions between Iran and Syria during the 1980s due to Hezbollah's rise, checking the power of the Syrian-backed Shia faction Amal. However, both took longer-term strategic considerations into account. Iran calculated that even a minor foothold in Lebanon was useful at the time,23 and this was to become significant in future years as Hezbollah grew into the key Shia group there. Hezbollah's prominence in Lebanon increased following the Taif Accords that ended the Lebanese civil war, as it transformed from a guerrilla organization into a political force. Despite its growing political role, Hezbollah's utility as a front in the axis of resistance against Israel has been one of its key strategic uses for Iran and Syria. This was particularly evident after the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war; the popularity of Hezbollah (and by association Iran) in the Muslim world was at an all-time high due to the perceived victory over Israel.
Syria has historically acted as a conduit for Iranian arms deliveries to Hezbollah, hosting important transhipment points, such as one at the Adra facility near Damascus,24 and has also acted as an arms supplier to them in its own right.25 Furthermore, since the 2006 war, there has been increasing integration of both Hezbollah and Iran into Syria's own command-and-control apparatus, with Hezbollah helping integrate Iran-Syria joint operations through shared signals intelligence and the establishment of joint listening posts in the south, aimed towards Israel.26 Having a strong Hezbollah in Lebanon has served Syria historically, checking Israeli aggression and reducing Tel Aviv's room for maneuver in Lebanon. For Iran, the benefit is clear: it has a forward base against an entity to which it is ideologically opposed. With this thinking in mind, Iran, Syria and Hezbollah see themselves as constituting an Axis of Resistance against Israeli and, by extension, U.S. aims in the region. Until the current conflict, Israel and the Untied States had also been the two existential threats to both Syria and Iran; a common front against them naturally reinforced their defensive alliance.
Both states have also historically used the Palestinian cause to their advantage in this regard, but it is in Lebanon where they have scored notable success through Hezbollah. This has further deepened the institutional ties between Syria and Iran. The Iran-Syria-Hezbollah relationship began to be regularly referred to as a formal Axis of Resistance following the 2006 war against Israel,27 and the ties among the three were further reinforced during a publicized dinner and meeting of Bashar Assad, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Damascus in February 2010.28 The alliance gave the two states a means to combat their relative international isolation. Maintaining a foothold in the region was particularly useful for Iran at a time when its nuclear program had set world powers against it via an increasingly punitive sanctions regime. As will be noted in the following section, the commitment to upholding the resistance has since been repurposed to have a broader remit than just Israel and provides a continued narrative justification for the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah in the Syrian conflict.
Iran-Syria ties also benefited from maintaining a common front against U.S. interests. Israel traditionally served as the vector for this, often via Lebanon, but it also manifested itself in rhetorical and logistical support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Palestine. Iraq was also a venue for common aims, as neither Iran nor Syria wanted to see a U.S.-allied government take power in post-Saddam Baghdad. Ties grew stronger, and there was an increase in top-level meetings during the Bush era, as both states faced explicit U.S. threats to their sovereignty.29 The alliance is also strengthened by the military and strategic relations of both states with Russia, reinforcing their stance against American aims in the region. Syria's relationship with Russia goes back to the Soviet era; Russia has a long-established naval presence at the Mediterranean port of Tartus. Meanwhile, Iran has benefited from ever-closer relations with Russia since the end of the Cold War. Moscow has been a key arms supplier, and Iran has been ever-mindful of Russian concerns about its own attempts to cultivate relations with former Soviet states in the Caucasus and Central Asia.30 Accordingly, Russia has pursued its own objectives vis-à-vis Iran and the wider Middle East as a means of improving its regional and global standing. Omelicheva has argued that this enables Russia once again to be viewed as an "architect of international relations,"31 preventing the United States from gaining a firmer foothold in the Middle East. Indeed, one could argue that Russia has been relatively successful in this regard, particularly with its current position as perhaps the key power broker in the Syrian conflict, in concert with Iran.
THE SYRIAN CIVIL WAR
When the uprising against Assad began, it was widely viewed within the context of the so-called Arab Spring, sweeping across the region and challenging the autocratic order. For Iran, these unprecedented changes were viewed through the prism of an "Islamic Awakening." This narrative allowed the Islamic Republic to claim a sense of solidarity with "the people" of the region over their unjust rulers, viewing the uprisings as inspired by their own revolutionary experience in deposing the shah. However, in the case of Syria, the Iranian perception of the uprising took on a different hue; Tehran was fully cognizant of the need to maintain one of its most important alliances in the region. As a result, the Islamic Republic has sought to present the Syrian conflict as part of a wider fight against terrorism, something that has gained traction with the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS). Militarily, it has gone from vague acknowledgment of an advisory role of providing rhetorical support to Assad early in the conflict, to one of open military involvement in recent times, particularly in the organization and training of multinational Shii militia groups. To understand what is at stake, the current strategic predicament and Iran's active involvement need to be outlined. As will be discussed below, Iran has added a religious overlay to justify its involvement in the conflict. This is essential to securing legitimacy among the Islamic Republic's core domestic base of support.
The previous exploration of the common foreign-policy priorities of both states, which has facilitated ever-closer ties since 1979, accounts for much of the logic behind Iran's continued support for Assad. The mutual skepticism towards the United States (and Israel) has helped the alliance endure,32 and the immediate geopolitical concerns of securing Iraq and maintaining the strength of Hezbollah have been key strategic reasons for Iran's continued support of a country that shares its desire for "resistance." Hezbollah serves Iran's interests due to its ability to strike Israel and, therefore, acts as a deterrent against potential Israeli strikes against Iran. This was particularly useful for Iran during the confrontation over its disputed nuclear program, when the threat of Israeli pre-emptive action loomed large. Arguably this threat is now reduced due to the nuclear deal with Iran; however, it is necessary for the Islamic Republic to maintain a powerful deterrent on Israel's borders. Tehran's claim to be a champion of anti-Israeli activism would also lose a significant amount of credibility without the cooperation of Syria.33 As such, Hezbollah remains key to these aims. According to Slim,34 Iran also relied on Hezbollah operatives to track evolving military developments in Syria and was involved in training Syrian paramilitaries in the early days of the uprising. Indeed, Sadjadpour has noted that this close cooperation has resulted in the Syrian security sector's being molded in Iran's image and effectively transformed from ally to indebted client.35 For Hezbollah itself, maintaining the link with Iran is vital; its engagement in Syria protects its status as a major actor in Lebanon.
Iran needs an accommodating regime in Syria to maintain its conduit to Hezbollah. In addition, having a key Arab state on its side in an increasingly fractious Middle East, where Arab interests are being shaped by its rival Saudi Arabia, remains important too. Tehran naturally has concerns about any potential replacement of Assad by Saudi-backed, anti-Shia Islamists who currently dominate the Syrian opposition.36 For Iran, Syria is a vital cog in its wider regional aims, and this explains the lengths to which it has gone to support Assad. This was made abundantly clear when prominent cleric Mehdi Taeb stated, "Syria is the 35th province [of Iran] and a strategic province for us…. If we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran."37 Syria has also gained increased importance as a threat in the wider proxy conflict with Saudi Arabia. Tehran sees Riyadh's backing of Wahhabi groups as fueling instability in the region. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif of Iran claimed: "The fanciful notions that regional instability will help to "contain" Iran, and that supposed rivalries between Sunni and Shiite Muslims are fueling conflicts, are contradicted by the reality that the worst bloodshed in the region is caused by Wahhabists fighting fellow Arabs and murdering fellow Sunnis."38
The rise of the Islamic State, particularly its presence in Iraq, is also a key concern, constituting an existential threat to the Islamic Republic. This further drives Iran's involvement across both Syria and Iraq, as defeating the group will help sustain its influence in both capitals. Tehran views conflict through a defensive lens, trying to maintain the post-2003 status quo;39 it has seen Iran's influence in the region grow despite the tightening of the sanctions regime against it. This status quo involves Tehran's maintaining close ties with friendly regimes in Iraq and Syria and providing continued support for Hezbollah and the Palestinian cause. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have historically formed a key part of the Axis of Resistance. However, the former's close ties to Tehran and Damascus have been severely tested, with Hamas turning publicly against Assad and coming out in support of the Syrian opposition forces in February 2012.40 Though this element of the resistance axis has been severely tested by the Syrian conflict, recent reports suggest that some elements of Hamas are looking to mend ties with Iran, with pressure coming from Hamas's military wing in its quest for new arms purchases.41 As a result, there has been something of a "repurposing" of the Axis of Resistance, widening it as an alliance against the threat posed by the Islamic State and other Sunni militant groups. Iran views itself as a victim of sectarianism in the region, seeing a Salafist conspiracy that has been enabled by the United States.42 This adds further impetus to its active engagement in Syria.
Iran's interests in Syria run deep and are the key reason for its material support for the Assad regime, both economic and military. The economic support has manifested itself in vital trade agreements that have helped sustain the Syrian economy through the war. Iran has provided assistance for Syrian oil exports to circumvent the Western powers' embargo,43 and three successive loans to help shore up the Syrian economy. The first $1 billion loan was arranged in January 2013 to pay for imported food stuffs and replenish the government's foreign reserves.44 The second was a May 2013 agreement extending $3.6 billion worth of credit for oil products.45 A further $1 billion loan was extended to the Syrian government in May 2015.46
Iran's role in the Syrian conflict has been its most substantive since the Iran-Iraq War. Tehran began its involvement by advising Assad on how to deal with the anti-government protests in 2011. As the conflict grew more intense, Iran pressed Hezbollah to deepen its participation and dispatched members of its own Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) elite Quds Force to Syria in an advisory role. The Iranian narrative in the first few years primarily revolved around its establishment of the Syrian National Defense Forces (NDF), a paramilitary group modeled on its own Basij militia. It is difficult to ascertain the precise number of Iranian forces operating in such roles and the manpower of the NDF themselves. Speaking in October 2015, IRGC commander-in-chief Mohammad Ali Jafari said the NDF comprised some 100,000 fighters, and that he had been personally involved in their training.47 Iran has sent a good portion of its Quds Force to Syria, including key senior commanders such as Qassem Soleimani. In March 2016, it announced that members of its regular ground forces were also serving as advisers there.48
THE RELIGIOUS OVERLAY
Iran has had the most intensive involvement in the organization and training of Shii volunteer fighters, often in coordination with Hezbollah. This is where Iran has applied a religious overlay, arguably to strengthen domestic support for Assad among its core constituencies. Although the alliance has ostensibly little to do with confessional linkages between Iran and Syria — a fact borne out by the recent Alawite disavowal of Shiism49 — it has proven to be of significant utility to Iran in advancing the security of its Syrian ally. Although Syria's Shii population of adherents to the Twelver Shiism practiced in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon is small, Damascus is home to the shrine of Sayyidah Zaynab, granddaughter of the Prophet and a revered Shii figure. As noted previously, the cultural diplomacy enacted by Iran towards Syria in relation to such shrines helps further reinforce the relationship.
Making use of its transnational religious networks, Iran has facilitated the insertion of volunteers into the conflict from Shii communities in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Lebanon. It has also encouraged its own citizens to volunteer in the defense of Shii shrines. For example, in encouraging members of Iran's Basij to volunteer, IRGC Major General Rahim Nowi-Aghdam stated: "If you do not volunteer to fight in Iraq and Syria, I will go myself, and I will martyr myself in the defence of Sayyida Zeynab or the Shia shrines in Iraq."50 Hezbollah leader Nasrallah has crafted a similar narrative to garner support among his Hezbollah Lebanese constituency for its involvement, noting that Hezbollah's involvement in Syria was born of a duty to defend Shii shrines in Syria from the takfiris (extremists).51
Viewing Iran's involvement in the conflict through a purely religious, or even sectarian, lens is simplistic, however. As Sadeghi-Boroujerdi has recently argued, "The historical development of post-revolutionary Iran's security policies, which are intimately intertwined with its espousal of asymmetric 'strategies of opposition,' has often taken the form of financial and military support for politically responsive co-sectarians."52 Invoking religious duty remains a useful asset for the Islamic Republic, however, and fits well with its core revolutionary values. Media outlets in Iran affiliated with the IRGC have hailed the Iranian dead in Syria as selfless individuals driven by religious conviction.53 Iran's facilitation of such volunteer forces from across the Shii world is pitched in terms of its role as a vanguard in the fight against Sunni extremist groups, namely the Islamic State. Speaking in early 2016, IRGC head Mohammad Ali Jafari noted: "[T]he formation of Daesh and Takfiri groups, and the events that occurred in the past years are paving the ground for the emergence of Imam Mahdi, and you can now see the positive results in the readiness of nearly 200,000 armed youth in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen."54 He added that Iran had trained fighters both within and outside Iran to defend the axis of resistance.55
This is a strategy that comes right from the centre of power in Iranian politics, approved by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who has the final say on Iranian foreign and security matters. It is based on a strong defensive mindset that typifies the Iran-Syria alliance, one that is now enhanced by the threat of militant Sunni groups operating in Syria and Iraq. As Khamenei stated, "If they were not stopped, we would have to fight them in Kermanshah and Hamedan,"56 thus directly linking Syria's security with Iran's. More recently, retired IRGC General Mohammad Ali Al Falaki also stated that a "Shia Liberation Army" had been formed in Syria to coordinate foreign Shia volunteers under Quds Force head Qassem Soleimani's leadership.57 This is a stronger claim for involvement than has typified previous Iranian statements on its role in facilitating Shii volunteer forces in the conflict. For example, Iran has previously denied its involvement in forming the Liwa Fatemiyoun,58 a force operating in Syria that is drawn largely from Afghanistan's Shii community and Afghan refugees residing in Iran.
The Iran-Syria alliance was built with a pragmatic intent at its heart: the survival of both the Assad dynasty and Islamic Republic. However, it has proved to be more than just an alliance of convenience. This paper has demonstrated how the sense of a shared regional outlook provided the basis for a relationship that endures to this day, further reinforced through the Syrian civil war. It is in the roots of this relationship that one can fully understand what is at stake for Iran in Syria and why it has supported the Assad regime so wholeheartedly since the uprising began in 2011. These foundational, common positions on key regional issues helped deepen their cooperation.
Iran drew on the pre-existing ties between Syria and Iranian opposition activists campaigning against the shah to develop a bilateral relationship that was crucial for the Islamic Republic when it was becoming increasingly isolated in the Middle East. Having the support of an Arab ally during the long war with Iraq provided a useful counter to claims that Iran was advancing a uniquely Persian and Shii agenda. The relationship was further cemented through the importance of Lebanon, both as a place for each to advance its own national interests and as a key front in the resistance to Israel and U.S. actions in the region. The strengthening of Hezbollah's position in Lebanon has also further tied their strategic outlooks to one another. Thus, while their views of pan-Arab nationalism and Islamic universalism may be widely divergent, their common desire to promote "resistance" in the Middle East binds them closely together.
These common concerns drive Iran's involvement in the Syrian conflict and are reinforced through the use of religious-based narratives as justification for its actions there. The rise of the Islamic State serves as further justification for Iran's continued involvement, as does the desire to counter Saudi influence. The transnational religious linkages that Iran has fostered, reinforced through cultural ties that Iran and Syria have developed over the years, reinforce its wider strategic aims in the region, helping Iran sell the benefits of this alliance to its core domestic constituencies, insofar as it provides validation for its continued involvement there. Religion might not have been a determining factor in the alliance historically, but it is now used as a powerful justification. The Islamic Republic can pitch its assistance to Syria in terms of core revolutionary values, namely maintaining independence and keeping foreign influence in the region in check. The irony, of course, is that there is a foreign presence looming large over the alliance, an increasingly assertive Russia. It is unlikely that Assad would have survived without Moscow's support, and an emboldened Russia, seeking to project its regional role at the expense of a vacillating United States, has enabled this alliance to persist at the expense of Western aims in the Middle East. This fact no doubt makes for pleasant contemplation in the Axis of Resistance.
1 Jubin M. Goodarzi, Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 2009); Anoushiravan Ehteshami and Raymond A. Hinnebusch, Syria and Iran: Middle Powers in a Penetrated Regional System (Routledge, 1997); and Christopher Phillips, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East (Yale University Press, 2016).
2 Goodarzi, xiv.
3 Von Maltzahn, 23-25.
4 Martin Kramer, "Syria's Alawis and Shiism," in Shiism, Resistance, and Revolution, ed. Martin Kramer (Westview Press, 1987), 237-54.
5 Von Maltzahn, 24.
6 Ibid., 25.
7 See Houchang Chehabi, ed., Distant Relations: Iran and Lebanon in the Past 500 Years (I.B. Tauris, 2006). In the same volume, see in particular Houchang Chehabi and Hassan Mneimneh, "Five Centuries of Lebanese-Iranian Encounters," 1-50; and Houchang Chehabi, "Iran and Lebanon in the Revolutionary Decade," 201-30.
8 Goodarzi, 16-18.
9 David Wallsh, "Syrian Alliance Strategy in the Post-Cold War Era: The Impact of Unipolarity," Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 37, no. 2 (2013): 107-23.
10 Von Maltzahn, op. cit.
11 See, for example, Edward Wastnidge, "The Modalities of Iranian Soft Power: From Cultural Diplomacy to Soft War," Politics 35, nos. 3-4 (2015): 364-77; and Michael Eisenstadt, "The Strategic Culture of the Islamic Republic of Iran: Religion, Expediency, and Soft Power in an Era of Disruptive Change," Middle East Studies Monograph Series 7 (2015).
12 Yair Hirschfeld, "The Odd Couple: Ba'athist Syria and Khomeini's Iran," in Syria under Assad: Domestic Constraints and Regional Risks, eds. Moshe Maoz and Yaniv Avner (Croom Helm, 1986); and Shireen Hunter, "Syrian-Iranian Relations: An Alliance of Convenience or More?" Middle East Insight 4, no. 2 (1985): 30-34.
13 Goodarzi, 12-13.
14 Patrick Seale, Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East (University of California Press, 1990), 357, cited in von Maltzahn, 31.
15 Goodarzi, 45-46.
16 Ibid., 58.
17 Matteo Legrenzi and Fred H. Lawson, "Iran and Its Neighbors since 2003: New Dilemmas," Middle East Policy 21, no. 4 (2014): 105-11.
18 Dina Esfandiary and Ariane Tabatabai, "Iran's ISIS Policy," International Affairs 91, no. 1 (2015): 1-15.
19 Michael R. Gordon, "Russia Surprises U.S. with Accord on Battling ISIS," New York Times, September 27, 2015.
20 Randa Slim, "Hezbollah and Syria: From Regime Proxy to Regime Savior," Insight Turkey 16, no. 2 (2014): 61-68; Michael Eisenstadt, "Iran's Military Intervention in Syria: Long-Term Implications," Policy Watch 2025 (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, October 2015), http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/irans-military-intervention-in-syria-long-term-implications; and Phillips, op. cit.
21 Carl Anthony Wege, "Hizbollah-Syrian Intelligence Affairs: A Marriage of Convenience," Journal of Strategic Security 4, no. 3 (2011): 1-14.
22 Goodarzi, 60.
23 Ibid., 133.
24 Wege, 2. Wege also notes that this facility, along with several others on Syrian soil, has served as an arms depot and training centre for Hezbollah, but remains under nominal Syrian control.
25 Yoel Guzansky, "The Nature of the Radical Axis," Military and Strategic Affairs 2, no. 2 (2010): 59-77.
26 Wege, 8-9.
27 Von Maltzahn, 51.
28 "Hezbollah Chief Nasrallah Meets Ahmadinejad in Syria," BBC News, February 26, 2010, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/8539178.stm.
29 Wallsh, 113-14.
30 Edmund Herzig, "Iran and Central Asia" in Central Asian Security; The International Context, eds. Roy Allison and Lena Johnson (Royal Institute of International Affairs, 2001), 171-98.
31 Mariya Y. Omelicheva, "Russia's Foreign Policy toward Iran: A Critical Geopolitics Perspective," Journal of Balkan and Near Eastern Studies 14, no. 3 (2012): 331-44.
32 Karim Sadjadpour, "Iran's Unwavering Support to Assad's Syria," CTC Sentinel 6, no. 8 (2013): 11-14.
33 W. Andrew Terrill, "Iran's Strategy for Saving Assad," Middle East Journal 69, no. 2 (2015): 222-36.
34 Slim, 63.
35 Sadjadpour, op.cit.
36 Terrill, 224.
37 Cited in Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, "Head of Ammar Strategic Base: Syria Is Iran's 35th Province; If We Lose Syria We Cannot Keep Tehran," Al Monitor - Iran Pulse, February 14, 2014, http://iranpulse.al-monitor.com/index.php/2013/02/1346/head-of-ammar-strategic-base-syria-is-irans-35th-province-if-we-lose-syria-we-cannot-keep-tehran.
38 Mohammad-Javad Zarif, "Let Us Rid the World of Wahhabism," New York Times, September 13, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/14/opinion/mohammad-javad-zarif-let-us-rid-the-world-of-wahhabism.html?_r=0.
39 Philips, op. cit.
40 Omar Fahmy and Nidal al-Mughrabi, "Hamas Ditches Assad, Backs Syrian Revolt," Reuters World News, February 24, 2012, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-palestinians-idUSTRE81N1CC20120224.
41 Shlomi Eldar "Qatar or Iran: Who Will Save Hamas?" Al Monitor - Israel Pulse, September 7, 2016, http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2016/09/israel-qatar-or-iran-who-will-save-hamas.html.
42 Daniel Byman, "Sectarianism Afflicts the New Middle East," Survival 56, no. 1 (2014): 79-100.
43 Jay Solomon and Alan Cullison, "New Bid To Stifle Iran Aid To Syria," Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2012. The authors claim that "American officials investigating the Iranian operation said it is designed to quietly ship Syrian crude oil to Iran, where it can be sold on the international market, with revenue going back to Damascus."
44 Salam al-Saadi, "Iran's Stakes in Syria's Economy," Sada Journal (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, June 2015), http://carnegieendowment.org/sada/60280.
45 Suleiman Al-Khalidi, "Iran Grants Syria $3.6 Billion Credit to Buy Oil Products," Reuters World News, July 31, 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-syria-crisis-iran-idUSBRE96U0XN20130731.
46 "Syria Accepts $1bn Credit Loan from Iran," Middle East Monitor, July 9, 2015, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20150709-syria-accepts-1bn-credit-loan-from-iran.
47 Hossein Bastani, "Iran Quietly Deepens Involvement in Syria's War," BBC News, October 20, 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-34572756.
48 Alfoneh and Eisenstadt, op. cit.
49 Caroline Wyatt, "Syrian Alawites Distance Themselves from Assad," BBC News, April 3, 2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-35941679.
50 Quote taken from Iranian news agency Rayhab News, translation reproduced in Andrea Spada, "Iran: General Nowi-Aghdam Urges Recruits to Fight in Syria as Assad Stumbles," Islam Media Analysis (June 2015), http://www.islamedianalysis.info/iran-general-nowi-aghdam-urges-recruits-to-fight-in-syria-as-assad-stumbles/.
51 Slim, 63.
52 Eskandar Sadeghi-Boroujerdi, "Strategic Depth, Counterinsurgency and the Logic of Sectarianization: The Islamic Republic of Iran's Security Doctrine and Its Regional Implications," in Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, eds. Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel (Oxford University Press, 2017).
53 Golnaz Esfandiari, "Iran Promotes Its New 'Martyrs,' Cementing Role In Syria Fighting," Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, July 12, 2016, http://www.rferl.org/content/iran-syria-new-martyrs-role-in-fighting/27853933.html.
54 "Iran's Revolutionary Guards: We Have Armed 200,000 Fighters in the Region," Middle East Monitor, January 15, 2016, https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160115-irans-revolutionary-guards-we-have-armed-200000-fighters-in-the-region.
56 Cited in Esfandiari, op. cit.
57 Tallha Abdulrazaq, "Iran's 'Shia Liberation Army' Is Par for the Course," Al Jazeera, August 21, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2016/08/iran-shia-liberation-army-par-160821091935110.html.
58 Phillip Smyth, The Shiite Jihad in Syria and Its Regional Effects (Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2015).
Middle East Policy is fully accessible through the Wiley Online Library
Click below to subscribe to the online or print edition of Middle East Policy and gain access to all journal content.