Echoing other arguments for a limited US strike in Syria, National Security Advisor Susan Rice stated on Monday a lack of response to the use of chemical weapons “could indicate [to North Korea, Iran or other terrorists] the United States is not prepared to use the full range of tools necessary to keep our nation secure.” This is almost certainly true. But when it comes to understanding the Iran-Syria relationship, the current debate has been missing the most important points.
Prior to 2011, Iran could use Syria as its primary forward operating base in the Middle East without paying substantial costs. However, Tehran can no longer maintain this on the cheap. In a sign of operational strength but strategic weakness, Iran has taken significant risks and even casualties to shore up President Bashir al-Assad, putting in some of its best people on the ground, particularly from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (more here, and here).
Why is this alliance so essential, even existential, for both parties? Though the Syria-Iran axis may have begun as a marriage of convenience, it has certainly evolved into a much more profound and co-dependent commitment. Their mutual isolation and need for collective deterrence against common enemies (Israel, Iraq and the West) became a very stable basis for an alliance after the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Egypt-Israel Peace Accords, despite the two countries’ ethnic and religious differences. As now, both have threatened in the past to escalate conflict regionally in the other’s defense.
The Iran-Syria axis can be understood further by the strategic depth each provides the other. Given their relative vulnerability in the region, anything that keeps adversaries occupied and away from their borders is critical. From Iran’s perspective, the loss of Syria would bring all of their opponents to their doorstep.
Perhaps just as important is the ideological support Iran and Syria provide each other. Neither is a status quo power. Aside from continuing the Islamic Revolution, Tehran’s core narrative, its foreign policy raison d’etre, centers around confronting Zionism, the West and its perceived Arab client states—just as Assad’s. The loss of the “Crown Jewel” in this effort, as former US CENTCOM Commander James Mattis would describe Syria along with Lebanese Hezbollah, could be a devastating blow to the Iranian regime’s very identity and internal legitimacy.
As both the conflict and our policy debate proceed, the US should recognize if Assad survives, Iran will emerge with even stronger operational capability in the region, despite the loss of moral capital among the Arab states. In contrast, a more effective US strategy to help remove Assad and assist moderate forces could radically increase Western leverage to address the full spectrum of our concerns with the Iranian regime–proliferation, terrorism and human rights. Something that “an unbelievably small, limited kind of [US] effort” in Syria will not do.