No more unwanted aircraft should cross Syrian airspace: That is the concern of the Iranian government, which has invested in a comprehensive air defense system in Syria. This is what the US news magazine “Newsweek” reported a few days ago. It is aimed at the Israeli Air Force, which has repeatedly attacked Iranian positions in Syria in recent years. Over the past two years, Iran has sponsored the construction of air defense systems in Syria “for many millions of dollars,” Newsweek reports, citing an unnamed informant from a US partner country.
Iran is currently trying in many ways to secure the future of the Syrian Assad regime after more than ten years of war. Last Wednesday, Iran’s Permanent Ambassador to the United Nations, Saeed Iravani, called on “all uninvited foreign forces” in Syria to leave the country without any preconditions or delays. This is the prerequisite for ending the country’s crisis. The occupation of Syrian territory violates the UN Charter and international law, while creating fertile ground for terrorism, the diplomat said.
There is much to suggest that the governments in Damascus and Tehran want to further expand and intensify their mutual relations. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian was in Damascus in mid-January. This week, Syrian Defense Minister Ali Mahmoud Abbas traveled to Tehran for talks. There he also met Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi. Iran stands ready to support Syria during the reconstruction period by expanding economic cooperation, Raisi said. Both nations are united in the resistance against “terrorism”. Both the Syrian and the Iranian leaders use this term to describe not only jihadist organizations such as the “Islamic State”, but generally all groups that turn against the Assad regime.
At the same time, the Syrian Defense Minister also met with the Commander-in-Chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, General Hossein Salami. At the meeting, Salami signaled the Guard’s willingness to share Iranian expertise in cyber warfare and intelligence activities with Syria, according to Iran’s official Tasnim news agency.
The steps follow Iran’s fundamental interests in Syria, says Eckart Woertz, director of the Hamburg GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies. “It goes back years, to the time when Hafiz al-Assad, the father of the current president, still ruled in Syria.” For Iran, Syria is a bridgehead that can be used to secure its interests in the region. This also includes the air defense system that has now been installed.
Conversely, the Assad regime not only has a strong ally at its side in Russia, but also in Tehran, with the help of which it can protect itself against future challenges from within and without. Thanks to the support of these two partners in Syria, Assad has retained the upper hand militarily. Not least because of its numerous war crimes, the regime there continues to face many opponents on its territory.
With a view to Iran’s security interests, however, Syria is only one component of Tehran’s foreign policy system, says Woertz. To this end, Tehran relies on non-state allies in several countries in the region. “A saying goes that Iran has four Arab capitals under its belt, namely Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa. This is of course an exaggeration. But of course there is close cooperation with non-state forces from these countries, such as the Yemeni Houthi rebels or Shiite militias in Iraq. With their help, the government in Tehran has considerable influence in the region and, last but not least, protects its own existence in this way,” says Woertz.
In addition, due to its geographic location, Syria is a privileged terrain for Iran’s confrontation with Israel, whose right to exist Iran does not recognize and whose destruction it has repeatedly called for. As a result, the country promises itself a leading role in the Islamic world. In fact, Israel sees the Iranian presence as a significant threat to its national security and has repeatedly bombed Iranian positions in Syria.
In view of the tense situation in the region, which has been exacerbated by the stagnating nuclear talks in Vienna and the Iranian delivery of drones to Russia in support of its war of aggression against Ukraine, the USA and Israel had their biggest one to date in the region earlier this week joint maneuver, “Juniper Oak 2023”, started. A total of 142 American and Israeli aircraft and 12 warships are participating in the week-long exercise.
The exercises are not specifically geared towards Iran, a senior, unnamed Defense Ministry official told the online magazine Al-Monitor. However, it is assumed that Iran and other opponents of the United States would take note of the maneuver. The maneuver is a signal that Israel and the US are not isolated from each other, but are forming a coalition. “And this coalition is highly capable and highly interoperable,” the senior US defense official said.
In addition to military interests, Iran is likely to pursue economic interests in Syria, says Eckart Woertz. “Iran, in cooperation with Russia, has deployed considerable forces in Syria, even if these often consisted not of Iranian citizens but of foreign militias. This commitment was extremely costly, and now Tehran is likely to try to recoup this money through economic activities,” said Woertz.
Tehran is apparently having difficulties financing its support for the Assad regime on a permanent basis. According to a report published a few days ago by the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the Iranian government informed its Syrian partners that they would now have to pay a higher price for Iranian oil. So far, Iran has given its allies a discount. According to the WSJ, the move suggests that Tehran’s regime, mired in a political and economic crisis, could lose its grip on regional allies such as Syria.
Author: Kersten Knipp
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The original of this article “Tehran strengthens alliance with Assad” comes from Deutsche Welle.