Persuading Russia to break with Bashar al-Assad has long been identified as the key to unlocking the standoff in Syria, but Iran is probably the stronger prop of support for the regime. Tehran recently admitted to having military personnel on the ground, and has deep ties within the Alawite security elite. Moreover, it has since the early 1980s styled itself a protector of the Shiites against sectarian Sunni power, principally through its creation of Hizballah in Lebanon.
“Whether the Iranian regime is ready to be part of a deal to unseat Assad remains unclear,” writes Syria analyst Rand Slim in Foreign Policy, “but the fact that an Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps official has recently publicly admitted to the presence of the elite Iranian forces in Syria is partly intended to send the message that a NATO-led military intervention in Syria will be costly. It is also a signal that any future deal in Syria must involve Iran.” Slim notes that the Iranians sought to make Syria an agenda item at the recent Baghdad nuclear talks with Western powers, a suggestion that was viewed in the West as a distraction from the matter at hand. But if Western powers are serious about a political solution to the conflict in Syria, it may need to revisit that conversation.
None of the foreign powers engaged in Syria’s civil war is acting out of selfless righteousness: Russia is protecting its geopolitical interests in Syria and the wider region. Iran also sees Syria and Lebanon as key to its own security because of the leverage its allies in those countries give Tehran in its confrontation with Israel and the West. Saudi support for the Syrian armed rebellion is not based on some improbable democratic epiphany; instead the authoritarian monarchy in Riyadh backs Syria’s opposition as a way of weakening its long-term regional rival, Iran—and vice versa. Restoring peace to Syria will require some managing of the regional strategic rivalry that threatens to burn out of control.