Why Iran and Syria still need each other

Why Iran and Syria still need each other

The Syrian conflict witnessed gradual Iranian involvement, starting with political advice, and leading to economic and military cooperation. Bashar al-Assad’s reliance on Tehran might have at some point upset the balance of power between Syria and Iran, but recent developments, most notably the US withdrawing from the nuclear deal, have emphasized the significance of the alliance for both countries.

Syria and Iran: two strategic partners

The Syrian civil war has brought to the fore the vital importance of the alliance with Iran for the Syrian government. Iran’s support for Bashar al-Assad, particularly through its proxies such as Hezbollah, has repeatedly been pointed out as one of the main factors enabling the Syrian government to survive the conflict. Through economic contracts or direct support to pro-government militias, Iran has now significantly expanded its involvement in the war and has deepened its control over Syria. Bashar al-Assad’s dependence on the Islamic Republic’s backing seems undeniable. For many observers, if it was not for Iran’s political, economic and military support, the Syrian leader would no longer be in power.

If Assad’s reliance on Syria has often been emphasised, it should not be neglected that Iran’s alliance with Syria is also strategically crucial for the Islamic Republic. Syria shared Iran’s concerns for Iraq’s hegemonic tendencies under Saddam Hussein and for Israel’s mere existence and growing encroachment in the region. It was all the more strategic for these states to cooperate that the United States strongly opposed both of them. These factors brought both states together in the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, i.e. at the peak of Iran’s regional and international isolation. Protecting Bashar al-Assad against the rebellion thus meant for Tehran safeguarding its strategic ally against those regional security threats. Further to this, Iran’s involvement in the conflict was motivated by the imperative to check the rise of the so-called Islamic State. This underlines the strategic complexity and importance of what has sometimes been too narrowly defined as an ideological alliance between an Alawite ruler and its Shia neighbour.

Recent developments and impact on the alliance

As developed above, their regional environment makes the Syrian-Iranian alliance strategically vital for both countries; security threats in their immediate surroundings, and strategic isolation making these threats even more alarming, render Syria and Iran dependent on each other’s support.

In the early years of the partnership, Syria seemed to have the upper-hand over Iran because it was able to nuance its own regional isolation through contacts, although limited ones, with some Arab countries. However, recent developments, most notably the Syrian conflict and the nuclear deal, have improved Iran’s international standing while Bashar al-Assad’s power was highly threatened by the uprisings.

On the one hand, the civil war has provided Tehran with unique opportunities to entrench its power in Syria. Its involvement in the conflict, supplemented by its significant links with Hezbollah, has greatly improved the Islamic Republic’s power projection in the region. Even now that Al-Assad’s rule seems safe, Iran has not left and openly speaks of fully including Syria into the “axis of resistance” against Israel and the United States. Therefore, through its involvement in Syria, Iran has improved its security prospects in the region and has strengthened its foothold in the Arab world on a long-term perspective. On the other hand, the nuclear deal has enabled the Islamic Republic to significantly reduce economic pressures imposed by sanctions and to restore diplomatic relations with United States’ allies. Thus, regional and international developments have proved to be beneficial for Iran’s strategic and economic position in the Middle East.

A relationship called into question again

Yet recent changes have once again put into question the renewed relationship between Iran and Western countries as well as between Iran and pro-Western Middle Eastern governments. When the United States opted out of the nuclear deal in May and subsequently imposed new sanctions on the Islamic Republic, it revived Iran’s feeling of regional and international isolation. Although the political consequences of the withdrawal remain unsure, since the European Union seems willing to maintain diplomatic links with Iran, such a strategic solitude would make the alliance with Syria all the more crucial for Iran. Therefore, if the Syrian civil war has allowed Tehran to impose itself as the dominant actor in the alliance, recent issues with the nuclear deal have provided Bashar al-Assad with an invaluable opportunity to prove Syria’s value as a strategic partner, rather than a mere proxy, for Iran.

Since the 1979 revolution, Syria has been Iran’s main partner in the region and developments in the Middle East, particularly the Iran-Iraq war, has proven how crucial it was for the Islamic Republic. The Syrian civil war, in which Tehran came to Bashar al-Assad’s rescue rather than the other way around, seemed to have upset the balance, possibly undermining the strategic importance of the alliance for Iran. However, the US’ withdrawal from the nuclear deal has underlined the volatility of the Middle Eastern balance of power, and the necessity for both Syria and Iran to protect their relationship.

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