For over five years, Tehran and its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, have been steadfastly supporting Syria’s minority government leader and self-proclaimed dictator, Bashar Al-Assad. This support includes financial and military aid estimated at $50 billion and a death toll of several hundred Iranians and several hundred Hezbollah troops.
For over five years, Tehran has warned foreign powers to not take an active part in the Syrian civil war that the only solution for the Syrian civil war would be a political one. This warning is loaded with irony since Tehran is the biggest foreign military power in Syria and this irony only grew as the cheers from Tehran rose when Moscow joined the war.
But now, Tehran is at a crossroads: Moscow has checked out of Syria, leaving the battlefield once again to Assad, Tehran and Hezbollah and peace talks have led to a series of cease-fires. Tehran has to decide whether to keep on supporting Assad militarily or follow Moscow’s lead and remove its troops (Iranian and Hezbollah) from Syrian soil. The pressure for Iran to withdraw its troops is building up from three sides: the peacemakers (UN), the regional arch-enemy (Saudi Arabia) and the Iranian people themselves. On all three levels, it makes sense for Iranian president Hassan Rouhani to pull Iranian troops out of Syria.
The UN wants Iran out of Syria
The Syrian civil war has claimed a death toll of 250,000 – 470,000 (depending on who is doing the survey) and the displacement of approximately 12 million Syrians. It is noteworthy in this context to know that most of the civilian casualties were hurt or killed by Assad’s government forces and his supporters, namely Iran, Hezbollah and then Russia.
Up until now, the threat of ISIS managed to convince the world that Tehran’s involvement in Syria is based on one issue alone: to defeat terrorism in general and ISIS in particular. This is strange since Tehran’s involvement in Syria began long before ISIS birth in gory rampage in mid-2013 and belies Tehran’s sectarian and geo-military reasons for supporting Assad. On a sectarian level, Assad is an Alawite, a Shiite-like sect of Islam, which is a minority sect in Syria living within a Sunni majority, and Tehran could not bear to lose a Shiite-friendly ally. On a geo-military level, Syria is Tehran is a strategic stepping stone to attack Israel and to arm and train Hezbollah militias. Tehran would love for Syria to become an extension of Lebanon, a country governed by Hezbollah with strings being pulled back in Tehran.
The UN understands that as long as Iranian and Hezbollah forces are in Syria, the chances of a peace process, accepted by the rebels, to develop is nil: the Syrian rebels view Iran and Hezbollah as foreign invaders who are there for one thing only – to save Assad. In order for a peace process to begin, the rebels have to believe that playing field is even which means that Tehran has to leave. Rouhani, who has been courting the UN for the past three years also understands this all too well and should find a way to bring Iranian troops out of Syria.
Saudi Arabia wants Iran out of Syria
The animosity between Saudi Arabia and Iran has grown steadily as Iran became less of a global pariah and more of a partner for the West. The JCPoA lifted sanctions from Iran which meant that Iran could now compete with Saudi Arabia more adequately while Tehran’s re-branding as a champion against terror meant that more focus was placed on Saudi Arabia’s part in Sunni-based terrorism. Tehran made a big deal out of the fact that ISIS’s roots could be traced back to support from Saudi Arabia and the US and by placing Sunni-based terrorism on a much higher danger level than Shiite-based terrorism.
Saudi Arabia’s frustrations grew as Tehran supported Shiite-like Houthi rebels in Yemen to overthrow the government and as Iranian troops and “advisers” roamed the Syrian battle-fields freely while Saudi Arabia could only watch on the sidelines and send in limited military supplies to the Syrian rebels.
All this changed when Saudi Arabia declared war on the Houthis and then again, when Saudi Arabia threatened to send in its own armed forces into Syria. Riyadh’s claim is quite simple: If Tehran can freely support Assad, then Riyadh can freely support Assad’s rebels.
The only way out of this stand-off is for Tehran to step down. Rouhani who had called for Islamic unity only six months ago must understand that if Saudi Arabia does deploy its troops in Syria, a regional conflict based on proxy wars can suddenly become an all-out frontal war between these regional arch-enemies.
Iranians want Iran out of Syria
Although nearly every Iranian leader has spoken in favor of supporting Assad in his war, criticism in Iran is growing. The IRGC leaders understand the political and military importance of Assad in Syria but every burial of an IRGC soldier killed in Syria increased the pressure within the IRGC to distance itself from sending Iranian soldiers to the Syrian front.
But now, the criticism is reaching a grass-roots level: Iranians who are still suffering from a weak economy are finding it hard to swallow the billions of dollars being invested in a war outside of Iran to decrease the suffering of Assad and his troops instead of investing these funds within Iran to decrease the suffering of the Iranian people. At first, the Iranian populace vented its anger at the burials of Iranian soldiers which seemed OK by the regime since the anger seemed to be pointed at the enemies of Assad but protests have begun in Iran in which the protesters are blaming the regime.
For most Iranians, the regime’s support of Assad is deemed as acceptable as long as the body-count and the billions invested remain at a low level but once that level is crossed, they are doing what is extremely dangerous to do in Iran: openly criticize the regime. For now, these protests have not spread nationally but it’s just a matter of time if Iranian money keeps being invested and Iranian blood keeps being shed in Syria. Rouhani gains his power form his popularity and if these protests increase, it will surely add more pressure on him to extricate Iran out of the Syrian blood baths.