Syrian President Bashar Assad's visit to Tehran earlier this week showcased the centrality of his regime's relationship with its Iranian patrons.
The rhetoric that emerged from the dictator's meetings with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi was familiar to the point of tedium. Khamenei's website declared that Assad's "victory in an international war" had "increased the respect and credibility of Syria." Assad spoke of the "spirit of resistance" and the "strategic ties" that have, in his view, prevented Israeli dominance over the region.
But while the slogans may appear somewhat shopworn, the strategic reality they reflect is substantive and clear. The Syrian war may be largely over. But Iranian penetration of and entrenchment in Syria is continuing apace. It is doing so with the consent, and even the apparent enthusiasm, of the supposed ruler of the country.
What explains this enthusiasm?
Firstly, it should be noted that by continuing to adhere to it, Assad again displays his tendency to disappoint those among his enemies who persist in identifying signs of moderation or pragmatism in him.
Pro-Western elements in the Arab world have for the past three years been engaged in efforts at ending the regime's isolation, and relegitimizing Assad in international fora. In March, the Syrian dictator made his first visit since 2011 to an Arab capital, when he met with UAE Crown Prince Mohamed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi. The Gulf states have played an important role in reviving Syria's banking sector. The UAE has called for the removal of the US "Caesar" sanctions on the regime and its officials.
In Israel, officials have spoken of a supposed rift opening up between Damascus and Tehran. Former IDF Military Intelligence head Maj.-Gen. Tamir Heyman, quoted by researcher Udi Dekel in a recent article at the Institute for National Security Studies, assessed that Israel has "driven a wedge between Assad and the Iranians," through its ongoing military campaign.
In this telling, Israel's "campaign between the wars" and the Gulf states' rehabilitation efforts play a complementary role, in a type of good cop-bad cop dynamic. Israel's actions demonstrate the cost to Assad of sticking with the Iranians.
The Arab inducements, meanwhile, show the opportunities inherent in a return to the fold. Arab diplomacy has departed from unity with the West in this regard. The US and the EU continue to follow a strategy of pressure and isolation of Assad.
Yet despite Israeli pressure and Arab inducement, Assad appears to continue to cleave to his alliance with Iran. The wedge perceived by Heyman has yet to produce substantive results.
The explanation for the Syrian regime's loyalty to Iran may be located by consideration of two elements: the regime's weakness, which limits its options, and the regime's perception of its own interests. The latter of these should not lightly be dismissed, given the demonstrable fact of Assad's survival, in a period when many of his fellow Arab dictators fell.
Regarding the former, the regime's enfeeblement over a decade of war is profound. During my own reporting on the regime side in the course of the Syrian war, I witnessed the extreme impoverishment of Syrian soldiers. In visits to regime army positions in late 2019, I saw troops lacking even the most basic provisions in terms of food and medical supplies.
In Damascus in 2017, meanwhile, it was notable that the forces responsible for daily security tasks in the old city were not Syrian Arab Army personnel. Rather, they were affiliated with the National Defense Forces, a structure created by the Quds Force of the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. These examples and much additional evidence suggest that the structures and manpower that Iran makes and has made available to him are key elements in the Assad regime's survival and continued viability.
Some of these Iranian-made structures, like the National Defense Forces, are embedded deep in the body of the Syrian state. Others, such as the Afghan Fatemiyoun militia, operate on Syrian soil under IRGC direction. Still others, such as the Quwat al-Ridha militia, consist of Syrian personnel recruited and trained by IRGC and Hezbollah commanders.
This independent Iranian activity on Syrian soil undoubtedly comes at a cost to Assad in terms of sovereignty. The Iranian project in Syria is a variant of similar activity designed to advance Iranian power throughout the region. A recent study by Syrian analyst Omar Abu Layla at the Fikra Forum laid bare in stark detail the extent to which in large swaths of southern Syria today, the de facto power on the ground is Iran, not Assad.
Focusing on his home region of Deir al-Zor, Abu Layla depicts a situation in which IRGC-affiliated personnel carry out patrolling facing US-aligned forces on the Euphrates, transfer cargo and equipment, impose cordons and closures and traffic narcotics from Iraq. Operating from large and recognized facilities, the IRGC is the key arbiter of power in the province today. Abu Layla vividly describes this process as the "swallowing" of Deir al-Zor by Iran.
It may be assumed that Assad and his generals do not relish this situation. But their own weakness and shortage of manpower mean that they have little choice but to acquiesce to it. The Arab states seeking to rehabilitate the regime cannot offer an alternative to the Iranian deep presence on the ground across southern Syria. Neither can Assad's other ally – Russia. Whether or not the latest reports suggesting the departure of some Russian personnel from Syria for Ukraine are accurate, the fact is that it is Iran, not Russia, which has supplied the ground component for the regime's survival. Assad's visit to Tehran is an acknowledgment of this, and of its continued relevance.
But a shrewd assessment of its own interests also lies behind the regime's stance. The Iranians, for all the problematic nature of their "friendship," offer a firm and proven guarantee for Assad's survival. The dictator's father in the 1990s declined to align with the then-ascendant United States, despite the many inducements offered him (including regaining the Golan Heights). His son benefited from the allies bequeathed him, when his own moment of trial came. Unlike Western-aligned Arab authoritarians – Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen – Bashar Assad survived the uprising against him. His choice of allies was the single key factor that ensured this.
It would, from Assad's point of view, be foolish to now abandon or loosen this allegiance. Better to pocket whatever inducements the Gulf Arabs wish to bestow, while at the same time keeping the core alliance with the Iranians for a rainy day.
So Assad's enthusiasm in Tehran has firm moorings in self-interest and necessity, the weary rhetorical justifications notwithstanding. A similarly realistic appraisal of the situation from his enemies in Jerusalem should produce a heightened determination to roll back the Iranian edifice in Syria on which the dictator depends. Only an intensified and direct challenge to that edifice is likely to produce results.
As Assad's visit to Tehran this week demonstrated, hopes that the dictator himself, or Russia, or some combination thereof, can be induced to leverage the Iranians out of Syria remain at odds with the observable reality.
Jonathan Spyer is a Ginsburg/Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.