There have been occasional reports that Iran is reducing its military presence in Syria. Should they be taken seriously? Probably not, because Syria has become an integral part of the "Islamic Republic" of Iran's expansionist project. The regime in Tehran has linked its fate to this ongoing project, so much so that any Iranian pull back, be it in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, or Yemen, will have a direct impact on it.
Iran is thus unlikely to withdraw from Syria. If some troop movement or redeployment does occur, it will be a tactical formality rather than of a strategic nature. Iran cannot change its natural inclinations, as to do so would mean changing the composition of a regime founded on the principle of "exporting the revolution" from a sectarian standpoint and nothing else.
The Iranian project had a strong start in 2003 with the US-led occupation of Iraq which handed the country to Iran on a platter. Now there is no reason for Iran to withdraw from Syria given the facts on the ground, not least because there is no clear Russian policy there apart from reprimanding Bashar Al-Assad occasionally, and meeting Iranian demands. As for Israeli airstrikes on Iranian positions within Syria, it seems clear that Iran can withstand them, especially since most of the victims are not Iranians, but Lebanese, Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis, and others.
Moreover, Tehran has invested billions of dollars in Syria. It hasn't done so in order to withdraw in response to demands from Moscow or anywhere else. The Iranian presence in Syria is more complicated than this, and Russia's ability to influence Tehran's decisions in Syria is limited. Indeed, it is becoming more apparent that Russia-Iran cooperation is more profound than previously thought. Despite the odd difference every now and again, there are many meeting points between Moscow and Tehran.
To understand what is happening in Syria, we need to look at the stages of the popular revolution that started in 2011 against a minority regime that has oppressed the Syrian people since late 1970, when Hafez Al-Assad, Bashar's father, removed his Alawite rival Salah Jadid. Iran did not waste any time in getting involved in the uprising on the side of the Assad regime against its own citizens. The direct intervention was followed by the involvement of Lebanon's Hezbollah militia under the pretext of protecting Shia holy sites, especially in the vicinity of Damascus, where the Shrine of Sayyida Zaynab is located.
The Iranian regime did not hesitate to protect the Syrian regime. Tehran couldn't ignore the fact that Hafez Al-Assad allowed the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps into Baalbek in Lebanon in 1982 under the pretext of resisting Israel, which had invaded Lebanon earlier that year. Likewise, Iran cannot forget that the Syrian regime was one of just two Arab regimes — the other was Muammar Gaddafi's Libya — which stood with Tehran in the Iran-Iraq War between 1980 and 1988.
There is a deep relationship between Iran and Syria, mainly of a sectarian nature. It was strengthened when Bashar Al-Assad succeeded his father in 2000, leading to the partnership which prepared the ground for the assassination of ex-Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri and his companions on 14 February 2005.
Iran was not satisfied with supporting the Syrian regime with billions of dollars. It has also helped to change the demography of certain Syrian regions, from a sectarian standpoint. It is part of the new Syrian structure aimed at reducing the number of Sunni Muslims in Syria and getting rid of as many Christians as possible.
Russia has always been on hand to rescue the regime in Damascus when needed. President Vladimir Putin intervened in 2013 with Barack Obama to avoid a US military strike against Bashar Al-Assad after he used chemical weapons to kill Syrian civilians in Ghouta. In September 2015, Russia entered the war against the Syrian people directly through the Khmeimim Air Base near Latakia. Before that, General Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force in the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, went to Moscow to persuade Russia to enter the war after the whole Syrian coastal area was under threat.
There is no doubt that Russia takes Israel into account in everything it does, as Putin cannot ignore the pro-Israel lobby in his country. Nevertheless, it is hard to underestimate the depth of Iranian-Russian relations and the extent of coordination between the two sides since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Russia cannot ignore the extent of Iranian investment in Syria and the fact that Iran cannot pull out, as it would have repercussions for its position in both Syria and Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based.
We need to ask what the consequences of Iran's insistence on staying in Syria will be. Can Israel do anything, or is it satisfied with the strikes it launches from time to time against Iranian sites? Furthermore, will Jordan, which has an interest in keeping the sectarian militias affiliated with Iran away from its borders, succeed in counting on the existence of a minimum degree of freedom in its dealings with the "Islamic Republic"?
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Ayyam on 19 October 2021
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.