The Syrian leader Bashar Assad declared in an interview on Wednesday that the nuclear deal with Iran will strengthen his regime. In his attempt to hold on to power, the Assad regime has indiscriminately bombed its own people, using barrel bombs as well as chemical weapons during a civil war that has claimed the lives of more than 240,000 people. Assad argued that “the power of Iran is the power of Syria, and a victory for Syria is a victory for Iran.” He described Russia and Iran as steadfast allies, while asserting that “the United States abandons its allies, abandons its friends.” Iran provides Syria with $6 billion per year and has sent Hezbollah forces and IRGC personnel to Syria to bolster the Assad regime’s battle against the rebels. While Hezbollah’s finances have suffered and Assad’s current position is more precarious, a new influx of cash from a newly enriched Iran could boost the Syrian regime’s position. Washington Institute Fellow Andrew Tabler argues that the Iran deal would “dramatically improve the prospects for the Assad regime's survival."
Iran has been covertly recruiting Shia Afghan refugees to fight for Assad. Phillip Smyth, an expert on Shiite militant groups, estimates that there are 2,000 to 3,500 Afghans currently fighting for Assad in Syria who “have suffered the fate of being used as cannon fodder.” Smyth explained that while some are coerced into fighting in Syria, others are persuaded by the promise of Iranian residency papers and a better salary. Michael Eisenstadt, Director of the Military and Security Studies Program at the Washington Institute, pointed out that Iran prefers using Arab proxies to do its bidding and suggested, “A fresh infusion of cash might therefore enable it [Iran] to expand recruitment of proxies in the region, including Afghani and Pakistani Shiites.”
Despite claims that the deal with Iran is solely about Iran’s nuclear program, the agreement appears to be part of a broader attempt at rapprochement with Iran. President Barack Obama has stated that Iran could be a “very successful regional power” and Secretary of State John Kerry has indicated a desire to engage with Tehran on regional issues. Whereas previously the US refused to let the regime participate in peace talks to promote a political transition in Syria, President Obama now asserts that it is important for Iran to be a part of them.
Iranian financial support to the Taliban has been constant since 2001, and Iran’s military support began before the invasion, continued during the invasion, when Iran offered anti-aircraft weapons to the Taliban to “use against the United States and Coalition forces,” and has been increasing since at least early 2007. A congressional report from October 2014 noted that Iran’s “lethal assistance, including light weapons,” to the Taliban was ongoing.
Iran “formalized its alliance with the Taliban by allowing the group to open an office in Mashhad” at the beginning of 2014, the Wall Street Journal recently reported. Iran has been “training Taliban fighters within its borders” at four terrorism camps.
Even though Afghanistan is a Sunni majority country, Iran has a presence in its northern and western regions where Hazara Shiites lives. Iran has been recruiting Hazara Shiites to fight in Syria and defend the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Back in June, The Wall Street Journal reported on Iran’s expanded financial and military support of the Taliban. As Orton noted, the Taliban is not the only Sunni jihadist group supported by Iran, which also backs al-Qaeda. In May, Michael Pregent produced a map of Iraq showing that Tehran, despite its claims to the contrary, was not working to defeat ISIS. Pregent observed that Iran sees ISIS presence in Iraq and Syria as a means to justify its own activities there, and to assert “that their allies in both countries are the only thing preventing a jihadist takeover.” (via The Tower.org)