By: Robert Andrea
Throughout the past thirty years, Iran has arguably been the world’s foremost expert in the use of so-called ‘proxy’ warfare as a tool of statecraft. Whether in Lebanon, Gaza, Yemen, or Iraq, Tehran has displayed a degree of discipline about its use of ‘proxy’ sponsorship hitherto unmatched by few, if any, other states. Furthermore, Iran seems to have learned, far better than anyone else, that proxy warfare is most strategically valuable when used as a tactic of statecraft and not as a general foreign policy strategy.
And now today, the utilization of this tactical-strategic relationship between ‘proxy warfare’ and macro-level foreign policy by Iran is once again on display- this time in Syria.
Iran in Syria
As of this writing, the fifth year of the Syrian Civil War is now nearly a month old. With casualty figures approaching 500,000, a tenuous ceasefire is seemingly near to a collapse and portending a fresh round of fighting. And with seemingly no party with the capability to secure a victory on the battlefield, all signs point to both a military, and a diplomatic stalemate.
However, by replicating a strategy of ‘proxy warfare’ it has used in the past, Iran seems to have positioned itself better than any other actor. It is thanks to this strategy that Tehran will likely be able to emerge from any kind of endgame in Syria with their strategic interests in the region intact.
Generally, the narrative holds that Iran’s interests in the Syrian Civil War are tied directly to the survival of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. The Iranians themselves, at least publicly, seem to have confirmed this. In a December 2015 statement, Ali Akbar Velayati (top foreign policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei) reaffirmed that the fate of Assad was a ‘red line’ for Iran. This seems to indicate that any diplomatic solution to the war in Syria would, from the Iranian perspective, be assessed as a zero-sum appraisal.
In other words, if Assad stays, Iran ‘wins’, but if he were to be forced out, the general consensus would be that Iran would ‘lose’.
Regarding the long term fate of Assad, Brett McGurk (U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL), said in a March interview, ‘there is no way conceivable that Assad’s writ will ever extend throughout the country again. It’s just not realistic after everything that’s happened’. If this is assumed to be true, the prevailing assumptions would also suggest that it’s no more realistic that Iran will be able to secure its foreign policy goals in Syria.
Unfortunately, this narrative overlooks the more long-term geopolitical goal that Iran has in Syria.
The Beirut-Damascus highway
Masked with rhetoric about protecting Shi’a shrines and fighting terrorism, the reason Iran has been so invested in the survival of Assad is that, until now, he has been the guarantor of Iran’s supply lines, through Syria, to Hezbollah in Lebanon. With its ally Hezbollah being the only real apparatus (in the absence of Assad) with which Iran is able to project power in the Levant (particularly via-à-vis Israel), the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran is, by any metric, much more vital to Tehran’s long-term foreign policy in the region than is their relationship with Bashar al-Assad. It is therefore incorrect to assess Iran’s success or failure in Syria relative to the survival of Assad. Rather, ‘success’ on a strategic level for Iran in Syria ultimately depends on whether or not the supply conduit to Hezbollah is maintained.
To that end and through the use of ‘proxy’ by armed organizations, Iran has provided itself with a strategic fallback for their long-term interest in the Levant. This fallback retains its strategic value for the Iranians even if Assad and/or his regime were to be removed from power, either militarily or as part of a diplomatic agreement.
A ‘Second Hezbollah’
This fallback revolves around the creation of pro-Assad and, more importantly for this discussion, pro-Tehran militias. These militias, a myriad of whom exist, each go by different names and are based in different regions of Syria. Often (for brevity’s sake), these militias are collectively referred to as the National Defense Forces (NDF) and are estimated to have a combined strength of anywhere between 100,000-120,000 fighters. It’s not always clear to whom these militias report, Assad or their Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) sponsors, but it is clear that they have been instrumental in bolstering/supporting Syrian government forces. These paramilitary militias, as well as the IRGC and Hezbollah, have been critical to the preservation of the SAA due to the latter’s struggle with attrition and reliability.
This proxy warfare policy replicates a previous Iranian policy used, beginning with Hezbollah in 1982-83, throughout the past three decades. The comparison of the NDF to Hezbollah is not an idle one. IRGC general Hossein Hamedani (since killed in Syria) was reported to have said in 2014 that Iran had created a ‘second Hezbollah’ in Syria.
Although many factions of the NDF are multi-ethnic and cross-sectarian, some of them are comprised of only Allawi and/or Shi’a fighters, from inside or outside Syria. The amalgamation of militias that comprise this ‘second Hezbollah’ do, in fact, bear striking organizational and ideological resemblances to Hezbollah in Lebanon and many of the Shi’a militias in Iraq, both of whom are assisting Iran in training these NDFs and in actual combat operations in Syria. Most of these Shi’a groups fight under the banner of Liwa Abu al-Fadhl al-Abbas, commonly referred to as the LAFA network or, simply, the al-Abbas Brigades.
It is through their sponsorship of these proxy militias, Shi’a or otherwise, that Iran is seeking to ensure the future of their foreign policy goals in Syria and the Levant.
As tactically successful as this militia sponsorship policy has been in preserving the survival of Assad, none of the NDF militias, not even the LAFA network, provide Iran or Assad any sort of military dominance at the moment, or even in the foreseeable future. So how does Iran’s sponsorship of these militias on a tactical level afford it strategic value with respect to their foreign policy objectives in Syria?
The strategic value lies in the diplomatic leverage that Iran has obtained through its sponsorship of the various militias, NDF or otherwise.
Assuming any hypothetical peace negotiations would be earnestly conducted, none of the anti-regime actors can realistically hope to ignore the strategic considerations Iran has in Syria, as Tehran now essentially commands a force of 100,000 strong on the ground. Obviously, it is highly unlikely that all NDF factions would remain loyal to Iran in a negotiated endgame scenario. However, even if only 1%-2% of NDF members maintained their links to Tehran, this would still be more than enough fighters to seriously destabilize any peace efforts. Thus, the Iranians wield a favorable negotiating position. Of course, how much influence the NDF provides Iran at the negotiating table is certainly debatable. It would seem, however, that Iran believes that it will be enough to bargain for, at minimum, a post-Assad regime that isn’t hostile towards Tehran. Combined with the fact that Iran would have thousands (perhaps tens of thousands) of loyal fighters on the ground, its strategic foreign policy imperative – the supply line to Hezbollah in Lebanon – would be secure. While this hypothetical outcome wouldn’t be optimal for Iran, their understanding of using ‘proxy’ capabilities to pursue foreign policy goals on the strategic level would still provide them with a result they could live with in Syria- with or without Assad.
Robert is an incoming student at King’s College Department of War Studies and will begin pursuing an MA in War Studies this September. His research interests include U.S. and Iranian foreign policy, diplomatic strategy, and proxy warfare. He can be found on Twitter at @Bob__Andrea
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