From the end of the Cold War until 2010, Syria, led first by President Hafez al-Assad and then by his son Bashar, had a uniquely flexible geopolitical position in the Arab world: Syria was an avowed enemy of Israel but directly negotiated with it. Syria claimed to be the beating heart of Arab nationalism but joined the United Nations coalition that evicted Iraq from Kuwait in 1991. The Assad government was labeled by the United States a state sponsor of terrorism, but Syrian intelligence agencies cooperated with their American counterparts in the fight against Al Qaeda.
Those days of flexibility may be over.
Since the civil war began in 2011, the government of Bashar al-Assad has relied on Iran and its proxies like the Lebanese Hezbollah to stay in power. While Russia, too, has played an important role, Tehran has been the Syrian government’s primary backer. With the end of the war now apparently on the horizon, Iran looks set to be the big winner and in control of Syria’s foreign policy in the future. The results could be truly disastrous.
The Syrian-Iranian alliance was born in 1979 following the Iranian revolution and the signing of a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, which had previously been Syria’s Arab nationalist partner. Feeling isolated, Hafez al-Assad believed that Syria needed some new powerful friends. Iran played the part, by delivering military and economic assistance and by supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon, thus helping Damascus maintain its strategic position there.
The relationship has always been an uncomfortable one, though. In part, this was because of differences between the two countries: Syria, a Sunni Arab majority state, has been led by the secular Baath Party since the early 1960s. Iran, on the other hand, is majority Persian and Shiite, and since 1979 it has been an Islamic republic.
Syria has also often deviated from Iran on policy issues — much to Tehran’s consternation. In fact, Bashar al-Assad tended to see his alliance with Iran as a tradable asset, something he could get rid of in exchange for, say, a grand bargain on the Golan Heights, which Israel has occupied since 1967, or for improved relations with the United States. He also went against Iran by negotiating with Israel, by backing different political forces in Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein and, at times, pursuing better relations with the West.
Then came the civil war. As the battle lines between the government and its rebel opponents hardened inside Syria, Damascus’s foreign policy hardened, too. From the outset, Iran came to Mr. Assad’s aid to ensure its access to Lebanon and keep Saudi Arabia from extending its influence in the Levant. That help has been decisive. The war looks set to end, eventually, with Mr. Assad still in charge — and in great debt to the country that enabled him to survive.
From being granted reconstruction contracts to organizing and supporting the pro-government militias who have propped up the regime, Iran has deeply penetrated Syria in a way that Mr. Assad cannot ignore. On Aug. 20, the Syrian president delivered a defiant speech in which he thanked his allies and stated that there would be “no security cooperation with nor opening of embassies” for countries that opposed him. He said explicitly that Syria will, in the future, look more to the East than to the West.
Some pro-Iran figures within the Syrian leadership might be quite pleased with this — not only because they are angry at the West’s repeated attempts to undermine the regime but also because closer ties with Iran buttress their own political and economic status.
But most of Syria’s political and military elites, including Mr. Assad himself, worry that an overreliance on Iran will limit their flexibility when it comes to postwar reconstruction, economic development and future diplomatic relations with the West. A top Russian policy expert told me recently in Moscow that the “nightmare scenario” for Mr. Assad is that when the war ends, no country will care what happens next in Syria except Iran. Despite what Mr. Assad said in his speech, I believe deep down he wants to maintain his strategic flexibility.
If Mr. Assad ends up as a client of Tehran, it could make for a very dangerous situation. Israel, in particular, is worried by that prospect. Israel has repeatedly attacked pro-Syrian government forces in and around the Golan Heights. The civil war has even led Israel to tacitly support some Syrian opposition groups, including jihadist ones, along the border to prevent Iranian proxies — namely Hezbollah — from establishing a permanent presence there. If Syria’s orientation toward Iran continues, Israel will feel that when it looks across the Golan Heights, it sees Iran staring back.
The Trump administration has so far seemed willing to cede Syria to Russia, save for the defeat of the Islamic State. But Washington should understand what this really means: ceding it to Iran. Moscow wants little more than to maintain its military bases in Syria. It will not actually provide a counterweight to Iran once the war is over.
For decades, Syria has seen the United States as leverage in terms of pressuring Israel on the Golan, keeping Israel off its back in return for the prospect of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, and in clearing the way for foreign investment in the country. But if the United States isn’t interested in Syria anymore, and if Russia continues to focus solely on security issues while ignoring politics, Iran will be dominant in Damascus.
In a vacuum this wouldn’t matter. But the Middle East today is not a vacuum. Israel will not tolerate Iranian control over Syria — and if his recent speech is any indication, nor will Mr. Assad be able to prevent it. The result will inevitably be a Syria-Israel war, which would really mean an Iran-Israel war, one that would not be limited to Syria.
To prevent this, American and Russian policy makers need to do more to end the war. They should help create and monitor “de-escalation zones” and work on diplomacy to set up Syria’s postwar future. These other outside actors must all stay engaged with Syria to influence the government there. If Iran is the only party invested in Syria’s future, the outcome could be catastrophic.
David W. Lesch is a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio and the author of Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad.