Iran-Syria Relations and The Arab Spring
Pro-reform and anti-regime street protests have rattled President Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria for several months since the Arab Spring sparked unrest across the region. The challenge to Assad’s rule in Syria has significant regional implications. The Syrian regime is Iran’s key strategic partner in the Middle East, serving as Tehran’s link to terrorist groups Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which threaten Israel’s security and regional stability. Iranian leaders, who seek to preserve the Assad regime, have publicly downplayed the significance of the Syrian protest movement while reportedly assisting Assad in his violent repression of the internal opposition.
Tehran has cultivated and expanded its relationship with Damascus in recent years. Examples of these ties include reports involving Iran’s financing of Syrian weapons purchases and the construction of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) base in Damascus. In July 2007, Damascus and Tehran reportedly entered into an agreement under which Iran would supply Syria with Iranian-made weapons in exchange for a “Syrian pledge to not enter peace negotiations with Israel.” Ties between the two countries also extend to economic cooperation. Syria reported in January 2007 that Iran was the top non-Arab economic investor in the country. More recently, Iranian and Syrian officials have begun negotiations over energy sector projects, including a natural gas pipeline project that would involve Iraq.
President Assad hosted Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in February 2010 in a high-profile meeting demonstrating the unity of the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. Assad and Ahmadinejad issued a joint statement emphasizing the “deep and brotherly ties” between the two nations. Assad also said during the meeting that Iran and Syria were cooperating with one another to “defeat Israeli terrorism.” The meeting reaffirmed the Syria-Iran partnership and represented an explicit rejection of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call for Syria to “begin to move away from the relationship with Iran.”
The rhetoric adopted by Iranian officials regarding the 2011 uprising in Syria has been starkly anti-Western. An Iranian foreign ministry official claimed that the grassroots protest movement in Syria was “a mischievous act of Westerners, particularly Americans and Zionists.” Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi alleged that “foreigners seek to create unrest in Syria.” President Assad echoed a similar narrative in his March 30, 2011 speech condemning the “great conspiracy whose tentacles extend to some nearby countries and far-away countries, with some inside the country.” President Ahmadinejad’s May 10, 2011 statement supported Assad’s crackdown, declaring that “the [Syrian] government and the people of Syria have reached a level of maturity to solve their own problem by themselves and there is no need for foreign intervention.” The anti-Western narrative adopted by Syria and Iran underscores the shared regional outlook of the two nations.
The loss of a key strategic partner in Assad would represent a significant setback for the Iranian regime. Iranian officials’ steadfast rhetorical support for Assad during the unrest has been reinforced by their reported provision of material support, training, and advice for suppressing dissent in Syria. The following section provides data related to Iranian support for Syria’s crackdown and will be updated periodically:
DATA ON IRANIAN SUPPORT FOR SYRIAN REPRESSION:
August 5: Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu confirmed that Turkish authorities had seized a truck containing weapons bound for Syria from Iran. The truck was intercepted at the Turkish city of Kilis, near the border of northern Syria. He did not provide additional details. German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, which broke the initial report, cited western diplomatic sources as saying that the arms shipment was seized April 30 and had been destined for Hezbollah in Lebanon.
July 27: U.S. Assistant Secretaries of State Michael H. Posner and Jeffery Feltman asserted in a joint statement before a U.S. House Foreign Relations Committee hearing that Iran has “materially helped the Syrian government crush its own protestors in order to preserve their ally.”
July 12: Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi hailed Turkish-Syrian-Iranian relations, saying the three nations are “members of a family.” Salehi met with his Turkish counterpart, Ahmet Davutoglu, to discuss the so-called “Arab Spring,” including recent developments in Syria.
July 11: U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for “accept[ing] aid from the Iranians as how to repress his own people.”
July 7: Iran Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi praised the recent reforms of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad saying al-Assad “has fulfilled its promises to improve the situation.”
July 5: A participant in a closed meeting between the Israeli parliament and Israeli military chief Major General Aviv Kochavi quoted Kochavi as saying that Iran is “transferring knowledge, technical aid and means for dispersing demonstrations” in Syria.
June 29: British Foreign Secretary William Hague accused Iran of “conniv[ing] in the suppression of legitimate protest in Syria.”
June 29: The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned the chief of Iran’s Law Enforcement Forces (LEF) Ismail Ahamdi Moghadem, and his deputy, Ahmad-Reza Radan, for funneling material support to the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate through the LEF. Treasury accused Radan of traveling to Damascus in April 2011 “where he met with Syrian security services and provided expertise to aid in the Syrian government's crackdown on the Syrian people.”
June 23: The European Union designated three senior Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps commanders for their purported assistance in the Syrian crackdown on anti-regime protests. IRGC commander Major General Muhammad Jafari, Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani, and Deputy Commander of IRGC Intelligence Hossein Taeb were sanctioned for “providing equipment and support to help the Syria regime suppress protests in Syria.”
June 23: The U.S. Treasury Department designated Iran Air, Iran’s largest commercial air carrier, for sanctions. The sanctions list described “IRGC officers [discouraging] Iran Air pilots from inspecting potentially dangerous IRGC-related cargo being carried aboard a commercial Iran Air aircraft, including to Syria.” Iran Air has also “been used to transport missile or rocket components to Syria.”
June 22: A senior Israeli source stated that Iran is providing material support to Syrian security forces to suppress the uprising in Syria. The source claimed that Iranian military officials, likely of the Quds Force, have supplied sniper rifles and communications equipment to disrupt local internet connections. The source also described “military people with beard [so] we can assume they're not part of the regular Syrian army [because of ban on beards in the Syrian army].”
June 14: In a statement marking the two year anniversary of the June 2009 Iranian election crackdowns, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton accused the Iranian regime of “supporting the Assad regime’s vicious assaults on peaceful protesters and military actions against its own cities.”
May 28: Two U.S. officials and a diplomat from an allied nation disclosed that Iran has been steadily increasing its personnel support for Syrian security forces’ efforts to suppress the recent uprising. The sources said members of the Iranian Quds Force were supplying Syrian security personnel with weapons and surveillance equipment.
May 17: An Iranian opposition group, the “Green Experts of Iran,” reported that the IRGC deployed a 65-man team along with four cargo planes loaded with arms to the IRGC Emar Operational Base in Damascus. This is reportedly the second shipment made by Iran. The report identified an IRGC commander, named “Jabbari,” as head of the IRGC Vali-ye Amr unit and as the leader of the current IRGC mission in Damascus.
May 17: The US Treasury Department sanctioned Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani and senior Quds Force officer in charge of operations and training Mohsen Chizari for their involvement in the repression of the Syrian people. The sanctions list described the Quds Force as a “conduit for providing material support to the GID [the Syrian intelligence directorate].”
May 12: A classified United Nations report stated that Iran was covertly shipping arms to Syria in violation of international sanctions. The report listed six out of nine incidents in which Syria was the final destination of illegal arms shipments from Iran. One arms shipment intercepted by Turkish authorities in March contained “60 Kalashnikov rifles, 14 BKC (Bixi) machine guns, 7,920 rounds of Kalashnikov ammunition, 560 60 mm mortars and 1,288 120 mm mortars."
May 9: A senior Western diplomat in Damascus described a significant increase of Iranian personnel in Syria who are likely advising Syrian intelligence and security officials on how to handle protests.
May 8-9: U.S. officials, Western diplomats, and Syrian activists indicate that Iran has provided Syrian security forces with tear gas, police helmets, and batons.
May 10: The Los Angeles Times reported that Syrian security forces were utilizing nonlethal measures against protestors such as “tear gas, truncheons and waves of random and targeted arrests,” mirroring tactics used by Iranian authorities in 2009 and 2010.
April 29: The US Treasury Department included Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and in sanctions against Maher al-Assad, President Bashar al-Assad’s younger brother, and Ali Mamuk, head of the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate. The sanctions target individuals and organizations involved in the repression of the Syrian people.
April 22: President Barack Obama said in a statement that Bashar al-Assad “[sought] Iranian assistance in repressing Syria’s citizens through the same brutal tactics that have been used by his Iranian allies.”
April 14: U.S. officials said Iran has provided Syrian security forces its technical “know-how” for suppressing protests that Iranian security forces developed and effectively employed in 2009 and 2010. This “know-how” includes shutting down telecommunications and internet to prevent protestors from coordinating with one another. A U.S. State Department spokesman said “We believe that there is credible information that Iran is assisting Syria.”  U.S. officials also reported that Iran provided Syria with equipment to monitor communications.
For more historical background on Iran-Syria relations, see here.