How Did Iran Win in Syria?


Assad and Khameini

Photo via Reuters


It is over – the Syrian revolution has ended. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad took full control of the province of Deraa, the birthplace of the 2011 protests. Now Assad has regained control of most of Syria and is preparing to take over Idlib, the last region still under opposition control.

The latest capture of Deraa illustrates what went wrong. In 2011, civilians were chanting peacefully against Assad in Deraa. In 2018, however, Assad regained the territories from a radical Islamist ISIS affiliate, Jaysh Khalid Ibn al-Waleed. What started as a peaceful revolt against a dictator has turned into an ugly civil war in which Islamismhas played a pivotal rule.

A few years ago, I attended a seminar on the Syrian conflict and listened to speakers debating when (not if) Assad would fall and predicted the potential shape of Syria following the end of his regime. I voiced my scepticism and highlighted how Assad stood a good chance of surviving. However, my views were not popular.

Now Assad has won. Pundits and observers are attributing his victory to Russia’s ruthless intervention and the United States’ regional policy blunder. Both reasons are valid; nonetheless, we must not underestimate the role of political Islam. Let’s be honest, the main factor behind Assad’s victory is the myopic and reckless Islamization of the opposition in contrast to a much more pragmatic approach by Assad and his Iranian allies.

The Tehran regime realised in the early days of the Syrian revolution that it stood no chance of victory in Syria without abandoning the rigid elements of its ideology. It then adopted a much more pragmatic approach in order to preserve Assad’s allegedly secular regime against an increasingly Islamist opposition. The Mullahs resorted to several tactics to portray themselves as the “tolerant side” against the increasingly radical Islamist opposition.

First, muting the Iranian version of Islamism:

Contrary to its rigid Islamist domestic laws, Iran was careful not to enforce the Khomeinist Shia fundamentalist rule in Syria. While Iranian authorities have gone out of their way to squash the female rebellion against the state-imposed use of the hijab inside Iran, it has never tried to impose such policies in Syria. Throughout the Syrian conflict, Iran has been careful to spread more of its political influence and less of its religious one. The goal was to establish a perception of the conflict as a war against extremism and convince other Syrian minorities and global observers that Syria was less radical under Iran’s influence.

During the seven years of conflict, Iran allowed Assad to maintain a façade of secularism. His glamorous wife never wore the black hijab; his TV demonstrated countless shows starring non-hijabi women in full makeup. Even his electronic army included many non-hijabi women pretending to be pro-freedom.

In contrast, Syria has provided glaring examples of the narrow-mindednessand sheer stupidity of Sunni Islamism. Despite harsh living conditions under siege and air bombardments from Assad and his allies, every Sunni militia has rushed to impose strict Sharia law on the inhabitants under its control. Women were the first victims of this oppression.

Second, a monopoly on Shia Jihad:

Researcher Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi wrotean article describing how Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) have created a Local Defence Forces (LDF) project in Syria, which is on the registers of the Syrian army and armed forces while also maintaining affiliation with the IRGC. Al-Tamimi argues that the IRGC has integrated into the system of Assad’s Syria in such a way that it has become an indivisible part of that system.

While scores of radical militias with often-conflicting goals and tactics have plagued the Syrian opposition camp, Iran has imposed a strict monopoly on Shia Jihad, integrating its imported foreign Jihadis to work under the sole control of its revolutionary guards (IRGC), denying them any distinct autonomy. Such a policy has helped Iran to maintain discipline within its loyal Shia recruits, tone down its Islamist image, and create an effective workable strategy against diverse – and often delusional – opponents.

This pragmatism does not mean Iran has abandoned its ideology. On the contrary, Iran has just postponed implementing its Islamism to a later stage. Currently the Iranian regime is busy expanding its social influence in Syria.

Reports suggest that Tehran’s sway is expanding on a number of social fronts, including projects to build hospitals, schools, sporting events, and children’s camps. Slowly but surely, Iran will turn Syria into a loyal entity that serves its ideological and political projects in the region.

Syria has been the battlefield of two vicious types of Islamism, in which the Iranian side used a tactically smarter approach that enabled the Mullahs to ultimately prevail.


An Arabic version of that article was published in Al-Hurra







About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
This entry was posted in Iran, Middle East, Syria and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s