What is propelling Iran's soft diplomacy in Syria?

There are economic and geopolitical incentives for Tehran to appear conciliatory with the Arab world

Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi during a reception ceremony in Damascus earlier in the week. EPA
Powered by automated translation

Under President Ebrahim Raisi’s leadership, Iran has launched a new tactic involving a softer presence in Syria, as part of its rebranding effort aimed at improving its image while simultaneously deepening its influence and expanding its web of power, pursuant to its "spider strategy". This newfound pragmatism includes moving away from the old language of destruction and chaos and replacing it with a language of adaptation and reconstruction.

Mr Raisi visited Damascus earlier in the week to present his credentials to the Arab world, which intends to revive relations with the Assad regime and reconstruct Syria. His message was clear and two-fold: Iran is staying put in Syria; and Tehran is a partner in rebuilding Syria and its future.

The Iranian regime has realised that its interests require it to abandon its belligerent methods, as they have not served its purposes well. It has concluded that it needs to refine its political discourse and reinforce its economic presence, but silently consolidate its security and military presence as well.

Iran's policy of duplicity has been imposed by the developments resulting from domestic protests that began last year, and which the regime intends to continue to suppress. There has been no change in its conduct towards its domestic affairs. Externally, however, it realises it needs to alter its image.

Mr Raisi's Syria trip underscores Iran's determination to burnish its image as a trading partner and ally of Syria, but with an insistence on remaining deployed there militarily, security-wise, and as a sponsor of its proxies operating there, from Hezbollah to various Palestinian factions.

What’s new is its tactic to reduce the visibility of Hezbollah and of the other factions in order to render their activities less prone to international backlash.

Ending Syria’s regional isolation is a shared quest for both Iran and some Arab countries

Strategically, Iran's influence is not set to decrease in Syria, which both Tehran and Damascus need. Their joint decision is rooted in a long-term vision for Syria, where Iran's presence is long-lasting, going beyond military presence to include expansion in trade and economic ties.

This astuteness in Iranian diplomacy stems from a shift in its policies in the wake of its China-brokered rapprochement with Saudi Arabia. While Yemen sits at the forefront of regional issues being discussed by both sides, with Tehran pledging to co-operate in resolving the conflict by encouraging the Houthis to engage in the peace process, Iran has placed Syria at the top of its own regional priorities.

Tehran considers the Arab rehabilitation of Syria to be a valuable opportunity. If the Arab countries succeed in overcoming the sanctions imposed on Syria and initiate a reconstruction process, Iran will benefit as a partner in this project, particularly as its own economy has been crippled by sanctions. All of this can be achieved through soft diplomacy.

Ending Syria’s regional isolation is a shared quest for both Iran and some Arab countries, albeit for reasons that are not necessarily identical or compatible. Still, conditions exist, the details of which range from the straightforward to the near intractable. If some Arab countries are resolved to get Damascus to halt the trafficking of Captagon pills, then who will compensate them for a trade reported to be worth $10 billion annually, and how? If Iran is determined to keep its secret bases in Syria, then who will guarantee Israel would ever tolerate them?

The other countries involved in Syria are monitoring the situation with varying degrees of interest, too.

Turkey is waiting for the outcome of its presidential election this month. I am given to understand that Ankara and Damascus have agreed to delay discussing normalisation until after the vote. Russia appears content with the current Arab engagement of Syria and the Iranian diplomatic pivot, as long Tehran's presence in Syria remains or even expands, including economically.

The US, meanwhile, is preoccupied with other issues that it considers more pertinent than Syria, such as the Ukrainian conflict, its debt crisis, and the Taiwan question. China, on the other hand, is satisfied with the results of its sponsorship of the Saudi-Iranian agreement, and with anything that could facilitate the implementation of its Belt and Road Initiative – including Iran's diplomatic outreach in the region.

The Arab League has granted Syria a conditional return to the alliance after more than a decade of isolation. There is a roadmap in place that involves mutual commitments and gradual implementation. The Assad regime will send messages that signal flexibility and domestic change. It will not base its outreach on existing international calls for a power-sharing roadmap, which it has rejected and will continue to oppose, but it might be willing to cede a small degree of power.

Damascus will probably respond positively to the Arab proposals and Iranian positions, to appear as though it is compromising and co-operating for the sake of Syria. However, it will not make radical reforms to the system, but rather will soften its own behaviour – an approach consistent with the Iranian strategy.

The Assad regime will not sever ties with Iran or Hezbollah, and their strong relations will remain intact. Any change will be in approach, not in substance. But if good behaviour and performance somehow lead to a gradual change in substance, then it would be a pleasant surprise that time may well bring.

Today, Iran's "spider strategy" is weaving threads through which the principles and doctrines of its regime are to be executed. It is doing this without openly resorting to its usual methods such as threats and provocations.

Some see dissimulation as worse than open belligerence because it can cover up the regime’s deep-rooted transgressions. Others argue that acquired habits in today's era might come to overshadow inherent ones due to their benefits and how entrenched they could eventually become. Either way, it is premature to determine whether Iran and its partners will make this dissimulation approach the foundation of their deep strategy, or whether acquired habits will gradually refine their mindset – and perhaps even reform it.

Published: May 07, 2023, 2:01 PM