How Will Iran Respond to US Missile Attack in Syria?

by Shireen T. Hunter

Iran has been a major supporter of Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s beleaguered president, throughout its civil war, which has entered its sixth year. In fact, until Russia decided to conduct airstrikes in Syria in September 2015, Iran was the only country that actively and meaningfully supported the Syrian regime. In addition to providing military and other support, Iran also enlisted the backing of Lebanon’s Hezbollah for Assad. As volunteers from Sunni states and communities poured in to join various Sunni terrorist groups in Syria, including the Islamic State (ISIS or IS), Iran mobilized Shia volunteers from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, the so-called “Defenders of the Shrines,” to join the fighting on the Assad’s side.

Iran’s decision to help Syria was risky, but understandable. Assad’s fall, resulting in a drastic shift in Syria’s regional and international orientation, would have a dramatic impact on the overall balance of Middle East power. To begin with, it would undermine Hezbollah’s position, which inevitably would deprive Iran of a source of influence in the region and a kind of weak deterrent against potential Israeli attacks on Iran. Moreover, a change in the nature of the Syrian leadership would make it more difficult for Iran to keep its links and provide assistance to Hezbollah.

A power shift in Syria would also impact Iraq’s internal political dynamics in ways damaging to elements favorably disposed towards Iran and helping elements that either actively oppose or at least do not support tight relations with Iran.

Ostensibly, the US missile attack against a Syrian airbase on the night of April 6-7 was in response to the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons—although it denies doing so and there has not yet been an independent inquiry—the attacks should be seen in the broader context of changing US policy in the Middle East, including Iraq. The Trump administration seems determined to reduce drastically, if not totally eliminate, Iran’s influence in Iraq and to stop whatever involvement it has in Yemen. Last month’s visit by Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to Washington, and the visit to Baghdad of the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, were related to efforts to pull Iraq away from Iran’s influence. According to reports in Iran’s media, Kushner apparently gave Abadi a list of fifty-four people whom the US wants excluded from involvement in the Iraqi government. One can guess that all these people have ties to Iran.

In addition, the US missile attacks might even have been a dress rehearsal for possible future attacks on Iran. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu certainly thought so when he said that the attacks were also a message to Iran and North Korea, adding the latter for good measure.

Moreover, for all practical purposes, Pakistan has joined Saudi Arabia’s military operations in Yemen by allowing its former chief of the armed forces, General Raheel Sharif, to accept the command of the Islamic Military Alliance to Fight Terrorism, despite considerable skepticism in Pakistan about the wisdom of this step and its negative impact on Pakistan’s relations with Iran. With Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan continually ranting about Iran, Tehran is like a person with its back to the wall facing a hostile mob.

Given such conditions, there is not much that Iran can do to counter US actions in Syria, unless it wants to invite brutal retribution. So far, however, Iran’s reaction to the missile attacks has actually been muted. Its leaders have essentially limited themselves to verbal condemnation of the attacks, including in the United Nations, questioning the allegation that the Assad government used chemical weapons and emphasizing Iranian opposition to their use.

Whether Iran continues this cautious approach is likely to depend in part on Russia’s behavior. If Moscow does not escalate tensions in Syria by launching its own attacks on some of the terrorist groups and other opponents of the Syrian government, it is highly unlikely that Iran would run unnecessary risks that could make it the future target of US attacks. By contrast, if Russia, after investing so much of its prestige in its Syrian adventure, chooses brinkmanship, Iran might be dragged into the game, particularly by allowing Russia use of its air bases.

In fact, following Russia’s entry into Syria’s civil war, Iran’s role there has diminished, although over the years it has paid more there than any other outside country in both blood and treasure. Indeed, Iran’s future prospects for influence in Syria are grim. If peace breaks out, what Syria would need is money for reconstruction, which Iran lacks. Aid would have to come from Western, Arab, and international sources. At that point, Syria would presumably no longer be ruled by the Alawite minority and thus would return to the Arab fold, which again excludes Iran. Eventually, that would also be the case in Iraq, although there Iran would retain some influence because of proximity and religious kinship.

At this point, Iran’s priority should be to focus on its own immediate security interests, paramount among which is averting a possible US attack. Thus, Iran should avoid not only taking risks but even the appearance of doing so. In the longer term, Iran should abandon its illusions of Muslim unity and disengage from the Arab world beyond what is necessary to protect its security and well-being. It should let the Arabs liberate Palestine, since Iran’s championing of this cause has only earned it the enmity of Arabs, including Palestinians. Most important, it should not provide either Arab states, Israel, or the US with excuses to bring upon it the wrath of the international community.

Photo: Syria’s Bashar al-Assad meets with Iran’s Ayatollah Khamenei in 2010

Shireen Hunter

Shireen Hunter is an affiliate fellow at the Center For Muslim-Christian Understanding at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. From 2005 to 2007 she was a senior visiting fellow at the center. From 2007 to 2014, she was a visiting Professor and from 2014 to July 2019 a research professor. Before joining she was director of the Islam program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a program she had been associated since 1983. She is the author and editor of 27 books and monographs. Her latest book is Arab-Iranian Relations: Dynamics of Conflict and Accommodation, Rowman & Littlefield International, 2019.



  1. It is the existence of Iran as an independent country that is the problem for the Neocons. Apart from dissolving itself, and going back to pro-Western days pre-1979, the present regime in Tehran can do little to decrease the strategic hostility to its very existence from Neocon theorists. After the invasion of Iraq comes Iran, sooner or later, in Neocon strategy. Unfortunately, there is an element of the irrational in this strategy which makes it difficult to convince its proponents that everyone will be worse off when and if it is put into effect.

  2. What a defeatist article! So, Iran should close on itself, ignore what is going on around it and allow Wahabism and other Sunni extremist ideologies to spread in the region and in the world ? That is exactly what Iran SHOULD NOT do. It is a proud nation that always fought against injustice and on the side of the oppressed. I am surprised that the author even suggest such withdrawal that only shows a weakness that Iran does not have.
    It is to underestimate Iranian strength and intelligence that has allowed them to resist for 30 years against the US and Israel assaults.
    Iran will not shout like Erdogan and Trump or react quickly, it will quietly work as it always did to undermine US and Saudi influence in the region.
    Iraq WILL remain under Iranian influence whether the USA wants it or not. The links are far too strong to be cut by the US.
    Syria will continue to be close to Iran and fight Sunni Islamist terrorism. I expect also a rapprochement of Iran with Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria who have shown their opposition to US and Israel hegemonic move.
    Contrary to the author, I am confident Iran is strong enough to continue its stand against injustice and bullies.

  3. The far more deadly and destructive Deir Ez-zor bombing did not weaken Iran and Russia resolve and that was in pre Aleppo period, so there’s no reason to think this would. In fact both countries chief of staffs have already pledged intensified counter terrorism operations. Syrian Arab Army is still popular in many of Syria’s population centres and it’s gaining ground.

  4. I agree about the defeatism which seems to be recommended in the article. as in nearly every case, it is the USA, helping its “ally, Israel” which is the problem. It arms and assists Israel and Saudi Arabia, which have only harmful effects on the region. The USA cannot with any truth pretend that it is threatened by Syria, or Iran, and why should Iran always be blamed for being independent, non-aggressive and powerful?

  5. Mrs Shireen Hunter, the Iranian youth and the current military establishment or Passdarans are much different than the youth and military apparatus during the Shah’s time and perhaps the times when you and I were growing up in that country!
    I wouldn’t underestimate the current establishment! The experience of past 40 years with eight years of war with Iraq under their belts they don’t make rush decisions or react to any military or political situation quickly!
    1. As long as Sistani is alive and well and he continues to lead the Shias in Iraq, Iraq will remain in Iranian camp. Sistani can change the Iraqi government as necessary overnight and Trump can NOT do a damn thing about it!
    2. Bashar Al-Assad’s father was the only Arab leader who supported the Iranian revolution because he hated the Shah and the current Iranian regime has had remained loyal to Syria and a major supporter of Assad’s son or the current Dr Bashar. Strategically the Syrian and Iranians are the only remaining forces remaining in the balance of power equation in the ME against the other Arab states as well as Israel. In fact one of their joint creation has been the Lebanese Hezbollah which is utilized as a backup force against Israel on as needed base!
    3. As mentioned before, Iran is not like Iraq, Afghanistan, Turkey and Pakistan so Trump should really think about it almost for 10 times before pointing a gun towards Iran!
    4. Nathanyahu is a shallow and all talk leader. He has zero or negative credibility with his words and or actions. He is only good for threatening the US to scam or milk more money out of US as he did with Prez Obama and Obama caved in to increase the US aid from $3.0b to $3.8b per year for the next 10 years!

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