Tony Badran

Tehran’s Siamese twins

On Iran's maintenance of territorial contiguity with Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon

Tehran’s Siamese twins (NOW)

“[I]n the next few days, the world will be surprised by what we and the Syrian military leadership are currently preparing,” Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Qods Force, reportedly stated from Syria last week. Soleimani’s comments were part of an Iranian propaganda blitz, which included statements by other Iranian officials affirming commitment to the Assad regime, and a flurry of reports about Iran's intention to send Iraqi Shiite fighters, and possibly Iranian troops, to fight in Syria.


The Iranian move comes in response to severe losses that the Assad regime has recently suffered on the battlefield. Analysts are split over what to make of these losses. On one side stand those who are predicting the nearing end of the Assad regime. On the other are those who are more optimistic about the regime’s chances. The truth lies between these two. The Iranians are pursuing Plan B: securing a protectorate in western Syria, an area contiguous with the territory in Lebanon controlled by Tehran’s client, Hezbollah.


Soleimani’s grandiose claims of an imminent “surprise” aside, the Iranians’ primary objective is not to reverse the losses suffered by Assad. Rather, it is about retrenchment. Reports of the Assad regime’s manpower problems are now as numerous as they are credible. Publicizing the imminent arrival of thousands of soldiers and militiamen from outside Syria only underscores the acute manpower problem in the Iranian camp. The reported figures for this force vary from 20,000 or 15,000 fighters, to 7,000, which is likely the most realistic one.


Despite the calls by Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, for total mobilization of the Lebanese Shiites, there has been no suggestion that the new force will contain a Hezbollah contingent. Clearly, the organization is already stretched too thin.


It is perhaps significant that Soleimani made his announcement regarding reinforcements while he was visiting the Alawite heartland of Syria. The move reinforced the perception, inside Syria and out, that the Alawite enclave, much like southern Iraq, is essentially an Iranian province — under Soleimani’s authority as much as Assad’s. Indeed, Soleimani has openly assumed a command role, and taken it upon himself to speak on behalf of the regime. 


What function will the new force perform? Its strategic goal is to preserve the Assad regime in an enclave that would include Damascus, the corridor up to Homs, straddling the Lebanese border, and the coastal mountain region around Latakia. Some analysts are describing this plan as preserving ‘useful’ or ‘vital’ Syria. This description is not entirely wrong but it misses a key point; namely, the Iranian role in the project. Far more important to Tehran than the inclusion of, say, Aleppo, is the maintenance of territorial contiguity with Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon. 


In the eyes of Tehran, Hezbollah and the Assad regime are Siamese twins sharing vital organs. Separating them from each other will result in the death of both.


In order to secure communication routes and strategic entry points into the Syrian enclave, the Iranians must create a buffer zone around it. In the last two years, the regime and its allies had succeeded in pushing east of the coastal mountains in the central plain, and had linked Homs, Hama and Idlib. Now that the Assad regime has lost most of Idlib, the northern gateway to the coastal mountains—the Alawite heartland—and the buffer of the Ghab Plain to its east, have become vulnerable.


But the northern front is not the only worry. The Iranians must also secure Damascus. Their much-vaunted attempt earlier this year to expand the perimeter south of the capital city and to drive down to the border with Jordan and Israel has failed. What is more, Amman, wary of the Iranian presence near its border, helped the rebels push back the IRGC and their militias in Daraa Governorate. So, it’s most likely that the other bulk of the incoming Shiite fighters would be deployed to shore up the capital’s defenses and to fortify the lines leading into it from northern Daraa and Quneitra. The fall of the 52nd Armored Brigade base in Daraa on Tuesday underscores the regime’s vulnerability. Indeed, a Syrian security source emphasized that the first priority was the defense of the capital — a revealing admission about the precariousness of the regime’s position in Damascus. 


Soleimani’s new fighters will mostly be Iraqis, as the security source confirmed. But, according to other reports, they might also include some Afghans. Meanwhile, Hezbollah is tasked with trying to clear the Qalamoun hills, thereby protecting the corridor from Damascus to Homs, and the border with Lebanon. The group is the principal fighting force there.


What this means, in sum, is that the defense of the capital and the critical points of the regime enclave is now almost entirely in the hands of the Iranians and their militias — who are also under severe pressure in Iraq, where even with the aid of the US Air Force they are hard pressed to roll back the Islamic State. Their ability to expand much more beyond the enclave’s perimeter is dubious. 


All of this raises an acute question about American foreign policy. Is this really the right moment to provide Iran with a massive cash infusion? The Iranian system is under strain. Wouldn’t it make more sense for the United States to exacerbate the strain rather than relieve it?


Instead, the Obama administration is helping sustain the Iranian regional project.


Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay. 


Tehran’s Siamese twins (NOW)

Soleimani’s grandiose claims of an imminent ‘surprise’ aside, the Iranians’ primary objective is not to reverse the losses suffered by Assad. Rather, it is about retrenchment.”

  • Glennw79

    It's always the American president. At least he shot and stood his ground unlike Hezbollah has.

    June 15, 2015

  • ZizouZeGreat

    @ Beiruti: Tony isn't saying the U.S. should put boots on the ground. I agree with you that all we're seeing is an outcome of the ill-advised Bush Iraq War. However, it's true that removing sanctions from Iran now will only provide more money to fuel the conflict when Iran and its proxies are really hurting. Fighting ISIS with Iran is like putting off fire with gasoline.

    June 12, 2015

  • Beiruti

    No Tony, it makes sense to do just what we are doing. Because your old champion George W. Bush put American Boots on the ground at the wrong time, in the wrong country and against the wrong enemy and spent $3.0 trillion dollars in the strategic error of the century, thus far, the US now does not have the national consensus nor the wallet to fund or mount a new US Expeditionary Force into the region to take ISIS directly on. So the strategy adopted is to create a ring of containment around it with Turkey to the North, Lebanon to the West, Jordan and KSA to the South, Iraq to the Southeast and East and Kurdistan to the north, northwest. The only weak link is the Alawite mountains and the very corridor of which you write that links the Alawite north west coast to Homs and then to Damascus along the Lebanese border. Assad cannot secure that containment territory and so Iran is coming in to direct the effort. Between the two enemies of the US, Iran and ISIS the strategic decision has been made that ISIS is the larger threat and so we are working with the Iranians to contain it. Under the rules of a Caliphate, the Caliph is required, to maintain his legitimacy as the spiritual and temporal Islamic leader to lead the Islamic State in the conquest of new territories and to spread the jurisdiction of his Caliphate. If he cannot grow his territory, or if he suffers military defeat on all sides, then this delegitimizes the Caliph and his Caliphate. You encircle it and then squeeze from all sides. In the process Iran is empowered, this is true, but better Iran than ISIS. Of course the better course is for the US to utterly defeat and humiliate ISIS in the process and then come back behind the military defeat of ISIS and lay the groundwork for civil society. But then George W. so botched the last effort that the whole idea has lost all credibility.

    June 11, 2015

  • jrocks

    who's talking about bush???

    June 13, 2015