Atlantic Council: Iran Deal Fuels Syria's War by Omar Hossino and Suhayla Sibaai

Omar Hossino and Suhayla Sibaai wrote the following analysis in the Atlantic Council's Syria Source on how the Iran deal fueled Assad and Hezbollah's killing machine and hurt the fight against ISIS.

See original at the Atlantic Council.

Iran Deal Fuels Syria’s War

In 2015, President Obama announced the framework for the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, more commonly known as the Iran deal. Obamaclaimed that a deal would make Iran “operate in a responsible fashion.” Obama’s adviser Ben Rhodes said that the deal would “produce an evolution in Iran’s behavior” and ran a sophisticated media campaign to promote the Iran deal, spinning the facts in a misleading and even false manner according to the recent New York Times article. Contrary to their claims, Iran has increased its regional aggression, particularly in Syria, by propping up the Assad regime, and refusing to cooperate with the United States to reach a political settlement in Syria and fight the Islamic State (ISIS).

As the Iran agreement was finalized in 2015, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) deployed fifteen thousand troops in Syria. Qassem Suleimani, head of the IRGC, then visited Moscow to coordinate the Russian military intervention in Syria and sent an additional 2,500 IRGC troops to Syria. The surge continues and in April 2016, Iran committed regular army units from the 65th Nohed Brigade, which analysts estimate at 100-200 green beret commandos, marking the first deployment of Iranian troops since the Iran-Iraq War. Further confirming Iran’s increased involvement is the loss of Iranian soldiers: Iranian casualties in the past six months equaled its first two years of operations in Syria, and last week, IRGC military advisers sustained thirteendeaths in Syria, marking it the biggest single-day loss. 

The increase in foreign fighters in Syria is in large part due to Iran’s sponsorship, which includes the Iraqi Harakazat, Hezbollah al-Nuajaba,Pakistani Liwa Zainebiyoun, and Afghan Hazaras. To further encourage foreign fighters to support the Assad cause, Iran’s parliament passed a law to providecitizenship for the families of fighters who died in Syria, and produced music videos encouraging children to fight. Iran is not only sending foreign militias to assist Assad, but to further a sectarian cleansing campaign. Iranian-backed Shia militias have targeted Sunni neighborhoods to cleanse them and change their demographic composition. In Homs, Yabrud, and southern Damascus, they have demolished civilian areas, implemented sieges, and evicted civilian residents. Iranian funded urban reconstruction plans replace the emptied areas with new housing developments which are sold to foreign militias. 

The case of Madaya is particularly egregious. When the Assad regime failed to capture the town of Zabadani in July and August of 2015, Iran negotiated a ceasefire with the Islamist rebel-group Ahrar al-Sham that entailed the sectarian cleansing of all civilians in Zabadani and the passage of civilians from Shiite towns to Damascus. Iran’s proposed ceasefire stipulated that civilians would be allowed to stay in Zabadani and that there would be humanitarian access to Madaya. Yet as soon as the rebels left, Iran’s proxy Hezbollah rounded up civilians in Zabadani and expelled them into Madaya, putting them under siege in what the United Nations called the “worst suffering” since the beginning of the Syrian conflict. Under the Iranian military arm, Hezbollah instituted checkpoints and minefields to prevent civilians from escaping. This tactic succeeded in entrapping and killing dozens including children.

Hezbollah’s entry into the Syrian conflict in May 2013 has been one of the key factors in exacerbating Sunni extremism, sidelining the moderate opposition and transforming the conflict into a sectarian war. According to The Day Afterorganization’s survey about sectarianism in Syria, respondents consider Hezbollah to be the most sectarian entity in Syria, with 87.4 percent ranking it “very sectarian,” ahead of even ISIS and the Assad regime. In response to Hezbollah’s actions, regional preachers such as Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi advocated for jihad in Syria against Shiites and Alawites whom he called “worse than Jews and Christians.”

Rather than speak out against Iran’s actions in Syria, the US administration has kept quiet and instead, to protect the Iran deal, reassured Iran that the US actions in Syria would not harm Iranian interests. Secretary of State John Kerrysaid there was a role for Iran in the anti-ISIS effort and even asked for Iranian assistance to help end the war in Syria. The United States reassured Iran during negotiations that US air strikes in Syria would not weaken the Assad regime, and Obama followed up saying that he was prepared to work with Iran to solve the Syrian conflict. According to a study by defense consultancy IHS-Janes, Assad and ISIS are “ignoring each other on the battlefield”, and Assad, Iranian, and Hezbollah forces are fighting in areas with almost no ISIS presence. In fact, Ray Tayekh and Reul Marc Grecht have argued Iran is using ISIS’s ascendance in Syria and Iraq to consolidate its power. Iran has grown more intransigent regarding the fate of Assad and rejected cooperating against ISIS since the deal was signed.

After lifting the sanctions, Iranian officials have become less likely to compromise in diplomatic negotiations on Syria. President Hassan Rouhanidismissed calls for Assad to go during a visit to France in January. Iran maintains Assad’s departure is a red line, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei has framed the conflict as a “sacred war,” saying if Iranians fail to fight for Assad “the enemy will attack Iran.” Last week in a meeting with Assad in Damascus, Ali Akbar Velayti, a senior adviser to the Supreme Leader, said that Iran would "mobilize all resources to fight terrorists [in Syria]... regardless of the ridiculous categorization of those terrorists as moderates and extremists."

President Obama garnered support for the Iran deal on the assertion that Iran would then moderate its behavior, but this has proven to be false. Changing Iran’s behavior will require Obama to acknowledge that the Iran deal has empowered Iran’s aggressive behavior in Syria, and then begin to consider penalizing policies. Such steps include reinstituting sanctions on Iran for its support for terrorism and human rights violations in Syria as Senators Marco Rubio and Mark Kirk have proposed, and preventing travel to the United States and freezing the assets of Iranian public officials who are involved with war crimes in Syria. To do otherwise is to allow, and even encourage, Iran to continue to support the Assad regime’s brutal policies against the Syrian people.