A Lebanese politician frequently describes a meeting he held several years ago with a Russian official. The envoy from Moscow affirmed that Iran would not allow Bashar Assad’s regime to fall, adding that, if it became necessary, Tehran would send its own troops to Syria to prevent it.
With the news that thousands of Iranian combatants, accompanied by Iraqi and Afghan Shiites, are being deployed to the Syrian conflict, we may have reached that stage.
The actual numbers are unclear. A Syrian “security source” told AFP that “[a]round 7,000 Iranian and Iraqi fighters have arrived in Syria over the past few weeks and their first priority is the defense of the capital. The larger contingent is Iraqi.”
The source indicated that the Iranian aim was to reach 10,000 men, “to support the Syrian army and pro-government militias, firstly in Damascus, and then to retake Jisr al-Shughur because it is key to the Mediterranean coast and the Hama region.”
A Lebanese “political source” offered different figures, telling The Daily Star that Iran had sent 15,000 combatants—again Iranians as well as Iraqi and Afghan Shiites. The source echoed that the new arrivals would spearhead an offensive in Idlib Province, where the Assad regime has suffered serious setbacks.
The Star’s source outlined the two principal Iranian goals: “One is to reverse the falling morale of regime supporters in the wake of the battlefield losses and high casualties, while the second is to achieve successes by the end of this month, which coincides with a deadline for Iran and world powers to finalize an interim deal on Tehran’s nuclear program.”
Whatever the numbers, the direct implication of Iranian troops is on the rise in Syria. There have already been numerous accounts of Iranians fighting there, and Revolutionary Guard and Basij commanders have been reported killed. Whether the new deployments signal massive intervention by Iran remains to be seen. But given its grave doubts about the staying power of Bashar Assad’s exhausted army, this may become inevitable.
The news comes as the Syrian regime is seeking to recruit Alawites to a new force known as the Coastal Shield Brigade. With rebel forces having advanced in Idlib, taking Jisr al-Shughur and, most recently, Ariha, Assad’s foes have several options. They can strike westwards into the Alawite heartland; they can drive southwards toward Hama and Homs; or they can complete the expulsion of regime forces from Aleppo.
It is the second option that apparently worries Iran the most. Amid reports that the Iranians are pushing Assad to abandon outlying regions and concentrate his forces in what has been called “useful Syria”—Damascus, the coastal areas, and lines of communication in between—a rebel push against Homs and Hama could represent a direct threat to this core region.
Some observers have argued that Iranian assistance could push the rebels back, and that, while Assad’s regime “is clearly under strain” talk “of its impending demise [is] greatly overstated.” Perhaps, but the broader message is rather different. Iran is being drawn more deeply into a conflict that it cannot win; more importantly that it does not really seek to win. Significantly, it could also soon find itself facing Turkey in Syria, raising the level of animosity between the two powers.
Tehran is wagering on the fact that it has relatively specific military intentions in Syria. It wants only to protect “useful Syria,” while accepting that the rest of the country remain outside regime control. But that’s misunderstanding that the regional powers want more. They seek to dislodge Bashar Assad and Iran from Syria. In other words, they will put all their weight behind ensuring that Iran and its allies are sucked into a debilitating quagmire that will end in their defeat.
As the United States learned in both Korea and Vietnam, borders are essential. When American-led forces got too close to the Chinese border with North Korea in October 1950, it triggered intervention by China. In Vietnam, the porousness of the Cambodian border was a major frustration for American commanders throughout the conflict, as it allowed men and supplies to transit southwards to those fighting the United States and the South Vietnamese government.
In Idlib, Syria’s rebels, and with them Jabhat al-Nusra, will enjoy an open channel of supplies through the nearby Turkish frontier. Even if Iran and its allies can retake positions, they will be in for a long, grinding, indecisive campaign. The symbolism in the Iranian move will be double-edged: it may indeed raise Syrian morale, but more perniciously it will also tell Alawites that others are there to fight their battles for them.
That is why the Coastal Shield Brigade is so important. By recruiting Alawites at a time when many youths in the community are avoiding mandatory military service, the regime is trying to show that it is committed to winning its own war.
But that is questionable, if only because the “useful Syria” concept illustrates that Syria no longer exists as a country. The Iranian plan is tantamount to partition, and Assad’s credibility is harmed by such a project. It implies he will never rule over all of Syria again, and that his survival is only being guaranteed by Iran and its proxies, for their own narrow reasons.
Assad, therefore, has become marginal. As this becomes increasingly evident, Iran will have to pour even more men into Syria. The conflict will become a magnet for Sunni militants. Fighting Iran and the Shiites will turn into a regional crusade. Iran could discover that it is choking on what it has bitten off.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper. He tweets @BeirutCalling