Assad May Not Be Key to Iran’s Levantine Reach: A Critique of AEI-ISW Report

by Aurélie M. Daher

That Iran is deeply concerned with the civil war in Syria and is currently providing important assistance to President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is not in question. What remains to be determined, however, is the form that its intervention — which has grown significantly over the past decade — is taking, its extent, impact, and, ultimately, its prospects for shaping developments in the Levant.

In its 43-page report released this month, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and its close collaborator, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW), try to come up with some answers to these questions, arguing, predictably, that Tehran’s ability to project its power in the region – based on its strategic alliance with Syria, as well as those with its Iraqi and Lebanese proteges – would be sharply diminished in the event of Assad’s defeat. And while the authors of “Iranian Strategy in Syria” agree that Tehran is already pursuing a “hedging strategy” designed to maintain its Alawite and Shi’a allies in control of key parts of the country for as long as possible if indeed Assad should fall, they conclude that “over the long term, Iranian influence in the Levant is likely to continue waning as ground is lost.”

Iran is certainly well aware that the loss of Syria will significantly degrade its ability to project power in the Levant and will plan for such a contingency. In order to compensate for this loss and continue to present an effective deterrent, Iran may look to expand its activities in other countries and regions.

While a priori a reasonable conclusion, close scrutiny of the premises and evidence on which the study is based suggests a number of problems with its analysis.

First, while densely footnoted, the report depends far too heavily on uncertain data, unconfirmed facts, and interpretations of events that conveniently fit certain narratives that are based more on speculation than on reliable information. Though reliable information is indeed very difficult to come by under current circumstances, the authors could have strengthened their analysis by conducting more thorough research of local and regional media that have provided much serious and credible material on the subject. As it is, the authors’ over-reliance on U.S. Treasury reports and briefings, combined with the fact that the relatively few local sources cited in the study suffer either from well-known political bias or serious inaccuracies, stands out, as does the dearth of references to credible Iranian and Arab – particularly Lebanese, Iraqi, and Syrian – sources. Indeed, the relatively narrow range from which the study’s main sources are drawn, as well as the uncertainty of the “facts” on which it relies, effectively undercuts the rather sweeping conclusions it reaches and prevents the authors from considering alternative scenarios beyond those they assert with great confidence.

In some cases, the authors make assertions that cry out for rectification. For example, the report states that the Lebanese Hezbollah, at Tehran’s behest, is directly assisting the Syrian regime in different areas of the country. A battalion of al-Muqawama al-Islamiya fi Lubnan, the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon (Hezbollah’s mother military organization) did indeed lend a hand in defending the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) in February 2012 when the IRGC’s base at Zabadani came under attack by rebel forces. But this incident should be seen as a local, precise, and reactive intervention by Hezbollah that was limited to the purpose of protecting a strategic Iranian camp in distress and had nothing to do with supporting the Syrian regular army or the regime, as argued by the report.

Similarly, the report’s description of the situation at Maqam al-Sayyida Zeinab, the Shi’a holy shrine, in Damascus – specifically, that it is under the protection of an Iranian-led mixed battalion of Syrian Alawi fighters, Hezbollah members, and militants of Iraq’s ‘Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq – conflicts with numerous local reports. The presence of the Abou al-Fadl al-Abbas brigade proves that Tehran is fighting with the regime in the Syrian capital, according to the report which cites the brigade’s Facebook page as its source for this “fact.” But it appears that the authors never examined the brigade’s FB page on their own, relying on the claims of a secondary source. Had they themselves studied the page, they would know that the purported Hezbollah members of the brigade in fact belong to AMAL, another Lebanese Shiite party which the United States has long considered a more moderate representative of the Lebanese Shi’a community with which Washington can do and has done business over the years.

Moreover, a review of the page’s content strongly suggests that the constitution of the brigade was more probably the result of personal initiatives by concerned Shiites around the region than it was a centrally organised recruitment effort by Iran. Indeed, the FB page offers no evidence of an Iranian hand at all. It does not appear to have occurred to the report’s authors that Arab Shiites would spontaneously volunteer to defend a holy shrine without any prompting from Tehran. Yet such a scenario is quite possible in light of the repeated threats by jihadist Sunni groups in the Syrian opposition to demolish it.

The report’s treatment of Hezbollah’s presence in northeastern Syria similarly fails to tell the whole story, accepting, as it appears to do, without providing critical context the opposition narrative that it amounts to a “military intervention [by Hezbollah] …in full coordination with the Assad regime.”

As noted by the report itself, the border in the region of al-Qusayr, the focus of the most recent fighting, has never been officially demarcated. As a result, about three dozen villages inhabited by some 30,000 mainly Shia Lebanese are located in Syrian territory. As early as last fall, both the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al Nusra began issuing threats — amply covered in Arab media — against these predominantly Shia villages for their alleged support of Hezbollah, which, in the increasingly sectarian language that has come to dominate the civil war, they referred to Hizb al-Shaytan, or the Party of the Devil. Skirmishes subsequently broke out within Lebanon between the Lebanese Army and Syrian rebel forces, including the FSA whose redoubts in Lebanese territory were also shelled occasionally by Syrian forces from the Syrian side of the border.

When the inhabitants of al-Qusayr – that is, Lebanese Shia living in Syria – came under repeated attack by groups of Sunni rebels, however, neither the Syrian nor the Lebanese armies came to their defense. As a result, they organized their own self-defense forces, called al-Lijan al-shaabiyya, or Popular Committees. Thus, the first Hezbollah fighters who died there did not belong to battalions sent by the central Hezbollah organization in Beirut to defend Assad’s regime as alleged in the report. They were members of local militias that had mobilized to defend their communities that had come under attack by the FSA and Sunni jihadist groups for being Shia and hence, presumably, pro-Assad.

In the wake of an intensification of attacks by the jihadist groups (including the now-infamous al-Farouq Brigade one of whose commanders was more recently video-taped cutting out the heart and lung of a dead regime soldier), the situation in the area has changed rather dramatically over the last few weeks, as Hezbollah in Lebanon decided to dispatch volunteers to fight alongside their Lebanese Shiite brothers in al-Qusayr. The Syrian army also joined the fight this month to help create a common secure area for both Shia and the regime’s Syrian supporters in the northwest. In any event, however, the creation of the Shiite self-defense forces in the area had nothing to do with the defense of Assad or, for that matter, the protection of Iranian strategic interests.

Of course, it is true, as the report claims, that controlling al-Qusayr and Homs now serves the strategic interests of both Iran and Hezbollah in securing a key arms-supply route from Iran through Syrian territory and thus helping maintain Tehran’s influence in the Levant, even if that was not original impetus for the fighting there.

But controlling that area is not the only way that Iran can achieve its stategic aims in the region, a key point that the report’s authors — who express great confidence that “the Syrian conflict has already constrained Iran’s influence in the Levant, and the fall of the Assad regime would further reduce Tehran’s ability to project power” — appear to miss entirely. Indeed, there are a variety of scenarios that would permit Iran to adjust to any new distribution of power in Syria in ways that could perpetuate its influence.

For example, the authors implicitly dismiss any possibility that Tehran could reach an understanding with future leaders of Syria. Likewise, they assume that any territory freed from the regime’s control will become subject to the authority of a strong, centralized state – one presumably capable of controlling air and land routes between Iran and Lebanon — rather than what appears increasingly likely at this point: that Bilad al-Sham will become a “(Dis-)United States of Syria” on the model of Iraq or Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. Indeed, will the future local “Islamic caliphates” or “free Syrian micro-Republics” have the means to prevent Iranian aircraft from using their skies? And, even more significantly, will it be in their interest to do so?

An implosion of Syria, its division into multiple power centers, and the probable competition for external support between them offer Iran – like other major regional players, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and perhaps even Israel – opportunities to recruit new local clients. And while Iran is generously hated by Syrian opposition groups for “having Syrian blood on its hands” and, as importantly, for being Shiite, it can still build useful relationships with at least some of the future masters of Syria, as it has done in Iraq in defiance of strong and persistent pressure from the U.S. Paradoxical understandings they may be, but that would not be the first time strategic pragmatism would triumph over ideology. History is full of such examples, even among radical jihadis.

Aurélie Daher

Aurélie Daher is co-head of the Master’s Program in Peace Studies at Paris-Dauphine University, Paris, France. She held a postdoctoral fellow position at the University of Oxford from 2016-2017 and from 2010-2011, and a postdoctoral research associate position at Princeton University from 2012-2013. Her work focuses on Hezbollah, Shiism, Lebanese and Middle Eastern politics. Her doctoral dissertation was published in French in 2014 (Hezbollah. Mobilisation et pouvoir, PUF editions, Paris) and in English in 2019 (Hezbollah. Mobilisation and Power, Hurst/Oxford University Press, London/New York).