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International community must try to push Iran out of Syria

Iran is turning Syria into another Iraq. This means that, even after Bashar Assad regains control of the remaining territories, and even after the Syrian civil war comes to an end, the senior cadre of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its elite group, the Quds Force, which carries out covert and overt operations beyond Iran’s borders, will continue to have a decisive role in Syria’s military operations. 

This also means that the Iranian regime will be deeply infiltrating the Syrian security, intelligence and political establishments. As in Iraq, Tehran will continue pursuing a sectarian agenda, pitting the Shiite and Alawite population against the Sunnis, stifling any path to democracy, rule of law, and justice in Syria, as well as empowering and emboldening Shiite militias across the country. 

Strategically and geopolitically speaking, it will be much easier for the Iranian leaders to continue supporting and arming Shiite groups in nations that share a border with Syria, such as in Lebanon. Tehran will also be endangering the national security of Israel. 

These changes may impact the political chessboard of the Middle East and bring about severe repercussions for the region. Therefore, the major question is: How can the Iranian regime be forced out of Syria?

First of all, it is important to point out that it would be unrealistic to believe that Iran can be forced to leave Syria entirely. These two odd bedfellows — the secular state of Assad and the Shiite theocracy — have had an amicable relationship for nearly four decades. The convergence of strategic interests between the Alawite state and the Islamic Republic, such as a shared animosity toward the US and Israel, the desire to control the political affairs of Lebanon, and the perspective that the Sunnis are their rivals, have made their alliance robust in spite of their differences.

But this should not mean that Tehran ought to be allowed to continue enjoying its enhanced military presence and influence in Syria’s territories, thanks to the Iranian regime’s political opportunism during the last seven years of conflict and civil war, which has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people. 

In addition, it is not realistic to argue that Tehran will leave Damascus as the result of diplomatic negotiations. This is because, from the prism of the Iranian regime, it is in Tehran’s interest to keep Assad in power — along with scoring victories against many rebel groups, assisting Assad’s forces to regain the captured territories, and suppressing the oppositional groups. This has resulted in Iran hemorrhaging billions of dollars to keep the Alawite state in power.

The best option is to have an informed plan to minimize Iran’s influence and military presence in Syria as much as possible. In this case, the best scenario is to return the situation to the status of Iran-Syria ties in the pre-war era, ideally to the period when Hafez Assad was in power. During that era, although the two countries were allies, Damascus exercised significant independence from Iran in carrying out its foreign and domestic policies. 

To accomplish such an objective, several strategies ought to be pursued at the same time. To begin with, through political, strategic or some economic concessions, Russia can be persuaded to pressure Assad into urging Iran’s forces to leave Syria. It is worth noting that there have been incidents showing that Moscow and Tehran are in competition in Syria. It is contrary to Russian interests to acquiesce to Iran’s full entrenchment. 

Secondly, economic pressures and sanctions will make it more difficult for Tehran to sustain its military bases in Syria because they will cut off the flow of funds to the IRGC. Stopping funding to Iran’s Shiite proxies and militias can also reduce Iran’s increasing influence in Syria. The US must also stand with Israel in continuing to pressure Iran out of Syria.

Thirdly, it is important to point out that, as long as the Syrian people are living in a shambles and enduring economic difficulties, and as long as the Syrian state is fragile and weak, Iran will continue to have the upper hand in Damascus and wield significant power. As a result, empowering the Syrian people to revive economically and politically, and emboldening the Syrian civil society, which has a strong Arab nationalist sentiment, will put the nation in a better position to protest against the Iranian presence. 

In addition, Iran is currently reaping rewards in the reconstruction of Syria in several sectors, including mobile services, transportation, housing construction and power plants. Tehran must not be permitted to be the dominant developer of the Syrian infrastructure. Other countries can seize the opportunity by offering more competitive deals to Damascus.

Finally, supporting Iran’s civil society and the opposition will increase domestic pressure on the Iranian regime, which will subsequently force the Iranian leaders to focus on internal issues in order to prevent another popular uprising. 

A multi-faceted strategy is required to lessen Iran’s military, political and economic influence in Syria. Governments around the world must act now to reduce Iran’s influence there before it is too late.