Last week, 48 Iranian “pilgrims” were kidnapped by the opposition in Syria. The circumstances surrounding their capture led many to allege that they were in fact members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) sent to assist Syrian government forces in crushing the rebellion. This brought Iran’s assistance to its long-standing ally to the forefront of international attention.
Many argue that the stakes for Iran are high because the fall of Assad will dramatically curtail Iran’s ability to project its power in the region. Although the collapse of the current Syrian regime will certainly hinder Iran, its impact will not be nearly as severe as many would have you believe. Indeed, Iran is likely to adapt to these changing regional dynamics just as it has always done in the past.
Syria is many things; the heart of the Middle East and a conduit for countries like Iran, a symbol of the divisions in the region, a fertile ground for violent sectarianism, and home to a 17-month long battleground between various actors involved in the Arab Spring. To Iran, it is a symbol of and a means for its influence in the region. It is through Syria that Iran extends its reach all the way to the Mediterranean, and right up to Israel. Syria also allows it to arm its proxies in the Levant by serving as a conduit for Iranian money, weapons, personnel, and expertise. This is made possible by the long-standing and loyal alliance Tehran has maintained with the Assad family.
This alliance is why Iran continues to funnel money, surveillance equipment, and military assistance to the Syrian government despite its professed support for popular revolutions and democracy in the region. Besides this material support, Iran recently added overt political support by sending Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, to Damascus where he stated that his country would not “allow the axis of resistance, of which it considers Syria to be an essential part, to be broken in any way.”
But Iran is aware that the Assad regime is on its way out. Discontent has risen amongst the Iranian elite over the government’s management of the Syrian crisis. Aside from the effect on Iran’s reputation, many fear that by offering their unreserved support to Assad, they are compromising relations with the future government of Syria. Instead, some Iranian analysts are advocating a review of Iran’s current policies vis-à-vis Syria, including implementing immediate damage control measures.
But Iran is unlikely to do anything to change its policy on Syria.
Support for Assad is entrenched in Iranian policy-making. It will continue to offer whatever help it can to ensure he stays in power. In fact, according to U.S. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, “We are seeing a growing presence by Iran,” which now includes, according to Washington, raising pro-regime militias to fight “on behalf of the (Assad) regime.”
When Assad does fall, however, Iran will do what it does best: adapt. After all, Iran is use to a world of 'least bad' policy options. Yes, the loss of a close ally and huge geopolitical asset will be felt in Tehran. And yes, there will be a degradation of the regional strategic landscape for Iran. But none of this is unprecedented for Tehran.
Iran is aware of its ability to operate successfully in hostile environments, as was made evident by Iraq. Syria is unlikely to have a calm transition once Assad falls, and the instability that follows will present Iran with an opportunity. For example, the likely situation where a new Syrian government does not have immediate and full control over all of Syrian territory means that Iran could continue to transit arms through the country to Hezbollah.
In the post-Assad phase, Iran will continue to use Syria as a conduit to its proxies in countries like Lebanon. To Iran, unrest is only second best to Assad remaining in power. It will likely continue to ferment instability to serve its interests. Although there may be hiccups along the way, such as the abduction of the pilgrims/IRGC members, globally, it will not be difficult as Iran is already a force to reckon with in Syria.
But Iran will also act pragmatically. As in Iraq, it will continue to build up its 'soft' power, a means it greatly values. It will continue to contribute to daily life in post-Assad Syria, for example, by pursuing the creation of joint ventures in trade and energy, providing funding for education and cultural outreach, and providing support to the Shias in Syria. But Iran will also reach out to whoever is set to gain power. A future Syrian government, although unlikely to be pro-Iran, will not be able to ignore its neighbor completely and will have to learn to live with it instead.
Throughout the years, Iran has demonstrated tremendous resilience in the face of changing regional circumstances. The collapse of the Assad regime would not be any different to other challenges it has successfully faced and adapted to in the past. Perhaps this explains why Iran has made the calculation to continue supporting Assad for now, and plan for changes later.
Dina Esfandiary is a Research Analyst and Project Coordinator at The International Institute for Strategic Studies, Arundel House.