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Iranian Action in Syria: Military Operations, Soft Power Influence, and Implications for the United States

Claire GrajaMike Connell
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On April 18, 2019, CNA hosted a National Security Seminar to examine Iranian military operations and influence activities in Syria and to discuss the potential ramifications of these actions for the United States and its regional allies. The event convened a panel of subject matter experts from the diplomatic, defense, and academic communities and featured an active audience of US government members. As the US prepares to downsize its Syrian presence to a cohort of 400 troops, Iran is redoubling its commitment to become a longterm power broker in Syria. Seminar participants reviewed how Iran has skillfully exploited the conflict in Syria, deploying hybrid warfare—including military action, influence operations, and diplomatic networking—to insinuate itself into local politics.

The following summary highlights the key points of the discussion, with particular attention paid to the challenges and opportunities that Iran’s presence in Syria could pose for the US over the long term.

Key Points of the Discussion

  • Tehran views its alliance with the regime of Bashar al-Assad as vital to its national security and regional policies. Damascus is considered the lynchpin in the so-called Axis of Resistance, both for its role in facilitating Iranian links to Lebanese Hizballah and as a staging ground for threatening Iran’s regional archrival, Israel. Iran’s presence in Syria allows it to play an outsized role on the regional stage, outflanking other competitors such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
  • Iran is at an inflection point in Syria. The regime’s leadership regards its military intervention in the Syrian conflict as successful, having made a decisive contribution to preserving the Syrian regime, defeating Sunni extremists, and, from Tehran’s perspective, thwarting the US and its regional allies. Tehran is now attempting to consolidate its gains in the conflict and recoup its investments.
  • It could be difficult for Tehran to capitalize on its success in Syria moving forward. Iran lacks the funds to contribute substantially to Syrian reconstruction efforts. There is also a growing potential for divergence between Iran and its Shia militia allies on the one hand, and the Syrian government and Russia on the other.
  • Iran, Russia, and Syria are uneasy allies. They share a set of critically aligned interests, not the least of which is the preservation of the Syrian regime. However, they disagree on a number of issues, ranging from Iran and Hizballah’s willingness to court risk by provoking Israel, which the Syrians and Russians generally oppose, to the nature of the post-conflict political settlement (Russia favors an approach that leaves a little more room for the inclusion of political opposition groups).
  • Information operations and other soft power activities are critical components of Iranian involvement in Syria. The Quds Force—the external operations arm of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—has a strong track record and deep practical expertise with these types of campaigns.
  • The US still has opportunities to engage with non-state actors in Syria, particularly with Sunni Arab tribes in the country’s Eastern regions that are unlikely to view Iran’s presence in a positive light.
  • The US needs to assess its long-term regional interests, and consider how those interests could be affected if Iran succeeds in its efforts to become a major power broker in the region.
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DISTRIBUTION STATEMENT A. Approved for public release: distribution unlimited. 6/11/2019

Details

  • Pages: 10
  • Document Number: CCP-2019-U-020195-Final
  • Publication Date: 6/11/2019
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