Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s meeting last Thursday with a Syrian religious delegation led by Religious Endowments Minister Mohammad Abdul Sattar Al-Sayyed unfolded at a critical juncture in the Syrian conflict. With the anti-Assad rebellion all but defeated, and various foreign powers, including Turkey and the United States, carving out spheres of influence in different corners of Syria, the fulcrum of the conflict is shifting rapidly towards deadly foes Iran and Israel.
Khamenei’s combative support for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, glorifying him as a symbol of “resistance”, is indicative of a more assertive Iranian posture on Syria and the wider region. The Iranian leader’s strong rhetoric comes on the heels of last month’s major clash between Iranian-Syrian forces and Israel in south-west Syria.
In strategic and ideological terms, Khamenei’s aspiration to witness the Sunni Minister Al-Sayyed leading public prayers in Jerusalem was a clear and unequivocal affirmation of the Islamic Republic’s goal of destroying Israel. More specifically, in a Syrian operational context, Khamenei’s reference to Jerusalem was a barely concealed intention to intensify the confrontation with Israel, should the latter continue to bomb Iranian, [Lebanese] Hezbollah and Syrian targets.
In view of the inevitability of further Israeli aggression inside Syria, the stage is set for a cycle of escalation.
Khamenei’s effusive support for Bashar Al-Assad is hardly surprising in view of Iran’s formal alliance with Syria which stretches back to the early 1980s. Nevertheless, the description of Assad as a symbol of “resistance” is important in so far as it speaks to the intensification of Syria’s centrality to Iran’s regional strategic posture.
The unequivocal support for Assad is all the more remarkable in view of the steep political and moral cost attached to this stance. After all, the Syrian President’s unpopularity in much of the Arab world is not lost on the Iranian leader. By going out of his way to praise Assad, Khamenei is signalling that Iran is prepared to continue paying the political and reputational cost of its controversial Syria policy.
Khamenei’s combative speech also hints at Iran’s preparation for a drawn-out and complex political, diplomatic and potentially military stand-off in Syria. The Syrian regime is expected to stop large-scale military offensives once it has dislodged rebel forces from Eastern Ghouta and Idlib.
Once secured, the Syrian government is likely to entrench in both areas with a view to consolidating its gains. At the same time, the Syrians will seek to undermine the Turkish and American positions in the north-west and north-east of the country respectively.
Turkey is likely to maintain a military presence in Afrin and the areas immediately to the north of Idlib province following the conclusion of Operation Olive Branch. The US, meanwhile, is entrenched in the east of Syria with apparently indefinite plans to support the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK)-aligned Syrian Kurdish forces.
Syria – with Iran’s backing – will be anxious to exploit growing divisions between Ankara and Washington in northern Syria, specifically in relation to the PKK-aligned Kurds. There is already evidence that a deep split has formed between the NATO allies, with reports that the US has scaled down operations against Daesh, presumably to contain the fallout from Turkey’s offensive in Afrin.
The Iranian leader’s rhetorical flourish on Syria coincides with Iran’s combative attitude in other areas of foreign policy, notably Tehran’s sprawling ballistic missiles programme. The French Foreign Minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, visited Tehran on Monday with the intention of applying pressure on Iran to curb the missile programme as part of a broader European plan to save the nuclear accord in the face of US threats to destroy it.
However, Le Drian hit a brick wall in Tehran as Iranian leaders rebuffed his proposals. This tough position was underscored on Wednesday by the deputy commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Brigadier-General Hossein Salami, who claimed that “no country” can control Iran’s defensive capabilities.
In relation to Syria and, indeed, the wider Levant, Western analysts are scrambling to understand Iran’s position and intentions following last month’s deadly clash with Israel. The Iranian leader’s latest speech removes any lingering illusions the Israelis may have had that they could intimidate Iran into withdrawing or, failing that, to scale back its activities inside Syria.
The war of words between the deadly foes has continued to escalate since last month’s military clash. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu traded sharp words at the Munich Security Conference in late February.
Netanyahu raised the temperature further on Tuesday at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference, by proclaiming that, “We must stop Iran, we will stop Iran.” The Israeli leader’s war-like rhetoric leaves little doubt that his country is poised to strike again at combined Iranian, Syrian and Hezbollah forces in the very near future.
Barring early Russian or American intervention, the next Israeli strike runs the risk of triggering a major military confrontation in the Levant.