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Iran’s Proxy War Against Israel in Syria

A major rationale behind Iranian efforts to develop a nuclear capability has been to acquire what may be termed “immunity from prosecution.” Put simply, by possessing nuclear weapons, Iran would be able to deter both the U.S. and regional powers from intervening – militarily or otherwise – in its nefarious activities.

Both the negotiation of and the provisions contained within the JCPOA have and continue to shield Iran from the consequences of its actions, while also providing it with a path to becoming a nuclear weapons state. Additionally, the deal has increased the resources base with which Tehran can exercise its imperial ambitions, and provoked instability by encouraging regional actors to take actions that either accommodate a newly empowered Iran or, conversely, violently push back against its influence.

In Syria, the Islamic Republic has conducted an extensive and expensive campaign to keep the Assad regime in power at all cost and turned Syrian territory into a launching pad for its regional ambitions. Iran is therefore directly complicit in the industrial-scale killing in Syria, where it has propped up the regime together with the Lebanese-based terrorist organization Hezbollah since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Hezbollah proved its value in propping up the Assad regime by playing a critical role in the capture of the strategic town of Qusayr in 2013. Tehran has also provided assistance to Syria’s chemical weapons programs, including the deployment of scientists, technical training and equipment.

It is clear that the prospect of undermining the possibility of a nuclear deal contributed to the Obama administration’s reluctance to intervene in Syria, as the White House placed all of its regional policy goals as secondary to securing an agreement with Iran. It has also been reported that during the build-up to an expected U.S. air campaign against the Assad regime in retaliation for the August 2013 chemical attack that killed approximately 1,400 people, Tehran threatened to pull out of talks should any U.S. strike take place.

Iranian involvement in the Syrian conflict has gradually escalated since the beginning of the uprising. As the result of international sanctions against Damascus and the drastic weakening of the Syrian economy, Iran has financially propped up the country through the granting of at least $4.6 billion in credit lines, as well as illicit deliveries of oil and military aid. By mid-2015, it was estimated that total financial support for Syria from Iran amounted to at least $6 billion annually.

This aid was granted despite the pressure on the Iranian economy caused by the sanctions, leading to speculation that Tehran would be forced to make a choice between continued expenditure in support of Damascus and domestic priorities. However, during the nuclear negotiations, Iran received $700 million in unfrozen assets every month. The signing of the JCPOA resulted in both the lifting of sanctions and the unfreezing of around $100 billion more in assets, considerably reducing pressure on the Iranian economy.

Although Iran had a notable military presence in Syria prior to the nuclear deal, the second half of 2015 saw the beginning of a new influx of direct and indirect assistance. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force commander Gen. Qassem Soleimani went to Moscow in July 2015 to solicit Russia’s military support to back Assad. The Russian support for Assad in the Syrian civil war has been critical to Iran’s efforts to prop up the dictator. Soleimani made that trip to Russia and other trips outside of Iran is remains under an international travel ban.

In October of that year, it was reported that hundreds of Iranian troops were arriving in Syria to support a ground offensive in parallel with the then just-commenced Russian airstrikes. By April 2016, it was estimated that between 6,500 and 9,200 IRGC and Iranian paramilitary personnel were stationed in Syria. That same month, Tehran also began to deploy regular Iranian Army troops. The Islamic Republic has since provided essential military supplies to Assad, primarily by air.

Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terrorist organization, took a direct combat role on the Syrian battlefield in 2012, when the Assad regime was losing territory by the day. At present, an estimated 20,000 fighters are working to support the Assad regime, with the vast majority of their funding – together with training, weapons and logistics support – coming from Iran. Tehran has also supported an array of Shiite militias, with the U.S. State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism 2016 asserting that “Iran has facilitated and coerced, through financial or residency enticements, primarily Shia fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan to participate in the Assad regime’s brutal crackdown in Syria.”

Ultimately, Tehran’s policy seeks to sustain Syria as a conduit to Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon to allow Iran to maintain “resistance” against Israel. Syria has been Iran’s main strategic partner in deterring Israel from attacking Iran’s nuclear program and terror proxies. In March 2013, a senior advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Akbar Velayati, acknowledged the importance of this bond: “Syria is the golden ring of resistance against Israel…Iran is not prepared to lose this golden counterweight,” he said.

In February, we witnessed the real danger of a permanent Iranian presence in Syria. Iran launched its first direct military operation against Israel, dispatching a drone from the Tiyas Airbase in Syria’s central Homs region. The Israelis used an Apache helicopter to intercept and destroy the drone, then sent eight fighter jets to destroy the Iranian command center. One of the Israeli F-16s was abandoned by its pilots over Israel and Syrian anti-aircraft fire reached Israeli territory, triggering extended emergency activities in Israel’s northern communities.

In preparation for a new war on Israel’s northern front, Tehran tested Israel’s resilience – a development the government in Jerusalem warned it will not tolerate.

“Given the growing military capabilities and territorial expansion of these hostile elements, Israel and the United States, along with Europe and allied Arab states in the region, must together send a clear message to Iran, Hezbollah and Assad: any attack on Israel’s sovereignty comes with a heavy price,” Joshua S. Block, CEO and President of The Israel Project said.

“Breaking this dangerous cycle will require diplomatic intervention from the United States and, more importantly, Russia with its direct line to the Assad government in Damascus,” Block observed. “The most effective way to prevent a future escalation with potentially catastrophic consequences for the region is to dismantle any Iranian presence along Israel’s border altogether.”

The Israelis have insisted since the outbreak of the war seven years ago that any final agreement must include specific stipulations preventing Iranian-backed forces to remain permanently in Syria. Should Syria fall to forces hostile to Iran and Hezbollah, it would prove extremely challenging for the Lebanese terrorist organization to sustain itself – particularly in the event of renewed conflict with Jerusalem. Iran is therefore willing to pay a heavy price for success.

This is the second in a series of reports prepared by TIP Senior Fellow Julie Lenarz looking at the consequences of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.

Previously The Tower has covered:

How Iranian-Backed Houthi Militants are Seizing Power in a Key Part of the Arabian Peninsula