Syrian President Bashar al Assad was recently re-elected with a 95.1 percent vote share. The election was considered to be illegitimate by various actors such as the United States and the European Union. “We denounce the Assad regime’s decision to hold an election outside of the framework described by UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and we support the voices of all Syrians, including civil society organizations and the Syrian opposition, who have condemned the electoral process as illegitimate,” the foreign ministers of the Western countries said in the joint statement that was issued.
Assad dismissed criticism of the election and vowed to focus on the challenges ahead. Assad faces numerous challenges to rebuild Syria and his post-victory priorities depend on external economic and military support. Iran continues to be Syria’s closest ally and Zarif’s recent visit to Damascus and his meetings with Assad as well as with other officials confirm Tehran’s intent to safeguard and widen its influence in the country via making use of its economic and military resources.
Amid mounting sanctions on the Syrian regime, Damascus remains dependent on close allies like Russia and Iran. Iran over time has penetrated Syria’s armed forces and has strengthened ties with prominent business elites in the country. Zarif’s visit focused on promising Assad Tehran’s economic and military support especially as Damascus remains heavily dependent on Tehran for energy and machinery.
Iran exports important items to help in rebuilding Syria and Iran’s economic ties with Syria have increased in recent years. As per the Director-General of the Trade Promotion Organization of Iran for Arabian and African Countries Farzad Piltan, the bilateral trade potential between the two countries has a capacity of $1.5 billion. In recent months, Iran and Syria have also taken joint steps to increase maritime connectivity by establishing a direct shipping line between Bandar Abbas port and Latakia port. This shipping line could potentially be used to extend logistical support to Iran’s military assets in Syria. As per the Head of the Iran-Syria Joint Chamber of Commerce Kevyan Kashefi, the direct sea shipping line can also help in deepening commercial relations between both countries. While expanding its economic ties in Syria, Iran has also been competing with Russia as reports suggest that both Iran and Russia are targeting the same economic sectors like phosphate mining, oil extraction and port reconstruction. However, Russian companies have been more successful in winning economic contracts over the last seven years.
While providing economic and military support, Iran is also keen to mediate between Turkey and Syria, further indicating Tehran’s intent to promote its “diplomacy” and present itself as a key player in the country. Russia needs the ground military support of Iran’s militias in Syria to defend Assad. However, Moscow is now more concerned about securing a political solution to the conflict whereas Iran is largely interested in using its hard and soft power capabilities to entrench its influence in the country. At the same time, Moscow has also expressed its dissatisfaction towards Assad’s approach to the ongoing conflict. Former Russian diplomat and advisor Aleksandr Aksenenok recently wrote, “Damascus is not particularly interested in displaying a far-sighted and flexible approach continuing to look to a military solution with the support of its allies and unconditional financial and economic aid.” Moscow and Tehran have converging interests in the region to limit Western influence and increase their respective economic ties with Damascus, however, both Russian and Iranian interests also often clash.
The IRGC has recruited, trained and deployed fighters from other countries to secure Tehran’s interests. Economic problems such as unemployment and deteriorating socio-economic conditions have pushed these young people to join Iran’s proxy militia groups and Iran has recruited thousands under the name of the Local Defense Forces in Syria. Assad is keen to regain the remaining Syrian territories under opposition control for which Iran’s military support is critical and Iran’s growing cultural and religious influence in areas like Aleppo and Deir Ezzor are also vital for Assad’s political future.
To conclude, Iran is likely to offer more economic support to Syria if there is any sanctions relief and this will no doubt strengthen its role in Syria. Iran also intends to support its expansionist policy in the region by controlling strategic locations in Syria, thus ensuring wider land connectivity to Lebanon and Iraq. In the current context, Syria will remain dependent on Iran for economic and military support and post-election Tehran is likely to accelerate its efforts to secure its economic and strategic interests in Syria.