Iranian and Syrian officials announced late last month that they signed an agreement for “military cooperation,” though Iran’s military attaché to Syria finally offered further details. The agreement enshrines an indefinite Iranian military presence in Syria. Tehran is to help rebuild the Syrian military-industrial base and support an anticipated assault into insurgent-held Idlib Governorate.
“The most important sections of this agreement were rebuilding the armed forces” of Syria and “its military industry,” according to Iran’s Defense Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami. He added that the “world war against Syria was not yet over because some of this country’s lands are still under the occupation of terrorists and armed elements.”
The “defense and technical” agreement included the continuation of Iran’s “advisory” role in Syria, “supporting Syria’s territorial integrity,” expressing “readiness to rebuild other infrastructure,” and clearing minefields, according to Iran’s military attaché to Syria and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Brigadier General Abolghassem Alinejad. He specified that Iran would help “rebuild factories of the Syrian Defense Ministry that have been damaged in the war.”
Alinejad added that bilateral ties “will further expand after the government is in full control of all of this country and terrorism is defeated.”
The agreement underscores the symbiotic relationship between Tehran and Damascus. Syria depends on Iran for survival; Iran perceives Syria as an existential struggle. Without Tehran’s whole-of-government investment and its deployment of thousands of Iranian military personnel and Shiite foreign fighters, Syrian leader Bashar al Assad would have fallen to the mass uprising that began in 2011. Syrian territory constitutes the pillar of Iran’s strategy and power projection in Middle East, providing access to Lebanese Hezbollah, the crown jewel of the Islamic Republic’s project to create replicas of the Guard Corps in the Arab world. Islamic Republic officials have argued that war could come to Iran’s own doorsteps if their ally in Syria falls, so going to every means to prevent Assad’s fall highlights the existential nature of the crisis for them.
Tehran wanting an indefinite presence in Syria would thus be no surprise. The agreement comes as the US and Israel demand the withdrawal of all Iranian boots from Syria, while Russia has seemingly flirted with the idea in talks with US officials.
To downplay its involvement, the Islamic Republic continues to insist that its role in Syria is simply “advisory.”
Iran has made long-term commitments to the Syrian regime. That includes rebuilding the Syrian military. Iran has already been involved particularly in Syria’s missile program. Satellite images by Israeli firm ISI suggest Iran is “building various infrastructures which are related to one of the Syrian regime’s most clandestine projects – the surface-to-surface missiles (SSM) development and production.”
The death of Aziz Asber, the director of the Masyaf Scientific Research Center, reportedly by roadside bomb in Masiyaf, Hama Governorate highlighted that link. Pro-regime sources as well as a “senior official from a Middle Eastern intelligence agency” who spoke with the New York Times pointed fingers at Israel. IRGC-linked media citing an unnamed “field source” called Asber “the coordinator of the resistance front’s missile science since the end of 2015″ who was close to IRGC Qods Force chief Qassem Soleimani as well as Imad Mughniyeh, Hezbollah’s international operations chief, killed a decade ago in a joint Israeli-American operation.
Statements by Iranian officials show Iran’s commitment to helping Assad retake remaining territory from “the terrorists.” Everyone is expecting an offensive into Idlib Governorate, the last stronghold of insurgents opposed to Assad. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Aug. 29 warned against “interfering in anti-terrorist operations in Idlib.” Reiterating Tehran’s support, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif declared in Syria this week that Idlib should be “cleansed” of “terrorists.”
Another obstacle to the pro-regime plan to retake the whole country is the presence of US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) east of the Euphrates. Syrian-Kurdish officials have recently been in talks with Damascus to reach a reconciliation agreement that would reportedly allow some level of autonomy for the Kurds. Kurdish officials have floated the idea of helping Assad retake Idlib in return for help in taking Afrin from Turkey.
The US meanwhile has stressed that it plans to maintain a presence in Syria for the foreseeable future, though that is far from the certain in the long-term.