As the war between Israel and Hamas rages, the Middle East is bracing for a wider, multi-front regional conflict that will have serious repercussions for the global economy and financial markets, with likely impacts on the supply of oil and related trade relations. The war comes amid moves toward a US-brokered Saudi-Israeli normalization and improved China-brokered Saudi-Iranian relations, with both developments promising a potentially profound shift in the geopolitics of the region. Indeed, the ongoing armed conflict between Gaza-based, Palestinian militant organization Hamas and Israel has put on hold any new deals and agreements for the near future, although it prompted Saudi Arabia to engage with Iran to prevent a rise in violence.
Amidst these fears, there are questions about Syria’s role in this conflict—a state that is subordinate to a network of power brokers, prime among which are Russia and Iran, who now significantly control the country’s security and economic spheres—as well as the implications of Iran’s involvement as one of Hamas’s key sponsors. Does Syria have the freedom to decide where it stands on the current war? Is it beholden to its alliances with Russia and Iran or can it be independent of the dictates of said alliances?
Rising Tensions and Fears of Regional Escalation
Only three days after Hamas launched its deadly attack on Israel, Palestinian and other factions fired rockets at Israel across the occupied Golan Heights, immediately prompting an Israeli response which led to fears of regional escalation. Since then, Palestinian factions and Hezbollah loyalists in Syria’s south have further exchanged fire with Israel resulting in a heightened cadence of punitive strikes against Syrian military installations and positions. In response, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, quickly warned of imminent preemptive action by Iran’s so-called “axis of resistance”—among which are Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad—which ideologically espouses a struggle against the United States and Israel and is supported by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. The axis also includes Lebanese Hezbollah, the militias constituting the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq, Shia militias in Syria, and Yemen’s Houthi rebels. Their congruence on anti-Americanism and resistance against Israel has created a high degree of cross-border synchronization that enables Iran to influence regional tensions.
International attention has been uneasily fixated on Israel’s northern border after daily skirmishes prompted a rare warning by US President Joe Biden to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei against the targeting of US troops and installations in the region.
International attention has been uneasily fixated on Israel’s northern border after daily skirmishes prompted a rare warning by US President Joe Biden to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei against the targeting of US troops and installations in the region. Allied officials—most recently French President Emmanuel Macron during his visit last week to Israel—have also put Hezbollah on notice not to open new fronts in Lebanon or Syria. Incidentally, in a speech on November 3, Hezbollah General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah declared that his party is not interested in expanding the war unless provoked by Israel, or if the situation in Gaza deteriorates uncontrollably.
Meanwhile, the quickly rising civilian death toll in Gaza—currently over 9,000, 3,700 of whom are children—has kindled tensions and incited anti-Israeli and anti-American demonstrations across the region and the world. Following an attack on the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, Jordan cancelled a summit planned between President Biden, Jordanian King Abdullah II, Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Calls for a ceasefire in Gaza have gone unheeded by Israel whose leaders insist on continuing the fight until Hamas is fully defeated. The Biden administration has also been in opposition to a ceasefire and, on October 18, vetoed a UN Security Council resolution citing that it did not contain a clause acknowledging Israel’s right to defend itself. On November 3, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s request for a humanitarian pause in the war. Indeed, the situation on Israel’s northern borders with Lebanon and Syria have the potential to quickly escalate into a full-on war if Israel’s operations against Gaza continue.
Iran’s Role and Influence
Hamas—for which Iran is a major funding source—was for many years headquartered in Damascus, the capital of Syria, where it was provided with a base, weapons, and financial support for its struggle against Israel. This changed in 2012 after Hamas declared its open support for anti-government protests against the Syrian regime. Only recently after pressure from Iran did it re-establish relations with the regime, bringing Hamas more tightly into the orbit of the resistance axis against Israel.
Here, it is critical to underscore Iran’s growing influence in Syria over the past 12 years following the uprising against Bashar al-Assad and the transformation of the Syrian theater into the epicenter of competition among regional proxy fighters and foreign troops, including the United States, Russia, Turkey, and Iran. More than a decade of war—fueled by regional and international powers vying for influence—has left the Syrian state depleted, Russia’s hold on the country cemented, and Iran’s sway intensified. This has literally transformed Syria into a Russian-Iranian sphere of influence that governs competing actors with different interests, among which are local intelligence factions, pro-regime Syrian militias, Syrian army brigades, and Iran-backed militias. Tehran-affiliated groups and Lebanon’s Hezbollah—who supported the Assad regime during the civil war and helped it prevail over “rebel forces” through an integrated and far-reaching effort—are now deeply ensconced in Syria. Their deployment in the country has been instrumental in providing the Islamic Republic with a border crossing from Iraq to Lebanon, all the while concealing their true expansionist goals behind the façade of “anti-imperialism” and “liberation.”
Tehran-affiliated groups and Lebanon’s Hezbollah—who supported the Assad regime during the civil war and helped it prevail over “rebel forces” through an integrated and far-reaching effort—are now deeply ensconced in Syria.
Iran currently maintains a broad distribution of Iranian and proxy fighters throughout the country, most heavily in Damascus, consistently relocating Iranian nationals or Shia supporters to the homes of displaced (mostly Sunni) Syrians. While making efforts to win over the local population and build up its positions and facilities across the country, Iran has also been active in recruiting young Syrians in allied militias and offering them pay and benefits as a substitute to joining the army—which is unpopular and underfunded. In addition to opening schools, hospitals and mosques, Iran wields a variety of soft power tools, including cultural, educational, religious, and media and informational programs to expand its sphere of control. Like Russia, it has established not just military infrastructure and presence at the border with Israel, but permanent command and control centers across the country, as well as tactical air and naval bases. While a recently signed zero tariff trade deal will incentivize trade between the two countries, Syria relies economically on Iran which floods the Syrian market with cheap goods and provides the regime with credit lines.
Russia has similarly acquired economic power in Syria—mainly through coercive but lucrative business deals, including phosphate, oil, and gas contracts, with the regime and companies linked to the infamous Wagner Group, a Russian state-funded private paramilitary force. Russia also has soft-power influence, through the distribution of humanitarian aid and cultural and religious interventions that have effectively gutted the Syrian state of any remaining autonomy. Moscow’s military influence has mainly concentrated around control of the prized naval base in Tartus, which enables its positioning and consolidation of power in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the Hmeimim Air Base south of Latakia from which most military operations in Syria are initiated. And today, at a time when things are not turning out as good as expected in Ukraine, Russia may very well be inclined to use its position in Syria to support an anti-American and anti-Israeli escalation as a distraction from the Ukraine war.
Will the War Escalate to Syria?
Mortar and rocket exchanges have been routine occurrences, especially over the last few years, and Syria has considered Israel its enemy since the latter’s creation in 1948. Israel clearly views Iran’s presence and influence in Syria as an increased threat to its security. Its strikes in Syria repeatedly targeting Iranian warehouses, weapons caches, and convoys, ostensibly to disrupt supply lines and prevent infiltration along the border in the Golan. With the threat of a northern offensive, Israel has intensified efforts to stem the flow of arms from Tehran, having repeatedly warned that it will not allow the Islamic Republic, and any forces it may control, to set up a permanent presence in Syria. Rockets fired from areas adjacent to the occupied Golan Heights into Israel on October 10 were immediately met with repeated retaliatory strikes on Aleppo and Damascus airports, which have military bases that act as transit points for weapons shipments to and throughout Syria. On October 25, these strikes were also followed by Israeli attacks on military positions in southern Deraa. In fact, attacks from Syria have prompted the United Arab Emirates, one of the first countries to normalize with Assad after Syria’s expulsion from the Arab League and which has some degree of influence over the Syrian regime, quickly forewarned Syria not to get embroiled in the war.
The boosting of US presence in the Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf to deter further escalation has simultaneously led to the rise of retaliatory operations against US forces in both Syria and Iraq.
The boosting of US presence in the Mediterranean and the Arabian Gulf to deter further escalation has simultaneously led to the rise of retaliatory operations against US forces in both Syria and Iraq, effectively prompting US strikes against Iranian weapons and ammunitions storage facilities in northeastern Syria. The US response to the conflict has, nevertheless, contributed to mounting popular anger in the region over its unwavering support for Israel in a war that has led to the slaughter of thousands of Palestinian civilians in Gaza who moreover remain under siege and suffering in a humanitarian crisis. So forceful is this fury that Death to America chants are echoing once again across the region. This will not bode well for the US’s standing, and will certainly play into the hands of anti-American factions.
Ultimately, Iran’s success in mobilizing its clients, allies, and proxies—including in Syria—will be a function of how ground operations in Gaza are conducted. But if the Syrian regime is unwilling to get involved just yet, the increase in militia activity from its territory since October 7 points to its weakness. So do increases in Israeli strikes, especially against key Syrian targets like airports.
Realistically, Bashar al Assad has to walk a tightrope between safeguarding his own regime’s survival and sustaining the support of one of its main patrons and sponsors, Iran. So, if Hezbollah, for example, were to mobilize against Israel, Syria would almost certainly join the fray. But the repercussions of full-fledged war for the country’s infrastructure and ailing economy could be tremendous. Syria’s economic crisis has been aggravated by a number of issues, including neighboring Lebanon’s social and economic collapse, widespread institutionalized corruption, the significant damage to the country caused by the February earthquake, and the dearth of financial sponsors for Syria’s reconstruction, potentially priced at $400 billion. The country can ill afford a war with Israel.
Syria as Puppet of Its Patrons
Although for all intents and purposes the Assad regime rules Syria, it lacks both the legitimacy and the means to manage the country effectively. Syria has become no more than a theater for rivals’ regional and global confrontation and, in many ways, a medium for US foes who are competing for influence to preserve and defend their interests. Iran has nurtured grassroots influence in Syria and penetrated military, economic, cultural, and religious spheres and sectors, while Russia has sought political and military prevalence by restructuring state institutions and leveraging that hegemony to expand its economic penetration. Syria’s capture by these external patrons has eaten away the power of the state, which is no longer able to curb their influence and, as a result, cannot limit their ability to use the country as a front line against Israel.
Consequently, the Syrian regime, reduced to a mafia-like state under Russian dictate and Iranian sway, is as unlikely to control the evolution of the Syrian conflict internally as it is to prescribe the course of foreign relations. If anything, the groundswell of anti-imperialist and anti-US rhetoric aflame across the region and among Arab and Muslim populations is certain to play into the regime’s hands, ultimately distracting from the fact that the situation inside Syria is at its worst. While the regime might be objecting to the level of casualties in Gaza with nationalist slogans and taunts against Israel, it continues to be responsible for the brutal suppression, torture, killing, and disappearance of no less than hundreds of thousands of its own citizens.
The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.