Alliances in the Middle East- Iran and Syria

syria iran alliance

In recent years tension in the Middle East has led to more and more division among the countries in the region. Local powerhouses Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Iran have strengthened relationships among their global backers like the US, EU, and Russia for protection and influence on the world stage. As a result, smaller nations have become splintered over their own alliances and forced to choose sides.

The country of Syria has experienced a great deal of conflict within its own borders due to the Syrian civil war which was started in 2011. The Bashar al-Assad regime has committed mass atrocities against its own people and fights for control of land dominated by ISIS. During this time, Syria’s already strong relationship with Iran has strengthened. As a result of these ties, Iran has provided the Syrian government with support in the form of technical, financial and combat training. They have even gone so far as to supply the Syrian government with ground troops.

Photographic evidence was captured by Israeli intelligence, proving that Iranian military forces have established a training facility outside Damascus. Some estimates put the total number of Iranian trained and financed extremist fighters at 80,000.

Syria’s relationship with Iran goes back to the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the overthrow of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi due to his ties with the United States. Iran relies on Syria as a vital ally in the region. The philosophical similarities between the governments and the country’s geographic location–which provides close access to Israel, Iran’s sworn enemy–are two of the most likely motivators for Iran’s assistance to the Syrian civil war effort.

For many years the Iranian Revolutionary Guard has utilized the Syrian city of Zabadani as a strategic mid-point to supply Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon. Before the war broke out it was not uncommon for Iran to station as many as 3,500 troops at a time in Syria to provide extra training and protection of supply routes.

Experts believe that Iran provided significant training to National Defense forces in Syria at the beginning of the war. Foundation for Defense of Democracies, led by Mark Dubowitz briefed members of Congress and State Department officials on evidence that suggests Iran flew supply missions to help Syrian forces.  You can follow Mark Dubowitz here:

The most vocal opponent of a Iranian supported Syrian military is Israel, Syria’s Southwestern neighbor. For decades Iran has stated unequivocally that it views Israel as an enemy and has expressed hostile intentions clearly. The Iranian forces’ proximity to Israel has given Western nations enough cause for alarm that the US intelligence agencies have increased use of satellite and surveillance aircraft monitoring along the border to identify Iranian forces and ballistic missiles hiding within the country.

Meanwhile, the Israeli government has been equally opaque about their determination to prevent an Iranian military stronghold from building up so close to their territory. The Minister of Defense, Avigdor Lieberman stated: “We will destroy every military site in Syria where we see an attempt by Iran to position itself militarily.” Western powers are in agreeance that Iranian weapons in Syria do pose a legitimate threat to the country’s security, but there are fears that a preventative strike would set off a powder keg–sending both countries to war and dragging along their web of allies with it.


Syria and Civilian Abuse


In the past year, the Syrian regime has engaged in massive human rights abuses as it sought to suppress the civilian population rising up against the government and as it sought to protect itself from Bashar al Assad’s war crimes. Mark Dubowitz (CEO of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies)estimates that since the war began in 2011 as many as half a million lives have been lost. (learn about Mark Dubowitz) An additional 5 million Syrians are living abroad as refugees, and 6 million are displaced internally.

Unlawful and indiscriminate attacks against medical facilities, schools, and mosques have worsened the death toll. The Syrian government, controlled by Bashar al-Assad, utilized support from Russian and Iranian forces to reclaim control over parts of Aleppo killing nearly five hundred civilians in the process. The regime’s uses of cluster munition, incendiary explosives, and barrel bombs, in particular, has raised the risk to civilians.

The Syrian government has also used chemical weapons against civilian targets on multiple occasions. Evidence suggests the weapons are primarily nerve agents which when inhaled shut down the victim’s nervous system causing loss of life through cardiovascular paralysis.

Last September, the UN released a report that concluded that the Syrian air force used sarin gas in the town of Khan Sheikhoun. Dozens were killed, the majority of whom were women and children. Human Rights Watch documented at least eight chlorine gas attacks by the Syrian government during the assault to retake Aleppo.

The Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) has documented more than 4,500 instances of arbitrary arrests conducted by government forces. As many as 80,000 individuals remain missing and are believed to be held within government custody. Detained prisoners are subjected to malnutrition, prolonged isolation, unsanitary conditions, insufficient medical treatment and in some cases torture.

This past August, the wife of a computer engineer and freedom of speech activist, Bassel Khartabil, who had been arrested in 2012 finally received confirmation of her husband’s fate. He was executed in 2015 while being held at a Syrian detention facility, but the government withheld this information for nearly three years.

Despite the substantial loss that ISIS suffered during the previous year of conflict the group has continued abuses against the civilian population. ISIS used civilians as human shields during its defense of Raqqa and deployed landmines in populated areas to hold off advancing forces.

Last May, ISIS attacked a Shia Muslim community in the town of Aqarib al-Safiyah and utilized snipers to kill residents who attempted to flee the area. According to the UN Commission of Inquiry, over 100 civilians were injured, and 52 were killed including a dozen children. The UN also confirmed that ISIS has used chemical weapons against civilian populations in the past, specifically sulfur mustard gas.

A Britain-based watchdog group (the Syrian Observatory) found that around 1,100 civilians have died during airstrikes by coalition planes since the campaign to retake the city of Raqqa began. Human Rights Watch investigated the bombing of a school in Mansourah last March that killed over 80 civilians, including 30 children. This and other strikes have raised concern that US-led coalition forces have not taken adequate precautions to minimize civilian casualties.

Famine and illness are rampant with many high-population areas wholly cut off from humanitarian aid. Government forces and armed opposition groups have managed to prevent UN aid workers and non-profit volunteers from being able to provide proper medical care, food, and water to places in desperate need all across the country. The UN estimates that around 540,000 individuals are trapped in areas cut off from outside support. As tensions in the region escalate widespread starvation is only expected to get worse with the majority of those affected being children.


To learn more about this and other Middle Eastern issues please see Mark Dubowitz website here.