by Shireen T. Hunter
After Donald Trump declared that he was pulling U.S. forces out of Syria, nearly all commentators declared that Iran would be one of the major beneficiaries–if not the major beneficiary–of the move. This is not surprising, since as a rule, U,S,, Arab, and even European commentators have declared Iran the winner of nearly all U.S. actions in the Middle East and West Asia since the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
No doubt, some U.S. policies have led to some strategic gains for Iran. The weakening of the Taliban, following the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, initially relieved Tehran from the threat posed by the Taliban on its eastern frontiers. However, the extended U.S. military presence in Afghanistan and its political sway over subsequent Afghan governments has burdened Tehran-Kabul relations. Today there are U.S. forces less than 250 miles from Iran’s eastern border. Should the United States decide to use force against Iran, its presence in Afghanistan would enable it to attack it on several fronts. Moreover, America’s military and political presence in Afghanistan has made Afghanistan less responsive to Iran’s legitimate demands regarding the sharing of the Hirmand (Helmand) River and other matters of interest to Tehran.
The same has been true of Iraq. Again the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq puts them in close proximity to the Iranian border and has increased Iran’s vulnerability to potential U.S. military action. Moreover, Iran has paid a heavy price in both money and lives in Iraq–including fighting the Islamic State without getting credit for it–and these costs have been greater than the benefits it has received from its relations with Baghdad. The statistics regarding Iran-Iraq trade do not reflect the reality, since Iraq often does not pay Iran for its imports of natural gas and electricity. Meanwhile, in order to retain its remaining influence in Baghdad, and partly because of the U.S. presence, Iran does not dare to challenge Iraq regarding these unpaid accounts. Even so, Iran often gets blamed for Baghdad’s problems, as it was in 2018 when the Iraqis blamed Iran for their electricity difficulties. Furthermore, now that Iraq is relatively calm (partly thanks to Iran’s help), it is the Europeans and Gulf Arabs who will reap the benefits of the eventual Iraqi reconstruction boom. Thanks to U.S. sanctions, Iran has no money to invest domestically, let alone in Iraq.
A similar situation exists in Syria. To begin with, the U.S. withdrawal from Syria is not yet a reality. President Trump might change his mind. Moreover, the U.S. troops withdrawn from Syria reportedly will be moved to Iraq, closer to the Iranian border. In fact, it is conceivable that the U.S. is again thinking of a military attack on Iran and thus is redeploying some of its troops. President Trump’s statement that the U.S. is staying in Iraq to keep an eye on Iran shows that his announced withdrawal from Syria is not going to decrease U.S. pressure on Iran. Meanwhile, Arab states are lining up to go to Damascus and coopt Bashar al-Assad with promises of money and investment and Syria’s return to the Arab fold. The United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait have already reopened their embassies in Damascus, and eventually so will Egypt and Jordan. Regaining Arab acceptance is vital for Syria in terms of its long-term security, for geographic and cultural reasons in addition to the economic rationale. If this means somewhat loosening Damascus’s ties to Tehran, so be it. Iran, meanwhile, has nothing concrete to offer Syria in terms of money and investment.
In general, Iran-Syria relations since their early days have been an unequal partnership in Syria’s favor. Syria has always acted according to its own interests and has been unwilling to go out of its way to aid Tehran. In the 1980s and 1990s, Syria fought against Iranian influence in Lebanon. When the 1991 Madrid Peace Conference offered Damascus a hope that peace with Israel might be forthcoming and that it could regain the Golan Heights, Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad ignored Iranian concerns about his attendance at the conference. If Syria has had to maintain its Tehran connection, it has been because neither Israel nor Arab states have made it worth Damascus’ while to cut its ties to Iran. Syria has been a bottomless pit into which Iran has poured its meager resources that could have been used for domestic development. Meanwhile, should there be a need to fil the vacuum created by the U.S. departure, most likely it would be Turkey that would do so. Any action in this regard by Iran would certainly trigger a strong and negative U.S. and European reaction, which given its current conditions Tehran can ill afford. Nor would Iran be in a position to challenge Ankara. At the moment, Iran needs Turkey’s good will and cooperation more than ever in trying to survive the impact of U.S. sanctions.
Last but not least, it is very unlikely that Russia would want Iran to retain significant influence in Damascus. Instead, most probably, Moscow will try to leverage its Syrian success in negotiations with the U.S. on other issues, and cash in on Syria’s reconstruction if and when it comes.
Why, then, are so many analysts clamoring that Iran has won in Syria? It is simple–to scare the U.S. either into doing something drastic in Syria, such as reversing its withdrawal decision or increasing its military presence with an eye toward ousting Assad or even initiating a conflict with Iran. Meanwhile, when Iran–or to be precise the Iranian hardline faction– claims victory all over the Middle East, it validates the claims of those who support greater use of U.S. military force in the region. A sober analysis shows that Iran has gained very little in exchange for all of its financial and human expenditures in the Middle East, including in Syria. It shows the limits of Iran’s influence over Arab politics. It also shows how self-defeating Iran’s foreign policy has been over the last forty years.