Iran's Real Enemy in Syria

At a time of economic hardship, Tehran has provided billions of dollars to help Assad crush Islamist rebels. The question is why.

Protestors hold up a banner picturing late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khameni and late Syrian Presidnet Hafez al-Assad.
Protestors hold up a banner picturing late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khameni and late Syrian Presidnet Hafez al-Assad. (Louai Barsha / AFP / Getty)

“What kind of a nation wants to be associated with the mass murder of innocent men, women, and children?” President Trump asked Russia and Iran Friday night after launching air strikes against the Syrian regime. “The nations of the world can be judged by the friends they keep.”

Despite his speechwriters’ best efforts, if there is one thing Donald Trump and Iran share it is an inability to be shamed. Over the last seven years no country has done more, financially and militarily, to back the Bashar al-Assad regime’s mass murder of Syrians than the Islamic Republic of Iran, a theocracy that claims to rule from a moral high ground. Within hours of joint American, French, and British targeted military strikes in Syria, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani called Assad to pledge his solidarity.

At a time of great economic hardship in Iran, Tehran has provided billions of dollars to arm, train, and pay tens of thousands of Arab, Afghan, and Pakistani Shia militants help Assad crush Sunni Islamist rebels. Tehran, the victim of heinous chemical weapons attacks by Saddam Hussein three decades ago, has provided Assad the means to deliver these same weapons, while simultaneously denying that he uses them. The question is why?

Distilled to its essence, Tehran’s steadfast support for Assad is not driven by the geopolitical or financial interests of the Iranian nation, nor the religious convictions of the Islamic Republic, but by a visceral and seemingly inextinguishable hatred for the state of Israel. As senior Iranian officials like Ali Akbar Velayati, a close adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, have commonly said, “The chain of Resistance against Israel by Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, the new Iraqi government and Hamas passes through the Syrian highway. … Syria is the golden ring of the chain of resistance against Israel.” So long as the 78-year-old Khamenei remains in power, this hatred will justify Tehran’s continued commitment of blood and treasure to support Assad’s use of all means necessary—including chemical weapons—to preserve his rule.

Though Israel has virtually no direct impact on the daily lives of Iranians, opposition to the Jewish state has been the most enduring pillar of Iranian revolutionary ideology. Whether Khamenei is giving a speech about agriculture or education, he invariably returns to the evils of Zionism. “The Zionist regime is a true cancer tumor on this region that should be cut off,” Khamenei said in a 2012 speech. “We will support and help any nations, any groups fighting against the Zionist regime across the world.” Given Israel’s military superiority, Khamenei’s stated strategy is not Israel’s short-term annihilation, but its long-term political dissolution. “If Muslims and Palestinians unite and all fight,” he commonly says, “the Zionist regime will not be in existence in 25 years.”

In ostensibly trying to avenge what he portrays as one injustice, however, Tehran has helped Assad perpetrate a far greater one. The number of Syrian deaths since 2011 (an estimated 500,000, though the UN has stopped counting) is more than five times greater than the approximately 90,000 Arabs (roughly 20-30 percent of them Palestinian) killed in the last 70 years of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, while more than twice as many Syrians (12 million) as Palestinians have been displaced.* Indeed since 2011 far more Palestinians have been killed by Assad (nearly 3,700) than by Israel, including by chemical weapons.  “If their way to return Palestinians back home is displacing millions of Syrians,” said my friend Kassem Eid, one of around half a million Palestinian refugees who grew up in Syria, and a victim of one of Assad’s chemical weapons attack, “I don't want to go back to Palestine.”

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The Iran-Assad alliance is a study in contradictions. While Iranian advocates for secularism are viciously repressed, Assad routinely says, “The most important thing is that Syria should be secular.” Iranian women who defy the mandatory hijab are subject to violence and imprisonment, while Hezbollah fighters celebrate military victories in Damascus nightclubs alongside scantily-clad escorts. While nude Renaissance art is censored in Europe so as not to offend the religious sensibilities of visiting Iranian officials, Assad’s forces have deliberately used rape as a tool of repression against opponents. Khamenei implores his subjects to buy Iranian products to boost economic self-sufficiency, while Tehran’s largesse has helped subsidize Assad’s wife Asmaa—an unveiled fashionista—sustain what looks like her primary passion: shopping in London.

From the outset of the Syrian uprising in 2011, Assad and Iran assiduously sought to crush moderate opposition and indulge radical Islamists in order to engineer a no-win proposition for the West: Assad or jihadists. Yet Tehran has tried to portray its role in Syria as an existential battle for Iran, against the forces of Sunni radicalism. “Syria is Iran’s 35th province,” said Mehdi Taeb, a head of the Revolutionary Guards intelligence wing and a close advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “If we lose Syria we won’t be able to hold Tehran.” While Assad’s collapse would undoubtedly be a strategic blow to the Islamic Republic, Iran has been a nation-state for virtually 2,500 years before now without the benefit of a Syrian vassal state. Just as Russia outlived the USSR, so will Iran outlive the Islamic Republic.

Today the Tehran-Damascus axis has come to resemble a mutually exploitative love affair: Iran likes Syria for its body (which borders Israel and serves as Tehran’s waystation to Hezbollah), and Syria likes Iran for its money. In exchange for Iranian largesse, Assad has forsaken his sovereignty. “Syria is occupied by the Iranian regime,” said former Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab. “The person who runs the country is not Bashar al-Assad but [Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander] Qassem Suleimani.” As for the other half of the couple, Tehran’s staggering expenditures in Syria—estimated to be several billion annually—have become a growing cause of popular resentment amidst deteriorating economic conditions in Iran. During anti-government protests last January in Iran, residents of Mashhad—a large Shiite Shrine town—chanted “Leave Syria alone, think about us.”

Though Iranians feel the financial costs of the Syria war, Tehran has outsourced the human costs. Iran’s 40,000-strong Shia foreign legion—composed of Lebanese, Afghans, Iraqis, and Pakistanis—have endured five times more casualties in Syria than Iranians. Afghan militias—known as the Fatemiyoun Division—have paid the highest price. Most are not enthusiastic holy warriors but undocumented manual laborers, some underage, whom the Iranian Revolutionary Guards present with an offer they can’t refuse: 10-year residency permits in Iran—mitigating the risk of forced deportation—and $800 per month to go to Syria, purportedly to protect the Shiite shrine of Sayyida Zainab, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, outside Damascus. Lacking basic training and often illiterate, these Afghan troops are instead used as initial assault cannon fodder. "Sometimes we had no supplies,” said one former Afghan fighter, “no water, no bread—hungry and thirsty in the middle of the desert.” For Palestine.

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The burden of defending Iran’s role in Syria to Western audiences has fallen on the shoulders of Tehran’s U.S.-educated Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Among Zarif’s considerable talents is an ability, and willingness, to tell brazen untruths with tremendous conviction. Shortly after Zarif insisted Iran had “no boots on the ground” in Syria, for example, the Revolutionary Guards announced their 1,000th casualty. In the aftermath of each chemical weapons attack by Assad, Zarif has systematically absolved Assad of responsibility by following the same playbook:

First, remind everyone that Saddam Hussein—backed by Western powers—used chemical weapons against Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. In other words, Syrian children are not the victims; Iran is still the victim. Second, ambiguously condemn chemical weapons use "by anyone." This allows Zarif’s Western allies to acknowledge his humanity. When pressed, however, Zarif has always claimed that it was the Syrian opposition—backed by American and Israel—that has used chemical weapons, not Assad. Zarif has paid little reputational cost for this whitewashing; the Nobel Peace Prize committee continues to mention him as an annual nominee.

After seven years, and with billions of dollars of sunk costs, an assertive Russian partner, and a U.S. president that aspires to withdraw from the region, Tehran feels vindicated in Syria. It is alleged to be building permanent military bases outside Damascus, with armed drones capable of reaching Israel. Periodic, limited U.S. military strikes against Assad’s weapons depots are not likely to change this calculus. Hopes that Assad’s mass repression or use of chemical weapons would compel Tehran to reassess its support have been proven wrong. Just as Iranians today frequently evoke how Saddam used chemical weapons against Iran over three decades ago, Syrians will have similarly long memories of Iranian complicity.

While Friday night’s missile shower illustrated the clear power asymmetry between Washington and Tehran, the last seven years have also illustrated the two countries’ asymmetry of commitment in Syria. In contrast to Donald Trump—who did not care about Syria last week and will likely not care about Syria next week—Ayatollah Khamenei’s opposition to Israel, and his commitment to Syria, has not wavered for four decades. Like Captain Ahab chasing Moby Dick, the 78-year-old Khamenei will take this pursuit to the grave with him.

In the 1998 movie American History X, a vivid portrait of America’s neo-Nazi movement—America’s Islamist equivalent—Edward Norton’s character is a young radical sent to prison for committing a hate crime. When a sympathetic former teacher visits him in prison to try to talk sense, he remains intransigent. The teacher’s simple parting comment, however, was powerful enough to cause Norton to reflect. “Just ask yourself one thing,” said the teacher.  “Has anything you’ve done made your life better?

Amidst all the carnage and destruction in Syria, a similar question could be posed to Khamenei. Has anything that Iran has done in Syria, or elsewhere for that matter, advanced its goal of destroying Israel and liberating Palestine? Khamenei appeared to contemplate this question recently. “Today the body of Muslim world is severely wounded,” he said. “Enemies of Islam have managed to baffle the Muslim world by staging war and discord, giving the enemy more security in the region. In Western Asia, the Zionist regime thrives in a safe haven, while Muslims are posed against one another.” Long live Palestine.

* This piece originally misstated the number of Palestinian deaths in the last 70 years of the Arab-Israeli conflict. We regret the error.