A series of US air strikes in Syria last week against Iranian targets there has not just publicly highlighted a growing regional conflict between Iran and its numerous adversaries, but also the increasing geographic and strategic centrality of Syria to this conflict. It quite possibly signals a new phase – and new dangers – in a contest that has been developing and growing for over a decade, and that now threatens to boil over.
Perceptions about the Iranian regime's nefarious ambitions have persisted – in the US, the Arab states and Israel – ever since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. But it was only with the Arab uprisings starting in late 2010 – when a number of entrenched Arab dictators across the Middle East fell, and the political reset button was pressed on numerous countries – that an accelerated regional strategic contest truly began.
Across the Middle East, states began precariously transitioning to new political futures, and in some instances Iran was on one side and US-allied Arab states on the other in a competition for influence. And it was the popular uprising in Syria that brought the Iranians so fully into Syria, with Tehran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah committing huge military resources from late-2011 to keep the Assad regime in power.
There is now a grand hegemonic contest from the shores of the Mediterranean to the border of Afghanistan. It dominates the civil wars in Syria and Yemen, looms over the domestic politics of Iraq and the collapsing Lebanese state, and has also led to a complete redrawing of traditional alliances in the Middle East.
Iranian-backed attacks on US forces in Iraq are nothing new. A regular occurrence for nearly two decades, they have intensified over the past two years, as Tehran has continued to seek "revenge" for the US killing of Qassem Suleimani, then commander of Iran's Quds Force, in January 2020. But recent attacks by Tehran-backed groups inside Syria represent a new front in the hostilities.
The proactive American response to these Iranian attacks is highly significant. US President Joe Biden has been keen to hold the Middle East at arm’s length, desiring to keep alive the current nuclear talks with Iran. But the message from his generals was that Iranian attacks on US assets in Syria – especially two separate rocket attacks on August 15 – were so brazen that action had to be taken and a clear message sent.
And this is not occurring in isolation. As Iranian capacity has continued to grow in Syria, it has become the geography of direct military conflict between Israel and Iran. Israel has now conducted several hundred raids on Syria, now numbering over 200 each year. The vast majority of these have been against Iranian, Hezbollah, or joint Iranian-Syrian targets. Israel is convinced that Tehran is seeking to create a Shiite military front across Syria and Lebanon, a threat that Israel believes it must avert before it takes hold.
The centrality of Syria is also being driven by Russia, itself deeply invested in the country for the past seven years. Moscow’s 2015 intervention in Syria was to secure its own interests – keep a friendly government in power so it didn’t lose the small but symbolically important naval facility at Tartus – but it has since developed an intimate military relationship with Damascus and Tehran. This included assisting what has been characterised by western powers and humanitarian organisations as a repression by the Assad regime.
For Syria and Iran, the Russian military operation in Ukraine has been both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it is deepening its alliance – Moscow needs all its allies right now – but on the other, it has forced significant Russian military disengagement from Syria.
The Kremlin has just purchased several hundred Iranian military drones to bolster its efforts in Ukraine. It was even reported in the western media that the Assad regime would send "thousands" of Syrians to fight for Russia in Ukraine, though this never came to pass for a combination of reasons. However, reports over the weekend also claim that Russia has removed a sophisticated air defence system from Syria – the S300 – returning it home to bolster capability against Ukraine. This is noteworthy as this system was actually used in May – by the Russians – to engage Israeli jets on bombing raids in Syria.
The dynamic in next-door Lebanon is also key to the rise in tensions in Syria. The notion that the chaos in Syria might engulf Lebanon petrifies many a regional leader, especially with Iran the likely beneficiary.
Lebanon is hanging on to the proverbial cliff by its last fingernail. The World Bank has characterised its financial crisis as one of the worst in human history, accusing its leaders of deliberately running the state as a "Ponzi finance scheme". Things are so desperate that bank robbers are now hailed as heroes by ordinary Lebanese.
Lebanon coming under Hezbollah control – and thus Iran’s – is a scenario that many Arab governments fear deeply, but for Israel it would be intolerable. A "second Iran" in Lebanon, directly bordering Israel and extending Iranian influence from the Mediterranean to the Caspian Sea, is their ultimate nightmare scenario. If this occurred, Israeli military intervention would be virtually guaranteed, and probably lead to a protracted regional conflict.
None of which bodes well for long-suffering Syrians. Over a decade into a devastating civil war, close to two-thirds of the population are already internally or externally displaced and more than half the properties in the country are damaged. With Syria now the key piece in the region’s most dominant geopolitical chess match, and neighbouring Lebanon on the brink, their misery is unlikely to be ending soon.