Iran’s embassy in the Mezze district of Damascus is a striking-looking building – the façade covered in elaborately decorated turquoise tiles that would look at home in Isfahan or Tabriz. Its roof bristles with communications antennae and it is guarded by machine-gun-toting security men and a high, earth-filled blast barrier that juts awkwardly into the busy main road outside.
The embassy is the most visible sign of the Islamic Republic’s presence in Syria. Its economic, political and military backing for President Bashar al-Assad has been crucial for the last four-and-a-half years.
And it looks like it’s becoming more so – both in shaping events on the ground and, perhaps, in international efforts to end the conflict. “The Syrian regime is increasingly dependent on Iran,” says a Western diplomat. “Its footprint is growing.”
Iran’s fundamental view of the crisis, ambassador Mohammed Reza Shaybani explains in his elegant third-floor office, is that foreigners must not intervene. “We have to respect Syria’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he says. “Iran does not interfere in Syrian domestic affairs. Our relations are historical and strategic. Our role is limited to consultation with the Syrian government for the sake of combating terrorism.”
Shaybani, urbane and articulate in both Arabic and English, is keen to emphasise Tehran’s constructive posture in the wake of July’s landmark nuclear agreement – its ticket to international respectability after years of sanctions and isolation.
“We provide advice to the Syrian government and the Syrian army,” he says. “The military advisers need to have a clear understanding of the situation on the battlefield. That does not mean that we have a lot of troops in Syria; we do not have a direct role in the fighting.”
Most analysts agree that Iran’s direct military presence is indeed fairly modest. It is led by the elite Quds force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and is thought to number in the hundreds. Iran also works with Hezbollah, its close Lebanese Shia ally, and with units of Shia fighters from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.
Outside the Damascus embassy the Iranians keep a lower profile than the Russians, who have a naval base near Latakia and a more visible role boosted by the arrival of new equipment and personnel.
Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps advisers, who are occasionally spotted near the frontlines, shun publicity. Fit-looking Iranians in civilian clothes are sometimes seen crossing the Lebanese border, handing over their passports en masse without being required to leave their vehicles – a sure sign of their discreet VIP status.
“The Iranians are there – and they are not there,” quips a Sunni businessperson from Homs. “They are a ghostly presence.” Speculation about their activities is rife. But the consensus among many Syrians and foreign experts is that their role is extremely important – though very shadowy.
“We know quite a lot about what the Iranians do in specific places – we see weapons, equipment and intercepts – but we still don’t have an understanding of what they do in institutional terms,” says Emile Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The question is to what extent they are involved in planning and command and control.”
Iran has certainly provided a financial lifeline to Assad since the 2011 uprising, releasing billions of dollars of loans and credit for imports of oil and other commodities. Another important contribution was setting up the national defence forces, locally based militia units outside the regular army, which have acquired a reputation for profiteering and brutality.
But in recent months Iran is said to have stopped paying the forces’s personnel, adding to the growing strain on the Assad regime – admitted by the president in an unusually frank speech in July. The Damascus rumour mill suggests some senior Syrian officials are unhappy with the Iranian role – but that their dependence on Tehran means they have to grin and bear it.
Relations go back to Syrian backing for the 1979 Islamic revolution – and Hafez al-Assad’s support for Iran during the grinding eight-year war with Iraq.
More comfortable allies
Still, at the personal level, Russians are more comfortable allies for the relentlessly secular Assad regime – their vodka toasts easier to stomach than the dour religiosity of the Iranians, says a well-connected foreign observer. And one view is that Moscow’s increasingly active role reflects, in part, its own unease at Tehran’s growing influence in Syria and an effort to obtain greater leverage over the Assad regime.
It is a measure of Tehran’s clout that Iranian officials, with Hezbollah representatives, have in recent weeks been directly conducting ceasefire negotiations over the strategic town of Zabadani, near the Lebanese border – as they did last year over the siege of Homs in central Syria.
Uphill battle: Soldiers and advisers from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps are working with units of Shia fighters to combat what the Iranian ambassador to Syria calls ?’terrorism’. (Alaa Al-Marjani/Reuters)
In Idlib province, its men are besieging the two Shia villages of Foua and Kafraya. The Iranians demanded a Sunni-Shia population exchange and want to resettle the Shia around the Sayyida Zeinab shrine – revered by Shia everywhere – in Damascus. To suspicious Syrians that sounds like a plan for replicating Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut – and making sectarian cleansing an explicit element in the war.
Faisal Itani of the Atlantic Council says: “Iran’s handling of the Zabadani crisis indicates a shift in its Syria strategy, in which it either negotiates on behalf of, or ignores, Assad and his inner circle, securing its strategic interests directly rather than by proxy.”
Unconfirmed reports – emanating from unidentified Israeli security officials – say that the Iranians have committed “hundreds” of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps personnel to the battle for Zabadani.
Ordinary Syrians fret about wider Iranian influence: Damascenes gossip about land confiscated in Mezze to build a big Iranian housing project as well as a new embassy closer to the city centre; about Iranians buying up prime real estate, often anonymously. Last year 35% of all Syrian imports came from Iran. Now many government tenders are open only to Iranians.
“Syria has been sold to the Iranians,” complains a resident of one of the capital’s better neighbourhoods. “They control everything.” Prejudice and paranoia make for a toxic argument that is promoted energetically by the Syrian opposition. Some even describe Syria as “Iranian-occupied” – a baseless and wild exaggeration.
Still, even some Assad loyalists are clearly worried. “Iranians could really control everything because they hold all the keys,” says a respected lawyer, insisting on anonymity. “But they would be in direct conflict with the Saudis and the Americans and the international community if they were more overt. So they apply pressure quietly and acquire more cards to play.”
Members of Syria’s small Shia Muslim community – as distinct from the Assad family’s Alawite sect – warn that it is important to distinguish between Iran’s national and strategic interests and its role as the spiritual centre of the Shia faith.
Plastered with posters
But the distinction feels lost in al-Ameen, the Shia quarter of the old city of Damascus – whose alleyways are plastered with posters commemorating the dead of fighting units with resonant religious names like Fatemiyoun, Zaynabiyoun or the Sayyida Ruqayya Martyrs Brigade.
Alarm about a Shia Ashoura procession at the (Sunni) Umayyad Mosque is overblown, insists Shia journalist Maher Ashqar, but he admits ruefully that sectarian tensions are rising. “Iran’s role in Syria is important and growing, but it is exaggerated. Syrians are suspicious of it – but they are also suspicious of al-Qaeda. Iran does have a national agenda but many believe it is helping the Shia.”
The Iranians radiate growing confidence internationally but they will not persuade anti-Assad Syrians of their good intentions or the sincerity of their professed belief in nonintervention. “The more the Iranians speak about Syria’s sovereignty the more they violate it,” says Ibrahim Hamidi, a highly-regarded Syrian journalist with the London-based al-Hayat newspaper.
“The more they talk about national identity the more they promote sub-identities. The more they talk about fighting Isis, the more they provoke it. Whatever the Iranians say, they do the opposite. The Iranians are trying to play the same role in Syria as Syria used to play in Lebanon: they create their own clients and they hold the balance between the different centres of power. Now the Iranians are trying to create their own parallel regime –with their militias, businessmen and properties, and social engineering.”
Still, Iran does not always get its way. It was, for example, prepared to release prisoners in the Zabadani talks but that was apparently vetoed by the Syrians.
Its recent four-point peace plan, put forward by Javad Zarif, the foreign minister and hero of the marathon nuclear negotiations, was also rejected by Damascus because it called for internationally supervised elections – something Assad was not prepared to contemplate. “The Iranians are playing a key role, even a vital one,” says Hokayem of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, “but they are not calling the shots.”
Shaybani offers no detail of what Tehran will propose if diplomacy does gather momentum. But on one point he is crystal clear: “Bashar al-Assad is the choice of the Syrian people and it is up to them to elect who they wish. No one has the right to say that he must leave: the Libyan experience shows what happens after the volcano that erupted when Gaddafi was removed. In the current situation there can be no replacement until terrorism has been defeated in Syria.” – © Guardian News & Media 2015