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Rivalry Between Iran and Saudi Arabia: The Proxy Case of Syria

Info: 33053 words (132 pages) Dissertation
Published: 6th Dec 2019

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Tagged: International Relations

The rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia: The proxy case of Syria

What are the interests of the two possible Middle Eastern hegemons Iran and Saudi Arabia in Syria since the Arab Spring and how are they enforced?


Iran: from 2011 (12.353 billion) to 2016 (12.383 billion) stable.

Saudi: rise from 2011 (54 billion) to 2015 (87 billion), but sharp decline of 30% in 2016 (61 billion) to fourth largest spender world-wide probably due to decrease in oil prices.[1]


  • b/d                               –                                   barrels per day
  • CIA                             –                                   Central Intelligence Agency
  • EU                               –                                   European Union
  • FSA                             –                                   Free Syrian Army
  • G20                             –                                   Group of Twenty
  • GCC                            –                                   Gulf Cooperation Council
  • GDP                            –                                   Gross Domestic Product
  • HNC                           –                                   High Negotiations Committee
  • IEA                             –                                   International Energy Agency
  • IMF                             –                                   International Monetary Fund
  • IRGC                          –                                   Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps
  • LAFA                         –                                   Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas network
  • NAM                           –                                   Non-Aligned-Movement
  • NATO                         –                                   North Atlantic Treaty Organization
  • NC                  –                                   National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and                                                             Opposition Forces
  • NDF                            –                                   National Defence Force
  • OIC                             –                                   Organization of Islamic Cooperation
  • OPEC                          –                                   Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries
  • SNC                            –                                   Syrian National Council        
  • UN                              –                                   United Nations
  • UNSC                         –                                   UN Security Council
  • UNSG                         –                                   UN Secretary-General
  • US(A)                         –                                   United States (of America)
  • USD                            –                                   United States dollar                           


The first diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia were first established in 1929 following the signing of a Saudi-Iranian Friendship Treaty. Following the Iranian Shah’s rule, relations were relatively friendly. However, ever since the 1979 Iranian Revolution, relations between the two possible Middle Eastern hegemons Iran and Saudi Arabia have been strained, with a possible low point of the First Gulf War in 1980 when Riyadh supported Iraq’s war against Iran. Other mile stones in increased animosity include the 2003 US invasion in Iraq which gave Iran the unique possibility to influence Baghdad, the rise of al-Maliki’s pro-Iran government in Baghdad in 2015 and the Iran Nuclear Deal in 2015.[2] Nowadays, Riyadh-Tehran relations are increasingly characterized by a strategic rivalry about the regional struggle and hegemony in the Middle East. This situation is further complicated by the recent agreement between Saudi Arabia’s traditional ally, the United States and Iran, which saw the lifting of sanctions on Iran. Moreover, Saudi-Iranian relations are embittered by mutual mistrust and growing religious-ideological hostility between the dominate Shia power Iran and the Sunni hegemon Saudi Arabia.[3]

The foreign policy approach of both hegemons is highly diverging. While Saudi policy can be characterized as conservative, seeking to preserve the status quo in the Middle East as well as welcoming the US-American presence in the region, Iran has been seen as a revisionist actor, having ties to Russia and China, supporting revolutionary non-state movements, while seeking an end to the US-American presence in the region as well as an end to Israel’s existence.[4]

While the two countries do not share a common border, they have been engaging in various conflicts in the Middle East to various degrees – from Central Asia, to Iraq, Bahrain and Palestine and more recently Syria and Yemen, which led to the Saudi feeling of increasingly being surrounded by Iran and its vassal states, as Iran had the control over four Arab capitals: Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad and Sanaa.[5] Some scholars have called their clash a new Cold War.[6] As with the original Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States, the conflict does not (yet) involve direct military confrontation between the main rivals, but there was certain block-building, denial of involvement and support for non-state-actors. [7] [8] However, the ongoing conflict constitutes diplomatic, ideological, and economic fights – especially in the oil markets – and ultimately proxy wars. Accordingly, both Riyadh and Tehran have been striving for regional dominance, ideological and religious supremacy as well as strategic prevalence –most heavily in Syria due to its role in the Arab World and its geo-strategic position.[9] [10]

The Syrian civil war had its roots in the Arab Spring, which began all over the Middle East in 2010. The Syrian people’s struggle began much as the uprisings in other Arab countries throughout the Arab Spring, where average citizens went to the street to claim back their freedom and prosperity. The initial peaceful protests were answered by government brutality and the civil war increasingly evolved into an international war, inter alia drawing in the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France and Iran as well as Saudi Arabia. Having been coined the biggest atrocity since World War II, the ongoing war in Syria so far resulted in more than 250.000 deaths and over 12 [11]  million refugees and displaced Syrians, which is more than half [12] of the original Syrian population.[13] It constitutes another strategic alteration of powers and chance to form the wider region in their own interests, as both Tehran and Riyadh are trying to fill the newly formed void. With their diametrical geopolitical goal Iranians and Saudis both have diverging sectarian, political, economic and strategic goals. It is estimated that by now more than 1.500 armed rebel groups are fighting in Syria, thereby complicating a political solution.[14],[15]

It is increasingly sectarian and ethnic, as both players try to legitimize their brutal involvement. The conflict began rather as a regime vs. opposition movement, but is now a fight between Shias vs. Sunnis.[16] As the Assad regime always tried to stay secular due to their minority rule, their Baathist party – pan-Arab, secular and socialist – got increasingly drawn into the sectarian clash. [17] [18]

Besides being ideological and political enemies, Iran and Saudi Arabia are also portraying themselves as the protector of all Shias and Sunnis, respectively. Of all Muslims, around 10-15% identify themselves as Shia, while the remaining vast majority belongs to the Sunni creed.[19] As Iran is the only predominately Shia power, it sees itself as the protector of all Shias and supports all its Shia allies in the Middle East. These range from Iraq (especially after the US left after Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003), Lebanon with its Hezbollah militia/party, Bahrain, Yemen, Azerbaijan and Syria. King Abdullah II of Jordan has coined the negative term Shia Crescent for the Shia dominated countries ranging from parts of Lebanon, Syria and Iraq to Iran and Bahrain.[20]

The confessional proportions in Saudi Arabia are somewhat opposite of those Iran: around 80% of Saudis are Sunni. This also represents the global proportions, as around 80-85% of all Muslims consider themselves as Sunni.[21]

Both countries have around 10% of their population belonging to the respective other creed. While the Shias in Saudi Arabia live in the oil-rich north-eastern part (important for oil revenues) of the Kingdom, Sunnis in Iran are mostly spread throughout the whole Islamic republic. Due to these circumstances, both countries constantly accuse each other of trying to inflame unrests among the other’s religious minorities so as to domestically weaken their counterparts.[22]

Then there is the difference between Alawites and the other Muslim denominations. While Alawites are commonly mistaken or portrayed, especially by Western media, as part of the Shia community, they are essentially not. Being religiously closer to Shias, however, their link to Shia Islam and the Alawite name (given to them by the French colonizers, which were called Nusayris before)[23] are derived from Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali. [24] [25] On the other hand, Alawites do not fast during Ramadan nor are they considered to do the pilgrimage to Mecca. Moreover, Alawites are allowed to drink alcohol and celebrate some Christian as well Jewish festivals. Although around 75% of all Syrians are Sunnis, the Assad clan and the ruling elite in Syria belong to the Alawite creed, which has been in power for about five decades. They make up around 7%-10% of the Syrian population.[26]

By fuelling the conflicts in Syria and the wider region in confessional terms, both Tehran and Riyadh are responsible for fragmenting the Muslim communities along sectarian lines worldwide.[27] As both aspiring superpowers increasingly indoctrinate confession and frame their geopolitical proxy conflicts in sectarian terms, they further complicate the war in Syria.

Theory and Methodology

This thesis will deal with the latent rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran and will consider their proxy conflict in Syria. As the conflict is rather recent, there are constant changes and the dynamics on the battlefield are ever turning. That is why this paper is only a snapshot, taking into account the beginning of the conflict in 2011 until around 2016. Another aspect of this and every war is that facts are hard to verify, as each side is denying involvement and are using propaganda to manipulate the masses.[28] The Syrian war, nonetheless, is an important war, as the whole Middle Eastern region is somewhat affected and increasingly being torn apart. The chaos and destabilization and its eventual transformation will be dealt with in the next decades. Moreover, the whole region is of strategic importance to the world economy due to its vast oil and gas reserves and touches European national security as it brought forward spill-over effects of the terrorist threat Daesh and the refugee crisis in the Old World. Lastly, it offers some lessons for the future as it might be the first war in a new multi-polar world.

This paper is meant to explain the chaotic situation in Syria and to comprehensively clarify the current shift in the balance-of-power. To do that it will first set the theoretical background to be able to academically analyse the situation in Syria. Then this paper will analyse the various interests the Iranians and Saudis have in the war in Syria in Chapter 3. Their role in supporting confronting sides in this already 7-year old bloody civil war will then be analysed in Chapter 4 and 5, after which a conclusion will be drawn. This paper used mainly secondary and some primary sources; most often journal articles, books and think-tank papers, but also government sources; mostly in English, but some in French and German as well as translated ones from Arabic and Farsi.

In order to properly analyse Iran’s and Saudi Arabia’s state behaviour, a close theoretical and methodological look at foreign policy theories on interstate rivalries and their comportment in Syria is needed. As geo-politics is an ever occurring trend, systemic rivalries and the rise and fall of powers is occurring in the Middle East as well.

Iran is often portrayed as a highly ideological state due to its Axis of Resistance image, its animosity towards the West, Israel and other Arab countries as well as its will to export its revolution, rather than securing the survival of the state. Challenging the status quo, Tehran is regularly mapped as irrational. Constructivism would come close to explain this behaviour, which stresses that state identity is essential in forming the behaviour of a state. For Tehran, it was its Persian identity, its revolution linked to its version of Islam that had to be exported, sometimes leaving the survival of the state fragile.

But it was Khomeini, Iran’s first Supreme Leader and moral authority who proclaimed that at times the interests of the state should count more than the interests of Islam and the revolution.[29]

Iran can therefore be identified as conducting neo-classical realist foreign policies. As systemic pressures cannot check Iran, it is rather the domestic scene that determines Iranian foreign policy outcomes. While the concepts of power and anarchy are central in neo-classical realist theory, it also takes into account the domestic level and its norms and values in order to analyse the international decision a state takes. It is a more holistic approach as it foreign policy is explained both by the international system and domestic constraints. As international change has a dynamic effect on the national level, a good example for Iran’s constructivist behaviour is when Tehran moved resources from Hezbollah into Syria, thereby leaving Lebanon and Iran itself prone to external attacks.[30] Moreover, by supporting Hamas, a Sunni Palestinian movement, Tehran showed its pragmatism that guided it to aid Hamas so that it could further harm Israel. Here, religion is just seen as an extension of Iran’s ideology and is proof of the flexibility of Iran’s foreign policy.[31]

In the case of Iran and Syria, that results in the strategic Iranian culture of furthering its revolution in Syria and protecting its defensive alliance with Assad, one of its longest and closest allies. Although the strong leader images of Rouhani and Khamenei are of less importance (they are more important in medium and long term considerations), it has to be considered that Iran has a highly complicated domestic decision finding mechanism and therefore has to take into account various domestic sentiments and actors.[32]

Sometimes also dubbed Islamic pragmatism, when given the choice, Iran takes neo-classic realist choices in accordance with the survival of the state and with the domestic audience, as the Nuclear Deal and the recent diplomatic efforts to curtail Daesh have shown.[33]

Lastly, it has to be considered that Iranian foreign policy towards Syria under Ahmadinejad (2011-2013) and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) (2014-today) was rather ideological, while Rouhani was driving a more neo-classical realist approach, when he considered the economic revival and the Nuclear Deal as his top priorities and his Syria policy (2013-2014) was rather seen as a secondary objective, sometimes even hindering his economic goals.

The Saudis on the other hand are the classic status quo regime and state survival actor, securing their defence with the decades old US-Saudi alliance and, more in general, relying on the West to protect its interests.

The Saudis have to consider the domestic audience, however, a lot more than Iran does, because of the commonly found tribal and familial ties still intact within Saudi society. On top of that, the Saudi national identity is not strong, so that the social unrests especially in the North-East with its Shia minority have to be constantly be taken into account.[34]

When conducting foreign policy, which is mostly conducted by the Royal Court, the Saudi Arabia has to consider therefore its external partners and the domestic scene. The Kingdom’s neo-classical realist approach in maintaining the regional stability and being able to continuously follow its national interest with the help of (regional) allies has also inspired its approach to the Arab Spring. However, the Kingdom also diverged from its usual path, as the examples of Tunisia and Egypt have shown, where the Saudis helped to oust regimes and thereby disrupting the regional stability.

When forming its strategy on Syria, Saudi Arabia behaved neo-classical realist, as it wished to remove Assad, enemy of the Saudi state, and install a Sunni- and Saudi friendly regime in Damascus. Initially the Saudis behaved more pragmatic when they supported the Syrian rebels and not the status quo Assad regime, although Riyadh aimed to maintain its regional influence.[35] Riyadh increasingly considered systemic factors in forming its strategy. The Saudi King wanted to appear assertive and as a strong leader when he condemned Assad to stop killing fellow Sunnis.[36] Moreover, it claimed to defend Islam when conducting foreign policy in Syria and it considered the rising domestic rebellious tendencies about the Syrian slaughtering machine, the state-society relations, when it commenced to act against Assad. Lastly, the strategic culture and the domestic institutional framework allowed the Saudis, as the traditional Gulf hegemon, to act in Syria.

The Value of Syria for Riyadh and Tehran

As the next weakened state in the Middle East, Syria offers a new opportunity for both Iran and Saudi Arabia to expand their influence as well as check the other’s rise in influence, as both countries are authoritarian theocracies that claim leadership of the Middle East and the Islamic ummah (community), as well as trying to export their respective version of authoritarianism where- and whenever they have the opportunity.[37]

This Arab-Persian animosity plays out in Syria mostly because of its geo-strategic value. Its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea as well as to Israel makes it an important actor for the wider region of the Middle East.[38]

Syria also plays a huge role in cultural and political terms. This is because Syria is seen as the birthplace of Arab nationalism; the first pan-Arab state had its capital in Damascus. This gives both Tehran and Riyadh additional legitimacy as they portray their campaigns in Syria as the righteous struggle.[39]

Iran and Saudi Arabia have diametric interests in Syria. The two see Syria as a so-called zero-sum-game: most of Iran’s gains are the losses of the Saudis and vice versa. Their goals are therefore the opposite of the other’s.[40]

Iran’s viewpoint and interests   

At first glance, the alliance between Iran and Syria does not seems stable. On the one side there is a Persian Islamic theocracy with robed-and-turbaned mullahs and on the other a pan-Arab secular republic with Western-suited Ba’athists. Therefore not being ideologically aligned, neither are both of the same religious creed, which just reinforces both their pragmatic approach, although they stress the religious and nationalistic nature of their alliance.[41]

Besides a few hick-ups however (such as the lack of criticism of the Saudi invasion of Bahrain in 2013), the geo-political and strategic Tehran-Damascus alliance has persevered. Being portrayed as the Axis of Resistance, Iran and Syria, together with Hezbollah, share a common animosity towards the Western world as well as towards Israel and US hegemony in the Middle East.[42] Having their alliance for over 30 years now, Iran and Syria used said alliance to check against Iraqi, Israeli and US hegemony in the Middle East. Its longevity can be explained by its rather defensive character, Iran’s and Syria’s different ideologies and their division of influence in the Levant and the Persian Gulf, which all actually account for less arguments and less struggle for hegemony within and outside of the alliance.[43]

Syria was the second country (after the Soviet Union) to recognize the new Iranian government after its revolution in 1979 and moreover was the only Arab country[44] to support Iran in its devastating 8-year war against Iraq in the 1980s (Syria closed its border to Iraq in order to close their joint oil pipeline, which resulted in huge economic losses for Iraq (40% of its oil revenues)).[45] This political and military alliance was gradually strengthened and ultimate resulted in the 2006 Iran-Syria defence and military pact.[46]

Iran’s traditional role as a land-mass empire, always made it prone to rule the wider Middle East and the Persian Gulf so as to ensure its territorial integrity. Not having been colonized, Tehran sees itself to be entitled to dominate the region due to its long history and geography as a natural state.[47] [48]

Due to the religious proximity of Shias and Alawites as well as Tehran’s sectarian portrayal of the conflict in Syria, one reason why Iran supports Bashar al-Assad is religious cohesion against the Sunni threat coming from Saudi Arabia, as Assad’s minority government of Alawites are controlling and ruling over the majority Sunni population in Syria.  This allows Iran to control a huge Sunni population and to strike a blow to its main contender Saudi Arabia. In order to keep this cultural and religious proximity on a long-term basis, Iran is trying to strengthen bonds between the two countries by promoting i.e. subsidized travel to Syria often carried out by Iranian bonyads, charitable trusts responsible for Iranian soft power and cultural diplomacy.[49] [50] Moreover, regular student exchanges are carried out between the two countries so as to secure future bonds.[51] Of many cultural centres, the bonyads have also erected Iran’s most important one in Damascus in 1983.[52]

The increasing sectarian aspect of the conflict in Syria gives Iran furthermore the legitimacy it needs to fight the Saudi monarchy and Sunni influence in the region. As Iran portrays itself as standing in for Islamic rights (and to a lesser extent Arab and Shia interests) and by instrumentalizing and widening the sectarian division, Tehran draws big use out of the conflict in Syria as it can portray Sunni extremism and Saudi support for jihadist groups as a motivation and reason to fight for the Shia cause. 

Moreover, Tehran uses the threat of jihadi group such as Daesh or al-Nusra as an excuse and to further legitimize its combat of extremism and terrorism in the region and Syria. Using the Salafi (or its synonym Wahhabi) threat as a propaganda tool, Tehran also uses it to amass more Shias for its proxy militia groups, as these extremist rebel groups seek the annihilation of all Shias.[53] To further instrumentalize this propaganda opportunity, Soleimani posed on several occasion with minority groups on social media.[54]

Another reason to fight such extremism for Tehran is the distant possibility that these groups could widen the chaos in Syria and therefore make the pro-Iranian regimes in Iraq and Syria implode and remove two of its main allies.[55] Iranian officials also claim to fight Daesh in Syria, so that they do not have to fight a strengthened Daesh closer to Iranian borders or even within the Islamic Republic.[56] In deterring these groups within Syria, Tehran strongly indicates its will to protect its interests, population and territory.[57] As a last thought, Iran could use its terrorist argument to maintain its forces in Syria, even when the war may already be over.[58]

As much of the Iranian public and most of its officials see the jihadi threat coming from Saudi Arabia and its Wahhabi ideology, Iranians paranoingly see the wars in Iraq and Syria more and more as intertwined and as a joint effort from the West and the Sunni community so as to destroy Syria and its axis with Iran.[59]

Iran also derives further religious legitimacy by portraying itself as the sole protector of all Shias and thereby being the only power to guarantee the safety of Shia holy shrines and other sites in Syria, such as the al-Sayyidah Zaynab Shia shrine close to Damascus.[60],[61]

All in all, the sectarian argument gives Tehran further legitimacy to portray itself as the good Islamic country, protecting Shia, Arab and Islamic interests in Syria, although the rising sectarian nature of the Syrian struggle limits its scope of representing the whole Islamic ummah.

Far more important to Iran is, however, Syria’s strategic value. As some official close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei once put it: Syria is Iran’s “35th province…if we lose Syria we won’t be able to hold Tehran.”[62]

Since there is no border between Iran and its allies such as Palestine and Lebanon, Iran needs the Syrian thoroughfare in order to be able to continuously transport money, people and arms between the Iranian motherland and its allies in the region, where Syria serves as a conjunction between Iran, Iraq and Lebanon.[63] Syria actually made the Tehran-Baghdad-Damascus-Hezbollah-Hamas axis possible in the first place, with which Iran wields influence in the Israel-Palestine conflict, the Middle East and parts of the Mediterranean.[64]

Especially Iran’s most important puppet, the Lebanese Hezbollah (party of God), profits from Iranian deliveries through Syria. Hezbollah is a political party and militant group based in Beirut, which Tehran established in 1985 as a proxy group and non-state-actor so as to influence domestic Lebanese politics and deter, threaten and fight Israel.

Actually, Iran’s alliance with Syria gave it the opportunity to establish Hezbollah in the first place. Controlling Syria gives Tehran therefore the possibility to keep arming and funding its most important proxy. Hezbollah has this huge importance to Iran because of its credible threat to Israel and as a deterrent towards the US its Sunni partners from attacking Iran.[65] Within Syria, Iran uses Hezbollah to control a land belt ranging from Syria’s southern common border with Lebanon and therefore Hezbollah all the way towards Damascus and the Mediterranean coast and to the historic Alawite settlements in Latakia.[66] This is partly why resources and personnel from Hezbollah were moved into Syria, thereby leaving Lebanon dangerously weakened. Tehran, however, saw the struggle in Syria and its land corridor as more important and strategic at the time.[67] In Syria, Hezbollah became maybe the single most effective force and has three goals: training Syrian force, advising the regime militarily, and actual fighting besides Assad’s forces, smuggling arms as well as establishing readiness to hit Israel from the South of Syria.[68]

Furthermore, Syria serves to arm, fund and send personnel to its other militias and proxies in the region. Being able to support the Sunni Palestinian movement Hamas gives the Iran the possibility to further influence the Israeli-Palestinian struggle by arming inter alia Hamas.[69] Having the land connection to Syria is a long term objective and eventually Iranian officials want to connect it to Bahrain and Yemen.

The establishment of these proxy groups throughout the Levant has allowed Iran therefore to strengthen and preserve its regional influence as well as to maintain a strong posture domestically. Losing Syria would therefore remove Iran’s land bridge between its allies in the region, its connection to the Mediterranean, and ultimately its ability to influence conflicts in Israel, Yemen and beyond.[70]

Without the Assad regime in power, Iran would not just only lose the flexibility and capability that having a friendly Syrian government brings to the proxy groups mentioned above, but Iran would lose regional geopolitical leverage as well. This is why any change in the political structure of the Syrian regime would have implications for all the above relationships, especially those in connection with Iran’s role in the region. Should Syria go through regime change, it is unlikely that the new regime would be supportive of the Iranian government to the same extent as the current regime does. Undoubtedly, a new Syrian government with its Sunni majority (the mentioned 75% of the Syrian population) would be more sympathetic to the rest of the Arab world rather than to Iran. Iran would furthermore loose its ability to project power. The prospect of a future hostile Sunni Syria towards its minority Shia and Alawite population is another reason why Iran fears the vengeance and wrath Sunnis could take upon the then unprotected Shia and Alawite minorities.[71]

Since Assad’s father Hafez al-Assad took over Syria in 1971, Iran and Syria have been close allies, cooperating on several important and strategic issues. Therefore, Syria works as a bulwark against enemies such as the USA, Israel or Saudi Arabia. The influence of these hostile countries can be pushed further back and Iran itself has more scope to form Syria in the way it wants. One reason therefore why Iran supports Syria is to counter the attempts by the Gulf countries and especially Saudi Arabia to support Sunni militias in Syria with the ultimate goal to topple Assad, a nightmare for Iran. Iran’s support for Syria is a consequent response to the Gulf arms, weapons and ammunition shipments to rebel groups in Syria. Additionally, Syria acts as a buffer towards the Iranian motherland and its proxies. It is not as easy for these enemy countries to attack or shape Iran and its allies to the extent they would like, for example, when it comes to flying over Syrian or Iranian airspace. In the case of Iran’s airspace, Israel and its army considered for a long time to fly over Iran and bomb certain areas in order to wipe out the Iranian nuclear program. In the end, Israel never realized this military move as it was deterred by risk concerns and the looming Iran Deal.[72] This is why a senior foreign affairs advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader named Syria as “a golden ring of resistance against Israel”.[73]

That is why, even before to the civil war in Syria broke out, Iran had already between 2.000 and 3.000 IRGC personnel in Syria, further underlining its strategic importance to Tehran.[74]

Ultimately, the Iranian strategy is therefore to encircle its arch-enemy Saudi Arabia by building up proxy capabilities in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and more recently in Syria, which is the logistical hub for the Iranian Republic to take influence in the whole region.

To a lesser extent, Tehran is also interested in Syria’s economic potential and its geo-economic importance. This expresses itself in the energy question between Iraq, Iran, Syria and Lebanon, which have common pipelines, for which Iran needs the land connection towards the Mediterranean Sea and aid each other with subsidized petroleum. Moreover, the Hormuz strait question is crucial for Iranian interests. Lastly, Tehran has substantial investments already in Syria and by losing the current regime, sunk costs would eventually face an already weakened Iranian economy.

When the conflict broke out, Iranian officials and clerics portrayed the Syrian struggle first and foremost as an outside job. Moreover, they increasingly stressed the sectarian aspect. Lastly, they portrayed the civil war in Syria as not part of the Arab Spring or Awakening but rather as part of an Islamic Awakening, which can be seen as a prolongation inspired by the Iranian Revolution of 1979.[75] Here, however, Syria is the exception rather than the rule, as Tehran portrayed all Arab uprisings as such prolongation inspirations, only Syria was influenced outside powers.

Both Riyadh and Tehran also need and utilize Syria, so as to divert domestic attention away from their enormous problems at home. Having a huge social inequality, rising (youth) unemployment as well as a sanction crippled economy (the Nuclear Deal raised huge expectation among younger generations), Iran desperately needs a diversion and has found it in Syria. Using Syria as an image and tool of success of Iranian influence and engagement, Tehran uses this to divert attention away from its growing young generations.[76] Although domestic factors have a rather limited explanatory power over the Iran-Syria axis, it is nonetheless a powerful tool to influence domestic opinions.[77]

Dubbed as being Iran’s first line of defence[78], Syria has religious, legitimate, strategic and economic importance to Tehran. Iran sees Syria as yet another ground to counter and fight Saudi and Sunni influence and to maintain its Tehran,-Damascus-Baghdad-Hezbollah-Hamas axis. Syria is central to Iran’s ability to project power in the region and it supports the Assad regime to the bloody end due to the possible prospect of a toppled Assad and a future Syria ruled by vindictive Sunnis.

Saudi Arabia’s viewpoint and interests

As does Iran, Riyadh has multiple interests in Syria. First and foremost, it wants to draw a major blow to its religious counterpart and regional contender Iran by installing a Sunni and therefore more Saudi friendly regime in Damascus. Besides that, the Saudis want to remove any ideological threats extremist, terrorist and jihadist groups such as al-Nusra or Daesh pose to the religious legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy. Lastly, Riyadh sees Syria as an ideological window of opportunity to raise its voice for the Sunnis and accuse the Syrian regime of slaughtering fellow Sunni believers. As Saudi officials have admitted, the handling of protests following the Arab Spring, especially in Syria, was one of the hardest as well as most strategic challenges since the Iranian revolution in 1979.[79]

Syria always has been an uncomfortable country for Riyadh, with occasional personal insults coming from the Assad rulers directed directly at the al-Saud.[80] Since the 2005 assassination of then Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri allegedly by Syria, a close Saudi ally, bilateral relations continuously worsened.[81]

Ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the following Iranian claim to represent the interests of all Muslims, which has been the traditional Saudi duty thus far, Riyadh was alarmed by the blatant Iranian claim to be the only legitimate leader in all of Islam. This resulted in a newly flare-up of the inner-Muslim struggle, that was again reinforced during the Arab Spring when Iran and Saudi Arabia both intensified the sectarian character of the uprisings.[82]

As the majority of Syrians are of the Sunni creed, the Kingdom saw a chance that a new Syrian regime would be dominated by Sunni and would therefore be friendlier to Damascus than Assad.

Riyadh also instrumentalized the sectarian issue so as to be able to recruit more Sunni-formed militias and thereby countering the rising recruitment by Iran and the resulting upper hand of the regime and its militias. Using anti-Iranian propaganda at home and in Syria (as again explained below) such as despicably referring to Iranians as Safavids (a reference to an old Persian empire in the 16th/17th century) and the exploitation of martyrdom as well as pointing out the brutality by the Syrian government against fellow Sunni believers were used by the Kingdom to try to contain Iran on this sphere to limit Shia militia mobilization while counting on more Sunni recruitment.[83],[84]

If Riyadh would have framed the conflict solely in sectarian terms, then it would have to support the Muslim Brotherhood due to their ideological similarity. Because the Saudis did not, they rather behaved pragmatic.[85]

But besides being religiously confronted by an ever more powerful Iran, the Kingdom was religiously and ideologically challenged by the emergence of extremist militias within Syria, such as Daesh or al-Nusra. As these groups draw on the same branch of Islam as does the state-sponsored version of Islam in Saudi Arabia, namely Wahhabism, also called Salafism, these radical groups constituted a serious threat to the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy as they claimed to be more zealous and more representative of Islam as well as rejecting the theological justification for the Saudi political system. If these groups would become part of a future Syrian government, the Saudis would have to live with a rather hostile player in Damascus, which would therefore be both an external as well as internal threat to the Kingdom.[86]

As they became more powerful and conquered more and more territory in Syria, thereby replacing the moderate Free Syrian Army (FSA) as the so far most powerful single Sunni militia, Saudi officials were more and more concerned these militias could question the Wahhabi ideology and therefore ultimately the Saudi monarchy itself, as the Salafi belief system of Daesh resembles the Wahhabi one of Saudi Arabia to a dangerously high extent. Some scholars even called Daesh the Fourth Wahhabi state, in line with the three Wahhabi states the al-Sauds built over the course of time.[87] Although it far exceeds the Saudi ideology when it comes to radicalism, Daesh even went so far as to declare war on the Saudi Kingdom on several occasions from 2014 on. As it managed to carry out at least 15 terror attacks on Saudi soil with over 50 casualties, Daesh went on and claimed to be the only true representative of Islam and Wahhabism.[88] All this challenged Saudi Arabia domestically and around the Muslim world as well as it damaged its well-constructed image as the main Sunni power. Therefore, Riyadh needed Salafi militias to win the sectarian ideological war against more radical militias such as Daesh. This is why Riyadh had to act in Syria on religious and ideological grounds, as the biggest and most serious threat Riyadh could face was the questioning of its internal legitimacy which therefore constituted a threat to its domestic stability.[89]

Moreover, Riyadh saw Iran behind the growing rise of Daesh and felt further threatened by the increasing interference from Tehran in its so far usual zones of influence.[90] Both the ideological and religious threats by both Iran and Daesh to the Saudi throne can therefore be linked to the growing domestic problems Saudi officials face. When King Salman ascended the Saudi throne in the beginning of 2015, he was faced by inter alia a high (youth) unemployment rate and the decreasing oil price, which led the Saudi to the conclusion that an external distraction was needed, paired with the image of a strong leader, Salman increasingly presented himself as the strong man distracting from domestic problems by acting more assertive in Syria.

Another constant domestic worry for the Kingdom is the Shia minority in Saudi Arabia, which mostly lives in the North East of the Kingdom, where there is most of the Saudi’s important petroleum infrastructure. Having been uneasy ever since (Saudi officials suspect Iran behind the inflaming), this minority was further agitated by the vents in Syria. Saudi Arabia therefore feared a spill-over from Syria to its domestic problems and had to present itself as assertive in Syria; in combination with suppression and anti-Iranian propaganda at home, the Kingdom tried to grind down on its domestic feelings of rebellion.[91]

As Saudi Arabia is one of the most important countries in the region due to its vast petroleum and gas reserves and production with which it can set oil prices, as the custodian of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina as well as the representative of all Muslims, the only Arab and OPEC member in the G20 and domestically on of the most stable countries in the region, the wider Middle East region and its stability is crucial to the geo-strategic and geo-economic viability of the Kingdom.[92] As it has a rather weak military historically, although heavily equipped, Riyadh usually prefers to work behind the scenes, using diplomacy and coercion.[93]

In order to reverse the growing Iranian influence, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) was formed mostly by the Saudis to rally Arab support against Tehran. As the regional balance shifted more and more in favour of the Iranians, especially after the Nuclear Deal in 2015, Syria was one of the most relevant battles in their proxy war to establish control in the region and in one of the most strategic countries in the Middle East.[94]

Being already on a losing streak in this proxy war, Riyadh did not want to lose more allies such as Jordan. The importance of regional stability for the Saudis and their status quo mentality was in fact so crucial, that Riyadh shifted its foreign policy towards emerging powers as it had to learn that its traditional Western allies were no longer there for it. As the regionalization of the Syrian conflict proceeded, many observers saw the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf and Saudi Arabia especially as driven by fears over the hegemonic ambitions of Iran.

Their most simple reason to act in Syria was therefore just to counter Iranian interests and balance against them. The Arab Spring therefore presented a unique opportunity for Riyadh to ditch Assad for good and install a Sunni and Saudi friendly government in Damascus and therefore take advantage of the demographic realities in Syria, as more than 70% of Syrians are Sunnis.[95]

Contrarily and in line with the zero-sum-game, the fall of Syria into Sunni hands would be a hefty loss for the Islamic Republic and its ally Hezbollah, removing both their prestige and influence in the region as well as destroying their dream of creating a coherent Shia bloc.[96] Before the revolution, it was not feasible for Riyadh to influence Syria neither could the Saudis try to change things in political or military matters. With a weakened Syria in exactly these two terms, Riyadh now has a unique chance to balance against Iranian regional ambitions. This considerable opportunity would mean the end of a hostile regime to Riyadh and would moreover allow Saudi Arabia to reassert itself as the leader of the Sunni and Arab world again.[97] Moreover, it would aid the Gulf States to wield more influence in Lebanon again.

Related to Riyadh’s struggle to oppose Iranian clout in Syria, another major goal for the Saudi monarchy in Syria is to counter the Syria/Russia/Iran axis. Even though this means supporting sub-optimal radical groups, Riyadh’s interest in Syria is to remove all actors who support this axis and to reverse the Iranian winning dynamic following the 2003 invasion of Iraq.[98]

As Iran especially supported non-state-actors, another major concern for Saudi officials were the Shia militias acting outside of state supervision as well as the Iranian military presence in Syria.[99]

There are multiple goals for the Saudis in Syria: first and foremost does it want to check Iranian influence and balance against their growing regional power in a shifting new world order. Sectarian as well as external and internal political aspects add to the Saudi interests. Being usually cautious foreign actors with an interest to maintain the existing international state sovereignty order, Riyadh’s approach to Syria was unusual as it could and did not supported the regime this time.[100] Besides Iran, however, Riyadh had to look out for radical Islamists with trans-national tendencies in Syria, which increasingly threatened Saudi Arabia militarily and domestically.[101]

Tehran’s Strategies Towards Syria

Therefore, Iran deploys an extensive range of measures including logistical, technical and financial support, as well as military training, combat troops and lastly significant political support in order to hold Assad and the Syrian Government in power.[102] But at the same time Iran takes precautionary measures for a future Syria without Assad.

Political Support for Bashar Al Assad

During the onset of the Syrian uprisings, which were then somewhat peaceful, Syria’s forces responsible for monitoring the Syrian people were increasingly overstrained. Iran stepped in by mid-2011 to ramp up the Syrian surveillance apparatus and by providing riot control expertise, so that Assad could keep monitoring and controlling internet activities and outside behaviour of ordinary Syrians, angry crowds and uncertain activists, while being able to maintain his repressive regime.[103] Assad was furthermore provided with public security knowledge to tap e-mails, social media accounts and mobile phones. Attached to the political control of the Syrian uprising and especially the opposition, Tehran gave technical and further political support to neutralise the opposition and contain their assemblies.[104] Iran’s anti-rebellion and security forces, such as the IRGC, police and intelligence agents were sent to Syria, as they assembled valuable experience during the recent 2009 Iranian Green Revolution, which they used to give political advice to Assad’s forces to be able to dissolve the political networks of activists and the opposition.[105] Their know-how in oppressing mass uproars in rural areas within Iran, moreover resulted in supplying the Syrian secret police with technical support, political advice, riot control equipment and intelligence monitoring systems.[106] Furthermore, Iranian personnel coming from inter alia Iran’s intelligence services, such as the Ministry of Intelligence and Security were send to Syrian to advise their Syrian counterparts. Evidence for that is the unusual sighting of highest-ranking Iranian commanders, generally authoritative only for internal domestic security matters within Iran.[107][FH1] 

Further evidence of political support for the Assad regime was verbally uttered by numerous members of the Iranian political elite to show that Assad was not diplomatically isolated. “The removal of Assad is a red line for us”[108] is one of the more direct examples, while Iranian officials repeatedly said that Assad should stay until the end of his democratic elected term in 2021.[109] Every chance Iranian officials got, especially in the Syrian peace talks, they stressed the central role of Assad for any political deal.[110] The (highly contested) Syrian elections in 2014 were in fact enough political show for Tehran to renew its unconditional support to its most stalwart ally.

In late 2015, Tehran decreased its political support somewhat stating that it was interested in finding a political solution, although as per usual it stated that there would not be any future Syria without Assad.[111] Even after the chemical attacks on Syrian civilians, Tehran still publicly stood firmly behind Assad, although stressing to dismantle his chemical stocks, which was the only time Tehran publicly criticized Damascus.[112] Related to this, Tehran always denounced any foreign interference in – in its view – domestic Syrian affairs.

Besides that, Tehran had meetings with Assad, supported his reforms, ideas and (peace) plans, criticized no-fly-zones over Syria and was the only country that diplomatically and politically backed Syria by holding its own peace conferences in Tehran in 2012 and 2013 and it instrumentalized the Non-Aligned-Movement’s (NAM) meeting in Tehran in late 2012 to rally support for Assad’s Syria. It was furthermore the only country that contested the suspension of Syria from the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).[113]

Through its influence in Lebanon, Tehran also managed to push Lebanese politics in the direction of helping Assad politically, when Lebanon voted against or abstained from politically condemning Syria and Assad in the Arab League or in the United Nations as well as not carrying out the Arab League sanctions.[114]

By its use of portraying the Syrian struggle as one against Zionism and one initiated by outside powers such as the West (and not against Sunnis), further political reasoning is built for Assad.[115]

Linked to its military aid, which results in more battles won by regime forces, Tehran wants Assad to have a stronger political position in future diplomatic talks.[116]

The responsible domestic actors for the strategy in Syria have to be mentioned: from Ahmadinejad’s second term towards Rouhani’s first six months in office and then back to the hard-line position again.

First and foremost, domestic Iranian politics is characterized by the dualism between the secular President and the Supreme Leader the ultimate religious authority, resulting in a dichotomy of political consent finding.[117] [118] This results in a complex chaos of bureaucratic agencies working at times against each other, in tension between the elected and unelected institutions, multiple centres of power, which makes decision making and policy implementation rather difficult.[119] For foreign policies, the Supreme National Security Council, was created after the Iranian constitutional reforms in 1989, which coordinates all institutions as the highest secular institution in Tehran.[120] Not having ended elite political fights over important topics such as the Iranian strategy in Syria, there is more over the sectarian Council of Guardians. Ever since, important decision in foreign policy matters were done by such religious elements, the same goes for Syria.[121]

Ahmadinejad and his hard-line approach to Syria was in line with these sectarian elements in Tehran and therefore largely run by the clergy. Until the end of his term in 2013, Ahmadinejad always was a stark supporter of Assad, not wanting to abandon the Axis of Resistance.[122]

While Rouhani was a rather moderate political regime insider, he was elected by popular desire and promised economic change and the use of more modest language towards Israel and the West.[123] Distancing himself somewhat from prior conservative views, Rouhani and his foreign minister Zarif had the unique blessing by the Supreme Leader and therefore a rare opportunity to focus on economic development as well as to take the initiative and end the crippling sanctions and the will to conclude the Nuclear Deal. To reach these goals, Rouhani saw Syria rather as an obstacle and presented Iran as a more reliable and responsible actor. Rouhani even underlined the importance of bettering relations towards the Saudis, being proud to having concluded Iran’s first security agreement with Riyadh back in 1998.[124]

Finally being invited to the Vienna peace talks in 2015, after Iran was not invited in Geneva 2013 and 2014 was a small success for Rouhani.[125] But due to the domestic opposition by the IRGC and the increasing hostile international environment towards Tehran, Rouhani did not manage to permanently steer Iranian politics away from hard-line and conservative elements. Having constantly tried, after six months in office, the invitation and following exclusion to the Geneva (II) talks by UN Secretary-General UNSG Ban-Ki Moon gave Rouhani the rest and the IRGC and the hard-liners took over the Syrian strategy again.[126] [127]

This new policy power over Syria was revealed in 2014, when Zarif told Kerry that not his but rather the IRGC and Supreme Commander’s offices were responsible for the Syrian strategy.[128] [129] It also revealed the limits of an Iranian President’s power.

Direct and Indirect Military Aid             

With the onset of the actual war in Syria itself, beginning in 2012, Iran had to step its military aid to help the Syrian army fight an actual full-scale war. In the beginning of the conflict in Syria, Iran led more from behind as it was advising and coordinating Syrian military personnel. Besides that, Tehran also continuously sent vast quantities of military equipment. Only later on did it commit boots on the ground so as to relieve the Syrian army, which was plagued by defections, deaths and non-deployment of Syrian Sunni soldiers and has supposedly lost one third to half of its pre-war personnel strength.[130] That is because due to its minority ruling elite, around 80% of the Syrian officer corps are Alawites.[131] By mid-2015 Tehran also made clear, that it could active the Syrian-Iranian defence pact of 2006.[132] But again, as with other external help, Damascus denied any outside help.[133]

As the Syrian civil war caught Iran by surprise, Tehran initially concentrated on advising and leading from behind. As time passed by, Iranian advisers were more deeply inserted in Assad’s military institutions.[134]

The Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran are divided into the Islamic Republic of Iran Army or Artesh (350.000 men) and the Sepah or IRGC (125.000 men), the latter comprising the Quds Force, Iran’s Special Forces.[135] The Quds force, Arabic for Jerusalem, are led by the powerful Qasem Soleimani, who reports directly to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei.[136] Iran’s army lacks modern equipment, but with its organizational capability and the high moral and loyalty of its soldiers, it is nonetheless a powerful actor in the region and should not be underestimated.[137] All Iranian forces in Syria seem to be under the supervision of the Quds forces and therefore of Soleimani, who was voted man of the year 2015 in Iran and who is a celebrated hero in Iran. His popularity is often used to defuse domestic unease with the Iranian engagement in the war in Syria.[138]

It was also Soleimani who was sent to Damascus in the beginning of 2012 to discuss and secure the full scale Iranian strategy to save the Assad regime, which was then punt into practice and after which a gradual and persistent increase in Iranian military aid was reported.[139]

Iranian military presence was first made publically indirectly in May 2012 and then directly in the July of 2013, after which an often-cited prisoner swap between the Syrian regime and some rebel groups ensued.[140] After months of negotiations, 48 Iranians, later unconvincingly declared pilgrims by Tehran, were freed in substitution for over 2,000 prisoners captured by the Syrian regime.[141] It was also the first time that non-Syrians were liberated, clearly showing Iran’s prominent role in the war and its sway over the authorities in Damascus.

Besides deploying Iranian Special Forces such as the Quds Force, Tehran also send the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Ground Forces. As with all other Iranian backed forces, their duty was to support pro-Assad forces in fighting rebel forces, coordinating attacks and training new recruits as well as further instruct current members of the Syrian high command. The number of IRGC ranged considerably, from a few hundred men in the beginning as confirmed by Western intelligence[142] to around 700 in the middle of 2015[143] to around 2.000 men in 2016.[144]

To further coordinate military movements and attacks, Tehran deployed members from various Iranian intelligence organizations to the Syrian battlefields, such as the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security.[145] It was also reported that Iran created a whole 8th Najaf Ashraf Armoured Division solely for the purposes and needs of the war in Syria.[146] Having collected and shared valuable intelligence on various rebel groups, Iranian advisers were commanding operations, coordinating between the various domestic and external military forces and they were even commanding a whole Syrian platoon.[147] [148] Syrian commanders were moreover advised on how to retake strategic parts of Syria, eased by the fact both sides could draw on their recent fighting experience in Lebanon, they were able to employ similar tactics and were therefore more efficient.[149] [150]

By 2015, numerous reports proved the vast Iranian presence in Syria. Hundreds of troops send by Tehran arrived and reinforced Syrian and Hezbollah forces waging a major ground offensive. By that time, they were also backed by Russian bombings in strategic parts of the country.[151]

Again by 2015, Iran was said to be in charge of Syrian military operations, effectively controlling as well as coordinating attacks in Syria. All in all, it was estimated that Tehran had sent roughly 10.000 military personnel to the Syrian battlefield (besides its already stationed IRGC personnel strength of 2.000-3.000 prior to the war) but had suffered at least over 1,000 casualties in Syria – proofing their huge involvement. [152] 120 Iranian troops were reported dead; and that only in the second half of 2015.[153]

However the price, Iran’s vast deployment of its various military branches and its strategic supervision over the war in Syria resulted in Assad’s government forces regaining strength and taking back strategic parts of Syria, reclaiming former rebel-held territory. These battles included the fighting around al-Ghab, the Daraaya attacks, the offensives around Aleppo and the al-Qusayr invasion that all restored pro-Assad rule over vast parts of Syria, thereby reconnecting the strategically important border crossings from Lebanon to Syria.[154]

Next to sending military personnel, Iran also transported various military equipment via sea, land and primarily air channels into Syria, which reached the Syrian army on a regular basis.[155]

While equipment from Iraq was brought in by land trough the only remaining land connection between Baghdad and Damascus, the al-Walid-at Tanf border crossing, weaponry was also transported through Lebanon to arm Syrian rebels. Proof that Iranian shipments were being brought into Syria was an Israeli airstrike bombing a weapons convoy in 2013 supposedly moving SA-17 anti-aircraft missiles coming from Lebanon. These routes still play an important role in Iran and Hezbollah’s grid to move equipment into Syria.[156] Shipments were also made through the Turkish-Syrian border on various occasions from 2011 on.[157] Proof were numerous seizes by the Turkish authorities, such as in 2012 when Ankara seized a truck carrying numerous types of rifles, machine guns, explosives and detonators as well as 60mm and 120mm mortar shells and varied other military equipment, allegedly coming from the regime in Tehran.[158]

Using the sea route, Iranian shipments were made through the Suez Canal towards Syrian ports, which meant that Iranian ships traversed the Suez Canal for the first time since the 1970’s. In 2012, two ships then docked in the Syrian port of Latakia after transiting the Suez Canal. In the same year, two boats coming from Iran made the same journey but docked at the more southern Syrian port of Tartous. Moreover, tankers – often reflagged – from Iranian petrol companies frequently crossed the Suez Canal to transport oil between Syria and Iran in order to by-pass sanctions on Iran and Syria. [159],[160]

Primarily, however, Iran shipped equipment by air, using its military as well as civilian aircrafts. Commercial airlines such as Yas Air and Iran Air and to a lesser extent Mahan Air were used to deliver military equipment to Syria and were for that reason designated by US entities as trying to circumvent sanctions on Syria. Moreover, military aircraft such as the Soviet made Ilyushin-76s, were used by the air forces from Damascus and Tehran to further transport military equipment.[161] Until their closure in late 2015, the civilian and military airports in Damascus were the nexus to smuggle arms into Syria.[162]

It should be noted that the major reason why Iran used air transport is due to risk constraints and blockades on land and sea. On the other side, it was mainly Iraqi airspace that was used to fly equipment from Iran into Syria due to its relative fragility, which was – in spite of United Nations sanctions – easy to trespass by Iranian aircraft as the Iraqis were not capable of effectively controlling their own airspace after the Americans had left. Moreover, the Iraqi government reportedly turned a blind eye on numerous Iranians flights making their way through Iraqi airspace.[163] This way tons of military equipment were delivered to the Assad government via the air-route that Damascus and Tehran unitedly launched.[164]

All this shows that Syria was and is the receiver of clandestine Iranian arms and military shipments. From minor gun shipments, to rockets, mortars, shells and tear gas as well as chlorine bombs and Iranian manufactured Falaq-1 and Falaq-2 rocket systems were, various military equipment was brought into Syria and reportedly used by its armed forces.[165]

However the price, having deployed Iranian military personnel and vast quantities of external and Iranian manufactured military equipment all brought in via land, air and sea, Tehran proved its extensive deployment of its various military branches and its strategic supervision over the war in Syria. It eventually resulted in Assad’s government forces regaining strength and taking back strategic parts of Syria, reclaiming former rebel-held territory. These battles included the fighting around al-Ghab, the Daraaya attacks, the offensives around Aleppo and the al-Qusayr invasion that all restored pro-Assad rule over vast parts of Syria, thereby reconnecting the strategically important border crossings from Lebanon to Syria.[166]

These enormous efforts from Iran’s side, however, had the effect of a total Iranian control over the Syrian army. It, moreover, risked to dismantle the secular nature of Syria’s regime and army, thereby putting its decade-old secular narrative in danger.[167]

Even in the case that the Syrian regime does fall, Tehran is determined to have a say in any future government by supplying these military aids to Syria, as it was trying to build up parallel security institutions that would survive a regime fall, so as to be able to secure its interests even in a post-Assad Syria.

Deployment of Shia militias

Most prominently, Iran ordered Hezbollah, Arabic for Party of God, a Shia party and a militia located in Lebanon, to the Syrian battlefield. It is Iran’s best equipped and trained militia supporting Iran militarily where- and whenever needed with its tremendous number of personnel and serves as Iran’s force multiplier.[168] On the other hand, various Shia militias from around the Middle East were recruited by Tehran and sent to help the Syrian cause.

Hezbollah became maybe the single most effective force and has three goals in Syria: training Syrian force, advising the regime militarily, and actual fighting besides Assad’s forces, smuggling arms as well as establishing readiness to hit Israel from the South of Syria. The head of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah declared in 2013, that Iran and his force had effectively the same goals in Syria.[169]

Iran send Hezbollah forces to advise Syrian officials to ensure better military training and coordination between the various pro-Assad actors.[170],[171] Moreover, Hezbollah was responsible for facilitating the general Iranian activity in Syria, such as securing arms shipments to Syria, providing logistical support, training, advising as well as easing Iranian ground forces activity inside Syria. Due to their native Arabic language and battlefield acquaintance with guerrilla tactics as well as skirmishers which Hezbollah achieved during its battles and wars before, it was perfectly suited to complement the Syrian army, a rather heavy and mechanized force, which lacked the skirmishing competence indispensable for withstanding a conflict against lightly armed foes.[172]

Following the springs of 2012 and 2013, Hezbollah officially stated that it was active in Syria during the two strategic battles of al-Qusayr, whose second battle resulted in a decisive Hezbollah win. [173] At that time, its forces were estimated at 5.000 – 7.000.[174] Next to its initial goal of advising, Hezbollah therefore now employed its manpower into Syria.[175] Its main purpose was to directly support al-Assad’s forces militarily by sending its willing soldiers over the border where it carried out various military tasks so as to relieve the Syrian army after it suffered defections and losses, helped by the adjacency of Lebanon and the Syrian battlefield.[176] Consisting of (counter-) sniper operations, military passage safeguarding, concerted clearing action as well as head-on combat with opposition and rebel troops, usually in coordination with pro-government troops and militias, Hezbollah greatly relieved the Syrian army (with those it had its first joint offensive around Qalamoun in the end of 2013) as it was deployed especially in the south of Syria; later even in Aleppo demonstrating its vast geographical deployment.[177] [178]

By the end of 2013 then, as most Iraqi militias were being withdrawn from Syria and were re-deployed to Iraq, Hezbollah played a more decisive role again, when it redeployed its forces and personnel over the Lebanese border into Syria.[179] Hezbollah then had reportedly up to 8,000 fighters in Syria.[180]  It was reported then, that at least 865 Hezbollah fighters died in Syria.[181] Its goal at that point was to have the oversight over strategic parts of Syria in order to disturb logistic lines by Syrian rebels as well as its long-term aim to assist Syria’s military forces in regaining ground. After Hezbollah achieved these goals, then with the help of Russian bombings, Hezbollah deployed its manpower back to Lebanon, however while still upholding some personnel in Syria to train and advise the Syrian’s regime military forces.[182]

The first Battle of Idlib in 2012 was the turning point. The Syrian army was perceived as getting weaker and weaker. This is when Iran stepped up its support to Syria by sending and recruiting Shia militias, Iran’s most powerful and valuable asset to Assad and the cause to regain strategically relevant sectors of the country.[183]

The National Defence Force (NDF), a congregation of pro-regime militias, was established by Iran and to a lesser extent Syria at the beginning of the conflict with Iranian money and expertise and had up to 100.000 loyal Syrians serving as a reserve force for the Syrian army.[184] IRGC personnel boasted to have established yet another Hezbollah.[185]

Besides this militia consisting of Syrians, various Shia militias from around the Middle East were recruited by Tehran and sent to help the Syrian cause. They were motivated by the outlook to defend Shia shrine, by the apparently less extreme Iran version of Islam than the perceived extreme Saudi one and by salaries ranged between 500 and 1.000 USD.[186]

Rebellious Shia groups that Iran supports are many such as Ansar al-Haq, Liwa Kafil Zaynab, Kataib Hezbollah, Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, Quwet al-Shahid Muhammad Baqir al-Sadr, Liwa Ammar Ibn Yasir, Liwa al-Hamad, Liwa al-Imam al-Hassan al-Mujtaba, Saraya al-Aqidah, Faylaq Waad al-Sadiq, Saraya Talia al-Khurasani, Harakat al-Abdal and Liwa Fatemiyoun, which all mostly operate and originate from Iraq and which are ideologously based on Khomeinism, Iran’s founding father’s theocratic ideology. [187]

The Damascus based LAFA, or the Liwa Abu Fadl al-Abbas network, has been established by Iran in 2012/2013 and was Syria’s first major Shia militia, closely linked to Hezbollah and the Sadrist Movement, a religious Iraqi Shia movement and political party.[188] It itself consists of more than ten subgroups- and organizations, which fight on Tehran’s behalf.[189] Another al-Abbas brigade, the Abu al-Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, a pro-Assad militia that seemed to be an accumulation of Syrian and foreign Shia troops, was formed in 2012 and supported the recruitment, logistics, arming and funding of various Shia fighters travelling to Syria from Iraq; later on it then served more in an active and direct combat manner.[190],[191]

Groups fighting in Syria then also included Jaysh al-Shabi, Arabic for The People’s Army, a supposedly 50.000 strong army battling besides the Syrian armed forces. By the end of 2012, US authorities designated and then sanctioned Jaysh al-Shabi, implicating that the Iranian military forces were assisting this Shia militia with military drills, weaponry, other army equipment as well as major funding.[192]

Besides the above mentioned groups there are various other rebel militias (more than 20), which were steered by Iraq, but at the same time, however, highly influenced and supported by Tehran.[193] Most of these groups can profit from their fighting experience against US forces during the Iraq war.[194]

These groups were mainly deployed in and around of (Rif) Damascus, its suburbs, in Aleppo, inside of Homs and between important supply lines, such as the one ranging from Damascus to Homs to Aleppo. In general, this shows, that these groups were mainly deployed in- and outside of the big cities as well as close to the border to Lebanon. That is why Tehran wants to keep its land corridor to Lebanon so as to be able to further supply Hezbollah.[195]

The military equipment these groups received, mainly from Iran, ranged from light to heavy. Various forms of artillery were deployed as well as mortars and various forms of (improvised) rockets. Endless types of small arms and rifles were given to rebels, supposedly coming from the Iranian and Syrian government. Numerous armoured vehicles and even tanks were also seen. Most of this equipment is Soviet and Russian made and found its way into Syria through Iraq and Lebanon. But besides being used for the actual fighting of rebel forces, these weapon system were also propagated on social media as a propaganda tool to lure more fighters. What this shows, is that Tehran was trying to establish regular‐style fighting groups, which ultimately were designed to relieve the Syrian army plagued by defections and casualties.[196]

In order to recruit so many Shias, Tehran and its proxies relied on various tactics, such as internet and direct recruitment: recruitment-posters, -videos and -photos, all appealing to young Shias to join the Syrian cause. These were mainly posted on social media, such as Facebook, YouTube and occasionally Twitter.[197]

This recruitment, which started rather slow in 2012, but was continuously broadened, also reflects on the increasingly heavy deployment of these rebel groups, as only the end of 2012 saw the beginning of mostly Iraqi Shia militia deployments, which Iran sent to advise Syrian officials to ensure better military training and coordination between the various pro-Assad actors.[198],[199] More of these militias were then trained and equipped inter alia in Iran, which resulted in the capability to go for the major offensives seen in 2013, which resulted in the major strategic wins i.e. in the second battle of al-Qusayr. Then, Iran coordinated the deployment of mainly Iraqi and Lebanese units, which trained and fought in Syria. Besides being trained in Syria, thousands of Shias were sent to a military camp near Tehran and then redeployed to Syria.[200] By summer 2013, with the help of Tehran, new and more powerful Shia militias started to emerge on the Syrian battlefield.[201] With Iranian backing, funding and arming various Shia militias with fighters as well as immigrants living in Iran from Pakistan and Afghanistan[202] (respectively constituting the Fatemiyon and the Zaynabiyun Brigades) and other countries were set up.[203] Iran even lured fighters in exchange for salaries and citizenship in an arrangement similar to the concept of the Foreign Legion. Recruitment was, however, also achieved via internet and especially during Shia holidays to reach high numbers of possible recruits and fighters.[204] While the importance of Shia militias was minor in the beginnings of the conflict, their importance grew rapidly with the ongoing of the Syrian war and the resulting deaths and defections the Syrian army had to process.[205] At the end of 2013 then, most Iraqi militias were being withdrawn from Syria and were re-deployed to Iraqto participate in Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki’s Anbar offensive, as the advances made in Syria were judged to be sufficient for the time being and were needed more in Iraq,[206] only to be back in Syria by late 2014.[207] In 2014 and ongoing, more and more groups emerged. With the help of Iran, Iraqi groups such as the Badr Organization (itself claiming to have 1.500 fighters)[208], Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, Saraya Talia al-Khurasani, and Faylaq Waad al-Sadiq as well as Syria-based Liwa Assad Allah al-Ghalib were announced.[209] Moreover, Iran assisted the Shia militia group of Asaib Ahl al-Haq.[210]

All in all, Tehran drilled these militias in Syria and abroad, sending them to training camps simply for supplying them with weaponry as well as teaching them military techniques.[211] Experts estimate that up to 20,000 Shia foreign fighters were send to Syria by Tehran, thereby supporting Assad and his army with crucial assistance in regaining the upper hand in Syria again.[212] Most of these groups were supervised by the IRGC, thereby often working together. These auxiliary forces soon came to save the regime and demonstrated a structured geo-political as well as ideological approach by Tehran.

Economic and financial backing

Although exact data is hard to quantify and there is a lack of reliable data in times of war, there are numerous reports and indications that Iran aided Syria financially so as to keep economic pressure from further constraining the Syrian regime.

In the course of the war, the Syrian economic output has dropped by half in real terms.[213] Moreover, in absolute terms, the total economic deprivation since 2011 is estimated at 202 billion USD.[214] Especially, the loss of oil fields has hurt the regime, because petroleum accounts for 50-60% of government revenues.[215]

Other economic indicators that underline the drastic fall of Syria’s economy is the fact that the official exchange rate of the Syrian pound has plummeted by around 78% since 2011.[216] Moreover, the inflation rate reached around 120% in 2012.[217] Both indicators subsequently eased, however, indicating the increasing Iranian economic help.

Official bilateral trade has never been that tremendous between Iran and Syria.[218] In 2011, Iranian exports to Syria were on the 24th place, while imports were at the 64th place. That situation has not changed considerably in 2016: exports were at the 34th place and imports at the 57th. [219] It has to be considered, however, that official data does not consider military sales.[220] The shadow industry and the unofficial numbers point another picture, as Iran was Syria’s 4th biggest trading partner in 2015.[221] The discrepancy between the official IMF and the unofficial data therefore comes most likely from illicit trading in military equipment and illegal trade circumventing the sanctions, again proving Iran’s unconditional support for Syria.

As the regime is coming under serious economic pressure, a Free-Trade-Agreement was signed in 2012.[222] Additionally, a series of economic and trade talks were held between Iranian and Syrian officials, which resulted in the mid-2015 agreement to strengthen their economic bilateral ties and Iran having a far more dominant role in Syria’s economy.[223] Iran started to supply Syria with food, medicine, equipment for its energy sector, but more importantly with oil and credit lines, although it has to be said that this rather accounted for a war lords economy rather than normal bilateral trade relations.[224] [225]

As the daily Syrian oil production decreased from 387.000 barrels per day (b/d) to less than 10.000 b/d recently, Iran send its crude oil, which as a prolongation of its oil shipments since the Iraq-Iran war when Syria close its border for Iraqi oil, as mentioned above.[226] Syria then refined in its oil refineries to be able to sufficiently supply regime-held areas with energy.[227] Iran send this oil either straight as part of other deals or sold it to Syria under market prices, therefore supplying the regime with essential energy and increasing its chances of survival.[228] [229]

The International Energy Agency (IEA) Iranian oil sales and shipments to Syria commenced in 2014 when they stood at 30.000 b/d, slowly increasing to 60.000 b/d at the end of the year. However, there is a lot of amplitude as crude shipments fell to 30.000 b/d in the beginning of 2015, but then maxed at 125.000 b/d in March. The IEA suggested that in 2014 alone, Syria bought around 1 billion USD worth of oil from Iran.[230]

Beside these energy shipments, Iran’s most crucial economic aid were the credit lines it extended to Syria.  Most prominently, in 2013 Tehran gave Damascus a 3.6 billion USD credit line for oil imports as well as another 1 billion USD for all food and other commodities, which was probably already used by late 2014, when economic indicators worsened again.[231] [232] [233] Besides numerous unproved reports of further credit lines, another 1-billion USD loan was again provided to Damascus in 2015 to counter these trends.[234]

The exact number of other financial backing is disputed, but the United Nations and Arab League Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura conservatively declared that the Iranian government spends at least 6 billion USD annually on maintaining Assad’s government. [235]

Other estimates from various sources and time spans for a total amount given to Assad over the years range from 9 billion to 15 billion to 19 billion USD total.[236] [237]

Monthly estimates, again from various sources and different time spans, range from 500 million[238], to 600–700 million[239] to 1.5 billion USD per month[240].

Another often cited source for Iranian economic aid to Syria is The Economist, which reported that, next to shipping fuel to Syria, Iran had sent the Syrian government 9 billion USD by February 2012 in order to help it withstand Western sanctions.[241]

As sending the cash itself is not so easy, especially after US, EU and UN sanctions were imposed on Syria and are still imposed on Iran and particularly on their banking sectors, Iran seemed to be sending the money and funds through the border with Iraq.[242],[243] [244]

The Syrian sanction regime proved to be the world’s most complicated and holistic as it was amended, extended and widened 19 times.[245] Helping to circumvent Western sanctions proofed vital to keeping Assad alive, as they continuously crippled the Syrian economy.[246] When also Arab sanction were imposed on Syria, Iran further facilitated circumvention for Syria’s central bank and other state institutions.[247] Moreover, it aided Damascus economically by helping to ship its petroleum to China.[248]

Iran has provided huge financial assistance, military aid and oil supplies to Assad to preserve its strategic position in Syria. These measures were, however, complicated by sanctions both on Iran and Syria and the low growth of the Iranian economy paired with historically low oil prices.[249] Rather dwarfed by military aid coming from Tehran, Iran showed that its focus is rather on military than on economic matters.

A coalition of the willing in formation

Iran is not alone in its struggle to keep Assad in power. Besides Iran’s own allies such as Lebanon and Hezbollah, Russia, Iraq and to a lesser extent China make up the pro-Assad coalition.

Supporting Assad’s government and forces militarily, Tehran is closely working and coordinating with Russia. There have been several high-level meetings between Iranian and Russian officials discussing about military strategies and about reaching a political consensus on how to process in Syria. Especially after the loss of Idlib province in the beginning of 2015, when the survival of the Assad regime was concluded as becoming more and more uncertain, the Russian-Iranian cooperation and coordination on ministerial level greatly increased.[250]

Both share the common goal to keep Assad in power as well as reinforcing his army.[251] Moreover, both parties want to be cardinal in a future diplomatic solution and both share a common animosity against the Western world.[252] For Russia it is also important to keep its Tartus naval base, which is the only one outside of the ex-Soviet Union and in the Mediterranean Sea and that serves as an intelligence hub.[253] Having declared that there is no difference in Russian and Iranian interests in Syria and Russia being one of the few powers not to have declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization, there is still a healthy portion of mistrust between the two powers.[254] That is because Moscow does not always stand behind Assad as Tehran wishes.

Therefore, in the course of 2015 several meetings took place. In summer 2015, major general and commander of the Quds Force Qasem Soleimani visited the Russian capital to talk about the details on joint and coordinated military attacks in Syria.[255] This resulted in a task sharing between Russia and Iran as of 2015. The Russians started their bombings in Syria on September 30th as Russian airstrikes and these were accompanied with Iranian ground offensives in northwest Syria.[256] Iran is therefore responsible for sending ground troops and making land gains after said Russian bombings on strategic parts in Syria, together with intelligence sharing and coordination.[257] As Russia claims to hit terrorist organizations such as Daesh, around 80% of its bombings hit rebels, however.[258] And that, although a commercial plane was shot down, supposedly by Daesh over the Sinai island.[259] This task sharing was established in 2015, when Soleimani visited Moscow.[260]  This essentially has saved Assad and showed that the two are willing to escalate militarily when the situation is not in their favour. It also resulted in Russian soldiers being celebrated in Syria and having counterfeits of Putin all over Syria.[261]

Later that year, even Russian president Vladimir Putin and Supreme Leader of Iran Ali Khamenei met up in Tehran after which the two countries were said to have harmonised their position on a political solution for Syria. This backing from the two aspiring hegemons along with deliveries of munitions and equipment is helping to stabilize the Syrian regime. Iranian militaries were also invited in 2015 to the Russian Tsentr military exercise. [262]

There are also economic interests involved.[263] The Iranian and Russian defence industries are highly linked, which makes the two countries geo-economic interests.[264] As Russian arms have ended up in vast amounts in Iran, Moscow also uses these weapons to present its own arms hardware. Apparently, after international sanctions will be lifted, Tehran already has a list prepared worth 8 billion USD for Russian arms.[265]

Concerning direct military cooperation, Tehran and Moscow also agreed on using Iranian military territory. Moscow was also allowed to use Iraqi and Iranian airspace for its bombers and cruise missiles from their way from Russia to the Syrian battlefield. For the first time in the history of the Islamic Republic, Tehran allowed an exterior power to use its airbases in Noje and airspace (which sparked a lot of controversy since the Iranian sectarian constitution forbids any military involvement inside Iran).[266]

Both Tehran and Moscow would like to prepare for a future without Assad and a multi polar world order, reasserting themselves as regional and global players, respectively. However, Russia is bound to Assad than Iran and even weakened the Iranian position in Syria, because Damascus has long sought to weaken Iranian dependence and because Syria saw Iran often as too sectarian.[267] [268]

For China, Syria and Iran are also vital because of economic aspects. As the Strait of Hormuz, located opposite the Iranian coast, roughly accounts for a quarter of the world’s petroleum, Beijing would like to secure future oil shipments.[269] Two of its state-owned oil companies also had shares in Syria’s petroleum companies.[270] Moreover, China helped Syria to circumvent sanctions by buying oil straight from Damascus.[271] In addition, China is one of the biggest arms suppliers to Iran.[272]

Both Russia and China have interests in Syria as they use it to soft-balance against US hegemony. They do so most notoriously by vetoing UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions calling for the ousting of Assad or any military action in Syria due to the recent example of Libya where the West overstepped its UNSC resolution mandate by promoting regime change. Countering any Western effort to punish Assad, this was valuable political and military backing for Syria as the world community had to stand idle by and cannot legally intervene in Syria.[273] Thereby, both keep their Axis of Resistance image and can counter-balance against any US or Western foreign policy initiative in the Middle East.[274]

Together with Iran and Iraq, Moscow also helped to initiate the Russia–Syria–Iran–Iraq coalition, also referred to as the 4+1 coalition with Hezbollah as the fifth member in Baghdad. It is a joint intelligence-sharing cooperation and its purpose is officially to oppose Daesh in Syria, having been formed in 2015 to coordinate and share intelligence about terrorist groups.  [275]

Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and Iraq and to a lesser extent China have shown to deploy considerable resources to prop up Assad and keep him in power. Wishing to defy Western regional hegemony in the Middle East, they have given the regime in Damascus somehow unlimited support.[276]

Riyadh’s strategies towards Syria

Riyadh is employing a wide range of measures in order to achieve its goals in Syria. Being opposed to the Assad regime, Saudi Arabia uses its vast financial reserves to massively fund armed rebel forming the anti-Syrian opposition. Like Iran, Riyadh also supplies military equipment and advice to various groups involved in the war in Syria. Moreover, the Saudi monarchy uses its diplomatic weight on the international scene to nudge countries and actors towards its own will.

Political Support of rebel groups

The secretly leaked Saudi Cables by WikiLeaks have revealed that the Saudis and other Arab allies are concerned not only by Iran’s Nuclear Deal, but also in general by its re-emergence and the resulting rise of Shiism. This is why Riyadh wants to be precautious and counter an Iranian backed Syria by using its political leverage to provide major political and diplomatic support to rebel and opposition groups as well as non-state-actors such as tribes, militias or other political parties in Syria, also due to Riyadh’s concern of Syria as a threat to its national security.[277]

Firstly, Riyadh helped by mirroring the opposition’s goal for a future Syria without Assad. Riyadh was and is sticking to that position also due to Assad violently killing Sunnis, which sparked sectarian outrage in Saudi Arabia.[278] The Saudis furthermore echoed another rebel demand that Assad can never be part of any political situation, a position on which even the Obama administration weakened. The Saudis later had to learn, nonetheless, that finding a credible and legitimate replacement for Assad after decades of political repression of all the opposition was not that easy.[279]

Riyadh’s main job, however, was to unify the fragmented opposition. Furthermore it helped by fully recognising opposition groups and by boosting their diplomatic status and capabilities.[280],[281] Riyadh enjoys great influence and is valued among the Syrian opposition, where it supports all groups making up the anti-Assad and anti-Iranian front: from the relatively moderate FSA to the jihadist Jabhat al-Nusra front.[282]

There is, however, an important trend in the foreign policy approach Riyadh had towards Syria. Being a careful and conservative player, Riyadh waited some time to be sure where and when to interact in Syria. That was in the beginning of 2012, when Saudi Arabia started to form and support the more secular FSA. The group however was a conglomeration of various hundreds of rebel groups, without a clear command structure which often fought for their own benefit. The various FSA leaders were often supported by different Gulf countries, which led to a further diffusion in their battle strength. [283] Their number was estimated at between 50.000 – 80.000 fighters in 2013.[284] [285] [286] As Riyadh grew tired of its infectivity, Saudi foreign policy moved towards more radical rebel groups with Islamist, Salafi/Wahhabi or Jihadi ideologies. What was crucial for political support from Saudi Arabia was the fact that groups would not question or challenge the domestic authority of the al-Sauds and to oppose Daesh and al-Nusra, because Riyadh (as a status quo actor) especially feared their trans-national character. To further harm these entities as well as boosting the status of other groups, the Kingdom designated Daesh and al-Nusra as terrorist organizations in 2014.[287] The same followed for the Muslim Brotherhood as well as al-Qaeda and its various affiliates.[288]

Later on, the Saudis coordinated Jaysh al-Islam, a conglomeration of seven radical Sunni rebel groups and other coalitions of Sunni rebels, most notably the Syrian National Council (SNC).[289] This conglomerate was, however, too Brotherhood-dominated for Riyadh, which is why it formed the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces (NC) stressing rather minority, secular and nationalist movements.[290] Ultimately, the Saudi-supported Ahmad al-Jarba became its president in 2013.[291] The more radical groups of Jaysh al-Islam went on to form the al-Jabha al-Islamiya or Islamic Front, also rumoured to be supported by the Saudis.[292] In advocating recognition for these groups, the Saudis upgraded the reputation, the status and the capabilities of the political opposition to the Syrian regime.

This political support to various Sunni groups had several effects. On the one hand, Riyadh nudged groups to unite, thereby increasing their efficiency. But at the same time, this led to groups undermining if not directly opposing the efficiency of the less radical FSA. Lastly, Saudi support was often thwarted by Qatar and to a lesser extent Turkey, who both backed the Muslims Brotherhood, a grouping Riyadh hated ever since.

Another important element for a political solution for Syria are the various peace talks initiated by numerous actors, most notably the so far four Geneva Peace Talks. Here as well, the Saudis supported the opposition by advising and cooperating with them. As an example of the political power Riyadh had over these groups, Riyadh persuaded rebel groups in the aftermath of the Aleppo offensive to leave the Geneva Peace Talks so as to send a strong and unified political signal to the Syrian regime. Its role during these talks was in general very prominent as Riyadh eased as well as nudged rebel participation for these peace talks and again stressed that there cannot be a political solution with Assad.

Besides the all-present Geneva Peace Talks, the Saudi government also held its own peace conference late in 2015 with more than a hundred Syrian opposition leaders participating. Eventually, these talks produced the High Negotiations Committee (HNC) representing a rather united opposition for talks with the Assad regime so as to achieve a pluralistic Syria with free and fair elections. Riyadh invested a lot of political and diplomatic capital in the HNC, which might have been its most ambitious project to counter the fragmentation of the Syrian opposition.[293] As the Saudis were the main actor responsible in creating and aiding most groups, they also had privileged access to most of them, which they used to further influence these groups in their will.[294]

The Saudis also tried to give a come out for defected Syrians. It welcomed several regime insiders as well as generals. Riyadh held talks with the controversial Rifaat al-Assad, an uncle of Bashar al-Assad.[295] Moreover, the Saudis welcomed the prominent defected Syrian brigadier general Manaf Tlas in mid-2012. Besides these prominent defections, the bulk of defected common Syrian soldiers was used to form FSA battalions, which Riyadh gave special attention by aiding them inter alia politically and lastly Riyadh joined the Friends of Syria, an informal international group that was formed in the wake of Russian and Chinese UNSC vetoes and which actively encouraged defections as well as legitimizing the SNC.[296]

Direct and indirect military aid

The Saudi military can be characterized as a historically well-funded, yet rather ill-prepared for operational warfare. Since Saudi Arabia has no constitution, its sectarian basic laws define the king as the ultimate authority over all defence matters, including the war in Syria.[297] Decades of enormous funding resulted in Saudi Arabia having the second highest import share of global arms after India from 2011-2015.[298] The reliance on foreign military protection, most importantly from the US, is cause and effect of its inefficiency. The Saudi army still seems to run on tribal and regional bases.[299] This and corruption could outweigh decades of modernization and the possession of the latest high-tech military technology. As it has only fought a few wars and these rather inefficient, such as in Yemen 2009, Riyadh cannot count alone on its own military to win the war in Syria. Felling more and more isolated,[300] Saudi Arabia invested heavily in its army, spending more than 13% of GDP (in comparison to around 2% for Iran) on military expenses in 2015.[301] This will rise to 27% of GDP by 2020.[302] From 2003 on, the Saudi military grew remarkably: its army has grown from 100,000 to 200,000 men and its air force now ranks second behind Egypt in the Arab world, while its navy has grown from 15,000 to 25,000 men over the last decade. Riyadh also invested in new material: US supplied M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks and M2 Bradley armoured fighting vehicles for the army; F-15S Strike Eagles, Eurofighter Typhoons and some older Tornados for the air force.[303] This shows that the Saudi government is anticipating a war or wants at least be prepared for one.[304]

As an actor known for fighting for the status-quo and an US presence in the Middle East, Riyadh was impatiently waiting for a stronger US involvement during the outset of the Syrian war. When this did not happen and even worse, the Obama administration hesitated to intervene in Syria after Assad had reportedly used chemical weapons against his fellow citizens, Riyadh appealed to the US numerous times to intervene, provided Washington with intelligence that proofed the use of chemical weapons, and the Saudi King proclaimed that US credibility was at stake if the red line Obama drew about chemical weapons would not be drawn.[305] In the beginning of 2016, the Saudi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Ahmed al Asiri announced that the Saudis were ready to send ground troops into Syria, at a time when Assad’s forces were making ground gain.[306] And again, the Saudis spoke out for a more active US role in Syria. All these moves by Riyadh were made so as to draw the US into the Middle East again and to renew their commitment to Saudi Arabia. Additionally, Riyadh wanted a US commitment to Saudi Arabia in the wake of the Iran Deal. The US is, however, still processing its engagements in Afghanistan and Iraq and does not want to be dragged into another war that quickly again, plus it lists the Libyan example as proof that boots on the ground are not always needed. All these steps, however, did not work to reengage Washington to act in the Middle East and retake its role as the traditional ally and protector of all Saudi causes; Riyadh had to change their usual cautious, defensive and passive foreign policy role into a more assertive, interventionist policy.

Initially, Riyadh also starkly supported the FSA, having some of their units under Saudi trainers and advisers.[307] In February 2013, sizable small arms shipments that Saudi Arabia financed and provided to anti-Assad fighters in Syria were given to the FSA. Heavy arms for example came in from Croatia and were smuggled through the Jordanian border to reach the FSA in early 2013.[308] However, due to its overlapping support for numerous rebel groups, Saudi efforts have at times undermined the FSA on the battlefield.

As Riyadh grew tired of its inefficiency the FSA was dropped and the Kingdom started to support other groups. Groups which were militarily supported are all anti-Iranian and ranged from secular to radical, from Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al-Nusra, Jaysh al-Islam to Jaish al-Fatah. Some, such as al-Fatah, were initiated and armed by the Saudis in 2015 with small arm shipments and later heavier equipment.

Especially after Assad’s increasing reliance on the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia beginning in summer 2013, Riyadh stepped up its military support and increasingly provided significant assistance to these Syrian rebels in the form of weaponry. Using arms shipments as well as arms sales to support the rebel groups trying to topple Assad, Riyadh also provided training at military camps in Jordan, where it also equipped the Syrian and Sunni opposition with well-needed military equipment. Moreover, old Yugoslav weapons were acquired by the Saudis and then brought to Syria through Jordan.[309] More examples include weapons that were purchased from Turkey, Chechnya and other locations.[310] Having in general also smoothed the transfer of weaponry for all anti-Assad groups, Riyadh increasingly supplied heavy machinery such as US made anti-tank missiles, rather than continuously relying on small arms.[311] [312] These examples of receivers of Saudi military support and coordination would not have been able to win over Idlib in May 2015,[313] or declare a joint military command due to Saudi pressure for rebel groups fighting around Damascus without the help from Riyadh.

During the onset of the war, besides military support to rebel and opposition forces, Riyadh also tried to coordinate and streamline its intelligence and military cooperation with other Gulf countries and its traditional ally the USA. As early as June 2012, Riyadh, Ankara and Doha were paying for weapons being funnelled through secret channels to Syrian rebel fighters. This cooperation, however, died out quickly when it became clear that all participating countries in Syria were increasingly fighting their own fight. As a reaction, the Kingdom tried to reinforce their Southern Strategy, aiding moderate rebels from the Jordanian border so as to build a counterweight to the Northern Turkey-Qatar-supported Jihadists.[314]

As there is an unprecedented number of Saudi foreign fighters in Syria, this paragraph will briefly talk about it, considering it an indirect military aid. The case of foreign fighters in Syria has constantly risen, with Saudis representing the majority of foreign fighters. Saudi officials have claimed that at least 1,200 Saudi fighters have travelled to Syria in order to fight the regime. This only happened, however, after Hezbollah joined the conflict and after the battle of Qusayr in late May 2013. Following and intensifying this Saudi inflow, Saudi clerics, as mentioned above, have reminded the Sunni population of their holyduty to support the Syrian rebels. Most Saudis joined extremist, jihadist and Wahhabi groups such as al-Nusra or Daesh, which worried the Saudi government of ramifications when these fighters would return to Saudi Arabia – but Riyadh nevertheless did not apply all measures in order to discourage its citizens to travel to Syria.[315]

Moreover, Riyadh frequently cooperated with the US and more regularly with the CIA to ease the shipments. Together with Washington Riyadh provided material, financial, and organizational support to Sunni anti-Assad forces.

Lastly, Riyadh participated in several military operations with its allies to weaken Assad. The Saudis took part in the air campaign spearheaded by the US against Daesh in Syria, although only a few Saudi bombings were flown.[316] Together with Turkey, the Saudis set up a committee for military affairs to plan and cooperate future operations into Syria coming from Turkish border and it was announced that the first Saudi F-15s would arrive at the Incirlik airbase in Southern Turkey.[317] Rumours had it, that there were, however, more Saudi troops stationed.[318] All this seems to underline that the Saudi kingdom is now in charge of the military cooperation between its Gulf allies, since Prince Salman bin Sultan and his brother Prince Bandar now oversee both private and state support for Syria.

In conclusion, Riyadh allowed the armed opposition to hold back Assad’s forces in several areas during 2015. With a rather strong presence in the south of Syria across the Jordanian, Riyadh wanted to shift the tide, which eventually failed.[319] Ultimately, Riyadh’s military support was not enough; or rather, Iran and Russia too strong, with the result that rebel forces are losing major battles and that they can no longer even hold their ground and their previous land gains.[320] Another result was that more radical entities increasingly overcame the secular movements in Syria due to their superior funding and equipment.[321]

Economic and financial backing

Due to its massive oil revenues, Riyadh is capable to use its vast financial reserves to massively fund and finance various Sunni rebel groups.

It has to be added, however, that due to the recent Saudi ruling family’s move to a younger generation in the succession of the Saudi throne as well as the defence establishment and the foreign ministry, there are many changes happening in Riyadh. A centralization of power combined with a more decisive policy make for a more streamlined approach, apparently focusing more on domestic rather than foreign affairs. Moreover, the country’s economic challenges, intensified by the decrease in oil prices (its break-even oil price rose from 35 USD in 2005 to 90 USD per barrel in 2012)[322] from 110 USD in 2014 to 30-50 USD in 2016,[323] mean that Riyadh had and has to fiscally plan more cautiously, cutting a lot of subsidizes and funding to Syria.[324]

The decreased state spending due to a record state deficit and political changes will result in a competition between domestic spending on education and healthcare versus foreign spending on defence and Syria, which will make foreign policy decisions more debated as scarcer resource will draw on more attention and will bring about social upheaval.[325] [326]

Nevertheless, Riyadh spends a lot of money on Sunni rebel groups and the Syrian opposition so as to politically and militarily weaken Assad. Most of the Saudi funding went to the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces and the FSA, but funding, mostly in the form of paying salaries of rebels, also went to almost all the major opposition groups.[327]

Although Riyadh is officially outspoken against funding extremist groups such as al-Nusra, Daesh or al-Qaeda and has designated these groups as terrorist entities in 2014 as mentioned above, there are numerous reports of Saudi state money designated to benefit the Syrian cause that is being channelled by wealthy private donors. Coming mostly from Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia itself, these donors fund mostly the more radical groups within Syria, which results in more fragmented and extremist rebel groups, who furthermore have to compete for funds, thereby surpassing each other in radicalism.[328] Often these groups just pretend to be radical or Jihadi in order to attract more Saudi money.[329] What is moreover interesting for Riyadh, is that some of these groups are also fighting and have links around the Iranian vicinity.[330]

State funding coming from Riyadh is mostly accompanied by funds from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, resulting in a fragmentation of rebel groups as mentioned above. But Riyadh also allowed Islamic fundraising networks to collect money for the Syrian cause within the Muslim community.[331]

Besides sending money itself, funds also are designated for rebel arms purchases.[332] Examples for Saudi state funding to Syria include a CIA deal, where the Saudis bought and financed arms trough Croatia, eventually sending them to Syrian rebels.[333] Another example is a joint economic package coming from Doha and Riyadh, generously sponsoring the FSA.[334] The rivalry between Riyadh and Doha is also problematic here, as rebel groups compete for funding.[335] The goal is two-fold: one the one hand, Riyadh wants these groups to fight the Syrian regime as the Saudi army is not strong enough for that task and on the other hand, Riyadh wants to strengthen these groups so it will have a say in the future scenario that Assad might be ousted out of office and a political solution will be needed.

Next to rebel and opposition groups, there are also links to Syrian tribes, religious institutions as well as executives and managers, which have been funded by the Saudi monarchy. Even here, actors pretended to be jihadist simply to attract wealthy Gulf sponsors, which are the main sources of funding for them.[336]

Directly and indirectly, through the state and trough private donors, funding went increasingly to radical groups, but could ultimately not halt the regime regaining of strategic parts of Syria.

Use of diplomatic channels

Riyadh has enormous diplomatic heft which results from Saudi Arabia’s role as the leader of the Arab and Muslim world and its huge oil reserves with which it can set the oil price. This is also partly based on Saudi soft power, which it derives from its role as a cultural power, being the custodian of the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina and its religious legitimacy spread by its respected clerics. In addition, Riyadh is founding member and part of international organizations such as the Arab League, the GCC, and the OIC as well as in economic international organizations such as in OPEC or the Arab Monetary Fund. Through these means, Riyadh can exercise tremendous diplomatic pressure, which it also used in the case of Syria.[337]

Historically, the Kingdom has had a leadership role in these multilateral organizations, as the Saudis are regarded as protecting common Gulf interests and are seen as driving a foreign policy for the good of the wider region.[338] They have so done in Syria by coordinating and leading Gulf engagements in various international organizations.

Saudi Arabia has the second highest proven oil reserves and the highest daily crude oil production in the world.[339] This provides Riyadh with the possibility to influence and at times even set the crude oil price. In the case of Syria, Saudi Arabia used the oil price to threaten Iran and Russia into supporting Assad less as well as nudging Russia into reducing their arms sales to Iran. In order to reach an agreement on Syria it was reported that Riyadh would consider a crude oil price around 60 USD in exchange for a serious commitment from Tehran to a peace process for Syria.[340]

It can be argued that the GCC itself was created in 1981 by Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates mostly to balance against the power of Iran in the Persian Gulf and around the Middle East. Saudi Arabia as the leading actor in the GCC was and is also tasked to protect the goals of smaller GCC members such as Bahrain. [341] [342] In the wake of the Syrian war the GCC called upon the United Nations to intervene in Syria and it opposed Russia’s role in the conflict to counter Iranian hegemony. Moreover, in 2011 it called upon Assad to end the “deadly suppression of citizens”.[343] This was succeeded by the famous quote from King Abdullah to “stop the killing machine” in Syria. [344]

Saudi Arabia also used the Arab League to their ends. As its leading member, Riyadh nudged the other members to suspend Syria’s membership in the Arab League in 2011.[345] As a former member of the United Arab Republic and a strong advocate for Arab unity, the suspension was a strong blow to Damascus with its Pan-Arabian philosophy. Additionally, the League used the threat of NATO intervention in Syria, as it had done with Gaddafi in Libya to further strain Assad to bow to reforms.[346] Saudi Arabia additionally increased the political pressure by rallying Arab support in the Arab League to further condemn and politically isolate Assad in the Arab world.[347] In 2011 the Arab League also imposed economic, trade and financial sanctions on Syria, combined with asset freezes and travel bans and the League tried to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court in The Hague for committing crimes against humanity.[348]

Furthermore calling upon Assad to step down, the Arab League proved to be firmly in the hands of the Saudis. It called upon the UNSC for a resolution, which was vetoed by China and Russia, however.[349] This resulted in Riyadh’s decision in 2013 to turn down its seat in the UNSC, which it long aspired and worked hard for. Thereby Saudi Arabia became the first country ever to do such a thing, criticizing the international community for its undemocratic and unmoral behaviour towards Syria.[350]

As a last example of the use of multi-polar diplomacy, the Kingdom was responsible for excluding Syria also from the OIC.[351] Plus, the GCC and the Arab League listed Hezbollah as a terrorist organization in March 2016.[352]

Saudi Arabia also went into bilateral diplomatic negotiations to better the outcome of the Syrian conflict. In the beginning of 2012, Riyadh withdrew its delegation from the Arab League’s peacekeeping mission in Syria (which was equally done by other Gulf countries).[353] Moreover, the Syrian ambassador was expelled from Riyadh and the Saudi embassy in Damascus was closed down later that year (which was copied by Bahrain and Kuwait).[354] As US engagement faded in the Middle East, [355] Riyadh offered Russia not to use a future Assad-free Syria as a hub for their competing natural gas shipments to Europe, if Moscow would disengage its military backing to Assad.[356] Additionally, the Saudi Intelligence Chief, Prince Bandar bin Sultan tried to persuade Russia into decreasing its support for the Syrian regime.[357] Moreover, various high level meetings took place between Riyadh and Moscow in 2015 and 2016.[358] These meetings resulted in an agreement to slow up oil-production and numerous concords in strategic areas such as energy, military and nuclear were concluded.[359] Disappointed by the US, this was also a major change in Riyadh’s foreign policy realizing Moscow’s regained strength in Syria.[360]

The Saudi monarchy even went so far as to diplomatically encourage the Syrian regime to put a stop to its alliance with Tehran in return for improved diplomatic and economic relations with the Gulf States.[361] It approached Iran directly by stating that Iranian officials could visit Saudi Arabia anytime.

Besides various appeals towards the UN, the US and France to engage militarily in Syria,[362] Riyadh approached Israel to balance against Iran in the wake of the Iranian-American Nuclear Deal.

A Sunni alliance in formation

In order to gain more support for its goals in Syria, Riyadh instrumentalized the sectarian aspect and forged an image of we vs. them, of Sunnis vs. Shias so as to rally support from all Sunnis and further demonize Iran as the one enemy. As it presented Iran’s engagement in Syria as meddling in a traditional GCC area of influence, the steady rise in sectarianism is used to polarize the denominations.[363]

Since Riyadh sees itself as the representative and guardian of all Sunnis and even the global Muslim ummah as well as being the guardian over the two holy sites Media and Mecca including the holy pilgrimage, Saudi clerics wield a high moral and religious authority among the global Muslim community. These so-called ulamas (scholar) have always been outspoken against Iran – especially after the Iranian revolution in 1979 – and the regime in Syria as they portray the Shia community as infidels and paint them as the main external (Iran) and internal (Shia minority in Saudi Arabia) enemy of the Saudi state. In the context of the war in Syria, these mostly conservative scholars stressed the religious schism between the Sunni and Shia denominations and denounced the Alawite violence against fellow Sunni brothers. Initially they even went so far as to call for the killing of Shias and Alawites. As these clerics are mostly in line with the thinking of the Saudi regime, they moreover stressed Assad’s and Iran’s connection, saying that on the expense of Sunnis, Iran was expanding its influence in the Middle East. Here the institution of the Saudi Grand Mufti should be stressed, who declared both Hafez (in 1982) and Bashar (in 2013) as infidels and enemies of Islam. To further support the Syrian cause and Riyadh’s efforts, these clerics formerly declared jihad upon Syria (as did the World Ulama Council), and called upon their followers worldwide to send out prayers as well as financial and military aid. Having initially even called for Sunnis to join the fight in Syria, the Saudi government then forbid Saudis from travelling and fighting abroad, fearing external radicalization, as Riyadh had learned from the dark history of Saudi foreign fighters, which constituted 15 out of 19 fighters that planned the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Subsequently, Riyadh’s endorsements of Syrian rebel groups found its way into the mouths of these ulamas as they declared support for various groups fighting the Syrian regime, initially especially the FSA and later more radical groupings. Furthermore, they were supposedly instrumentalized as they called for a boycott of Iranian products and later for Arab governments to fight Assad.[364] [365] [366]

Besides working with its traditional Sunni allies, such as Bahrain, Kuwait and Jordan, Saudi Arabia had its difficulties with finding a common ground with Doha and Ankara.  The original idea was that Turkey and Qatar would be responsible for northern Syria, while Saudi Arabia and Jordan (with their intelligence) would take matters into their hands in the south.[367] This agreement, however, fell apart.[368] On the other hand, the mighty Gulf media constantly called for the ouster of Assad, thereby rallying Arab and international support.[369] Especially with the help of its controlled media and TV setups such as the Qatari Al-Jazeera the conflict was framed in a sectarian picture and narratives were devised.[370] [371] Assad was increasingly portrayed as slaughtering innocent Sunnis to mobilize more rebels as well as try to get more funds from the Syrian diaspora.[372]

Unusual for Riyadh, this more assertive and prominent role resulted in the announcement of a 34 member strong Muslim alliance against terror, the third attempt to institutionalize military cooperation among the Muslim and Arab world after a 2013 GCC military force and a 2015 common anti-terror force by the Arab League.[373] Riyadh claimed that its purpose will be to counter-balance Iranian influence in the region, restore Saudi Arabia’s somewhat flawed reputation in the Muslim world and to create military synergies. The first purpose can be seen in its composition. While all of its members all also in the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, Iran and Iraq as Shia majority countries are absent. It therefore is a de-facto Sunni alliance and a unified Muslim front claiming to be the newest and only true Sunni Muslim representative.[374] But there are also several other reasons why Riyadh was establishing its Muslim Coalition in the first place, besides its anti-Iranian character.[375] Its lack of combat experience and military strategy is one, since Riyadh only took part in military operations during the US-led liberation of Kuwait from Iraq and more recently the Saudi campaign in Yemen. Moreover, Riyadh faces budget constraints due to the low oil price with an estimated state deficit of 87 billion USD in 2016. In addition, the Saudi army, like its civilian labour force, is highly reliable on foreign personnel.[376] Taking advantage of its great influence in the Muslim world, Riyadh therefore invited all countries into its alliance, even though some reportedly did not even agree to join.[377] By doing so, the Kingdom wanted to seem assertive in fighting not only Daesh, but rather Iran and its allies as the collation will coordinate not only in Syria but also in Iraq and Lebanon thereby bringing Sunnis together to counter Shia hegemony.[378]

In the context of reasserting themselves regionally, the Saudis also pushed to form GCC and Arab League single commands and undertook the Northern Thunder military exercise, a massive joint military exercise near the Iraqi border with 20 mostly Muslim Sunni countries and hundreds of thousands of troops participating. [379] [380] Its goal was to train for a possible future land invasion of Syria as part of the Saudi coalition and under the supervision of Riyadh, thereby proving that Riyadh is capable and willing to defend itself and Gulf interests.[381] [382]

Comparative analysis of Iranian and Saudi employed resources, capacities and limitations

It is in this sectarian and geo-political context described above, that both parties tried to outsmart one another, employing vast ranges of their state capacities while trying to limit their constraints.

Iran has invested heavily in multi-dimensional support so as to prop up Syria’s minority regime. While constantly supporting Assad publicly, even in the wake of chemical attacks, Tehran formed a coalition of the willing around its own forces that it deployed to the Syrian battlefield. As Iran had so many interests in Syria, it was willing to deploy all of its proxy Shia militias, which resulted in Iran having control over Syria according to high-ranking defected Syrian regime insiders.[383] To form another puppet state and build up regional leverage, Iran’s policies were by far more complicated, pro-active and assertive than those of Riyadh.[384] As the rebellion materialized, Iran’s experience in supporting non-state-actors in fragile states to increase its influence and holding non-state-actors in power in weak states, gave it a huge advantage over the Saudis who lacked that experience and who had to work outside of existing state institutions in Syria.[385] More advantages for Tehran included the geographical proximity of Hezbollah to the battlefield in Syria, its established land and air bridge through Iraq, as well as the readiness and combat acquaintance these seasoned groups acquired over the last years and who regarded the IRGC as their role model. All that resulted in several major strategic wins for the Iran-led axis. Having had the organizational and institutional capacities it could rely on in Syria, Iran had the capability for a long and enduring civil war in another country, with considerably more diplomatic and intelligence resources at their hands than Riyadh.[386]

Because Iran has proven considerably more committed, competent and coherent than its Gulf rivals in fighting its cause in Syria, Tehran made itself indispensable in future talks and was able to reserve a better position for these talks that will eventually determine the political outcome in Syria, as any deal now will most probably have some form of regime preservation, though which Iran will be able to continuously assert influence.[387]

Having been on a losing streak in conflicts in the Middle East, Saudi officials wanted to prove a point by applying all their state resources in Syria.[388] Nominally the Saudis had the vast Sunni Syrian population as well as most international support on their side. Willing to sway Iran from the US, Saudi Arabia went to great lengths in order to discredit Iran as an alternative partner for the West. This partly resulted in Iran constantly not being invited to diplomatic or peace talks concerning Syria. But just because Tehran was absent, did not mean that Riyadh could freely determine the outcomes of diplomatic talks. On the contrary, the Kingdom’s efforts in uniting the opposition anew and forming coalition after coalition never really materialized (from the SNC to the NC to the Friends of Syria) and the slim chances of a political solution diminished due to the Kingdom’s feuds with other Gulf monarchies, which were partly reflected in the Syrian opposition’s rivalries. These groups were also missing military training, operational supervision and intra-Arab intelligence sharing, all of which ultimately resulted in a deepening fragmentation of the opposition forces, which was at long last too weak and uncoordinated to oppose Assad’s forces.[389]

Riyadh faced considerably other constraints, as it rather reluctantly acted due to the war’s uncertain dynamics, waited for a US response and knew of its own standing and limitations.[390] Being the traditional ally of the US brought both advantages as well as disadvantages for Riyadh. As the Saudis relied on the West to solve the crisis for them, Riyadh joined the US-led coalition against Daesh, but quickly had to learn that Obama did not want to enforce his red-line after the chemical attacks in 2013. This was the turning point for increased Saudi aid, when Riyadh realized that it had to act on its own.[391] In contrast to Iran, however, Saudi Arabia was not used to fight proxy wars and conduct complex intelligence operations during chaotic civil wars. It lacked an understanding of the Syrian society and groups involved and of the dynamics at hand. As a result, Riyadh had to overly rely on external actors, which were less efficient, less watchable and less controllable.[392] The Saudi engagement can therefore be briefly characterized as too little, too late, as the Saudi role in Syria was important and influential but in the end not decisive due to their numerous constraints and the lack of engagement by its traditional US ally.

An advantage for the Saudis was its economic pool of petro dollars to supply, fund and arm rebel groups. While Iran was constrained on this matter by sanctions and a weak economy, as the sanctions removed around 50% of Iran’s oil revenues or 5 billion USD per month.[393] Tehran nevertheless managed to efficiently support rebel groups, although its focus clearly laid on military aid. That was because Tehran was effectively the only instance who did so and could therefore better coordinate than Riyadh.

In contrast to the Kingdom, Iran had relatively few constraints in fighting in Syria. Because many Muslims increasingly saw the Syrian regime as a killing-machine, Iran’s image as a mediator and fighter for pan-Muslim causes got lost, as it continuously supported Assad. Iran’s popularity was decreased substantially as it was increasingly seen as a sectarian actor, willing only to further the Shia cause. No longer was Iran seen as a guarantor for minority and Sunni struggles, such as the one in Palestine.[394] Iran tried to downplay the sectarian character of late, but it was – again – increasingly isolated internationally and in the Muslim world. Paired with its revolutionary Islamic ideology, Iran’s soft power was dealt a hefty setback when this sectarianism impaired its image as an Islamic state.

The sectarian rise also saw disadvantages for Saudi Arabia. Firstly, because the West saw Sunni extremism as more dangerous than Shia radicalism. Secondly, because the Saudi fuelled sectarianism gave ideological rise to Daesh and al-Nusra, which threatened the Saudi legitimacy at home and which already resulted in terrorist attacks on Saudi soil. All that means that the Saudis had to take into account their domestic audience more than Tehran.[395] Domestically, Tehran portrayed the conflict as fighting radical Sunnis that would eventually reach Iranian soil if Tehran would not take care of them now. Although the support for Assad was rather unpopular in Iran due to Syrian regime brutality and the high Iranian human loss in Syria, Iran also lacked media coverage about the conflict at home, which resulted in a weak domestic counter-front to Iranian engagement in Syria.[396]

Unlike Iran, Riyadh had to cooperate with other involved actors such as the West, other Gulf countries or Turkey. One of the biggest constraints for the Saudis were the inter-Gulf quarrels, which ultimately led to the current Syrian opposition being too weak and too fractious. There were a lot of disagreements especially with Qatar and Turkey on how to handle the Syrian crisis. Their biggest point of contention was the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that both Doha and Ankara traditionally supported and which Riyadh historically loathed.[397] As the Saudis worked to discredit the Brotherhood and marked them as a terrorist organization, the two others actively supported it.[398] This drained important resources away from balancing against Iran and revealed the vastly divergent approaches and interests of the Gulf States.[399] Riyadh’s hegemony in the region is often contested in general and met with resentment, which further limits the Kingdom’s scope.[400]

As Iran got it weapons mostly from the third world, the Saudis acquired most of their weaponry from the West. Due to the rise of radicalism and Daesh in particular, most Western arm contracts included clauses and restrictions that made it illegal to hand over or resell these weapons, so that they would not end up in the hands of radical rebel groups.[401] This limitation resulted in a lack in ground-to-air weapons as well as long-range rocket that would have inter alia ended the Russian Air Force’s supremacy and which the Saudis continuously demanded from the US government.[402] [403] Only after some time did the Saudis manage to get new weaponry, however with inferior quality and quantity.[404]

Conclusion and Outlook

After more than seven years of intense fighting, the war in Syria is raging as violently as ever. With the Iranian/Shia/Russian/Syrian axis on one side and the Saudi/Sunni/US coalition on the other side, the conflict has had profound regional and international implications. As sectarian dichotomy was used to polarize and legitimize, it became clear that this proxy conflict and Middle Eastern Cold War (although there is so much direct Iranian military involvement in Syria by now that one can argue about the war still being cold) is rather about political and economic hegemony. Fighting for supremacy, it seems to be that the Syrian army is gaining back strategic grounds in Syria thanks to Iranian militias and Russian air strikes. But it has to be considered that this thesis is only a snapshot in this dynamic and ever-changing conflict and considers the situation in Syria from 2011 to around 2016. New trends emerge sadly almost every week, as new chemical attacks, the first direct US involvement and the ever looming Kurdish question show.

But why is the conflict going on for so long already? And why are there so many dead and misplaced Syrians?

These questions were partly answered in chapters two and three, which explained that both sides, Iran and Saudi Arabia, have massive and above all diametrically opposed interests in Syria. Because these interests are so diverse and opposing, there is no end for the Syrian proxy war in sight. Historically, the analogy of the Lebanese Civil War too can help to answer these questions, as the war would have ended earlier without new Syrian, Israeli, Iranian and Western involvement. A Lebanisation of Syria therefore should have been avoided. But the stakes are too high now as it gets more complicated and more players join in.[405]

For Iran, there is a lot at stake in Syria. For one, Tehran needs the Syrian proxy as a legitimation to fight for the right cause and against the right enemy – Saudi Arabia. Moreover, it provides the Iranians with additional legitimacy as it strengthens the religious cohesion within the Shia and Iran-backed community around the Middle East. More importantly, Syria is of high strategic value to Tehran as it serves as a thoroughfare to Iranian backed allies in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine. With Assad in power, Iran therefore portrays regional geopolitical leverage and can act as a strongman to an increasingly impatient domestic electorate. Lastly, losing a friendly regime in Damascus would remove a stalwart Iranian ally and most probably install a Sunni friendly government. For Iran, a frozen conflict or a latent conflict with a low intensity is desired, as it will allow Tehran to be able to stay in Syria with its own military forces and to show its fundamental, yet unwelcome capability to safeguard regional stability.[406]

On the other side, Riyadh wants to counter Iran’s hegemonic ambitions, especially after Iran is regaining strength in the course of the completion of the Iran Deal in 2015. Assad’s fall would be a strategic blow to Iran and its allies in the region, thwarting their dream of a coherent Shia bloc. Riyadh can no longer allow a Syrian proxy with a Tehran friendly regime or worse a Syria dominated by extremist groups such as Daesh or al-Qaeda who question the Wahhabi ideology and therefore ultimately the Saudi monarchy itself. On the contrary, by toppling Assad Riyadh could reassert itself as the leader of the Sunni and Arab world. Riyadh has, moreover, realized that the real danger is not always Iran, but more likely its own restless population and ideological threat coming from Daesh.

The classic assumption, therefore, that Iran is a revolutionary power and Saudi Arabia is not, is accordingly false as the Syrian case shows.[407]

To achieve their respective goals, both Iran and Saudi Arabia employ similar means. Aiding opposing rebel and opposition groups with Syria as well as supplying logistical, financial, political and military support to various proxy groups, Iran and Saudi Arabia furthermore are trying to build their respective coalition or axis so as to more efficiently fight their enemies. Moreover, both sides are fiercely battling for their interests and trying to be second to none which results in more means being employed every day. With all the vast means already employed in Syria, both sides have a lot to lose and can and will not back down, thereby dangerously throwing the Middle East into long term instability and chaos around confessional tensions.

This is, sadly, one of the latest trend of the conflict, as there are reports of ethnic cleansing and changing local populations, in an effort to redraw the Syrian map along confessional borders and to be better prepared for a post-war Syria. [408]

What the future will bring is uncertain. There will be elections in Iran and Russia in the beginning of 2017 and 2018, respectively. Here, both Rouhani and Putin will have the possibility to reassert themselves again, maybe willing to be seen as strong international leaders, as reckons neo-classical realism, and therefore willing to escalate the conflict again. Or we will two new leaders, who will have different strategies in mind for Syria.

What the conflict, however, showed is that we are in a new era. As the US increasingly distances itself from the world scene, countries such as Iran, Russia and Saudi Arabia are trying to position themselves to be prepared for an uncertain future. Syria is probably the first conflict in a multi-polar world and therefore maybe a glimpse into future conflicts and wars. What the conflict already showed is that there are grave human rights violations, block building with memories from the Cold War and the drastic failure of diplomacy and soft power.


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[1] http://visuals.sipri.org/

[2] Cf. Akbarzadeh, Conduit (2016c), p. 2f.

[3] For whole paragraph cf. Badeeb (1993) and Wehrey et al. (2009).

[4] For whole paragraph cf. Kinninmont (2016).

[5] Cf. Ibish (2016), p. 9.

[6] Cf. Hove (2017), p. 13.

[7] Cf. Hughes (2014), p. 530.

[8] Cf. Gause III (2014), pp. 5-9 and 19.

[9] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 16.

[10] For whole paragraph cf. Gause III, (2014), pp. 5-15.

[11] Cf. Lucas (2016), p. 12.

[12] Cf. Hamid, Byman (2015), p. 9.

[13] For whole paragraph cf. Amnesty International (2016), p. 350.

[14] Cf. Zuhur (2015), p. 144.

[15] Cf. Hassan, Tabrizi (2016), p. 33.

[16] Cf. Nasser-Edine (2016), pp. 105-124.

[17] Cf. Akbarzadeh (2016), pp. 128-142

[18] Cf. Gupta (2016), p. 32.

[19] Cf. Blanchard (2005), pp. 3-7.

[20] Cf. Ismail (2016), p. 87.

[21] Cf. Blanchard (2005), pp. 3-7.

[22] Cf. Blanchard (2005), pp. 3-7.

[23] Cf. Fildis (2012), p. 150.

[24] For whole paragraph cf. Blanchard (2005), pp. 4-7.

[25] For whole paragraph cf. Bhalla (2011), p. 2f.

[26] Cf. Blanchard (2005), pp. 3-7.

[27] Cf. Saikal (2016b), p. 167.

[28] Cf. Hughes (2014), p. 524.

[29] Cf. Walt, (1996), p. 220.

[30] Cf. Akbarzadeh (2016), pp. 129-139.

[31] For whole paragraph cf. Ripsman, Taliaferro, Lobell (2016).

[32] For whole paragraph cf. Ripsman, Taliaferro, Lobell (2016).

[33] Cf. Saikal (2016a), p. 24.

[34] Cf. Legrenzi, Lawson (2016), p. 37f.

[35] Cf. Quamar (2014), p. 157.

[36] Cf. Quamar (2014), pp. 142 and 149f.

[37] Cf. von Soest (2013), p. 629.

[38] Cf. Ibish (2016), p. 4.

[39] Cf. Ibish (2016), p. 11.

[40] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 16.

[41] Cf. Ansari, Tabrizi (2016), p. 1.

[42] Cf. Ansari, Tabrizi (2016), p. 3.

[43] Cf. Goodarzi (2013a), p. 267-273.

[44] Cf. Ansari, Tabrizi (2016), p. 3.

[45] Cf. Ehteshami, Hinnebusch (1997), p. 207f.

[46] Cf. Akbarzadeh (2016), pp. 128-141.

[47] Cf. Ehteshami, Hinnebusch (1997), p. 27f.

[48] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016c), pp. 25-27.

[49] For whole paragraph cf. Sadjadpour (2013).

[50] Cf. Jenkins, (2016), pp. 163-167.

[51] Cf. von Maltzahn (2015), pp. 144-152.

[52] Cf. Mozaffari (2013), p. 215.

[53] Cf. Al-Khoei (2016), p. 2.

[54] Cf. Esfandiary, Tabatabi (2015), p. 5.

[55] Cf. Esfandiary, Tabatabi (2015), p. 7.

[56] Cf. Akbarzadeh (2015), p. 50.

[57] Cf. Tabatabai (2017), p. 23.

[58] Cf. Ansari, Tabrizi (2016), p. 7.

[59] Cf. Goodarzi (2013b), p. 28.

[60] For whole paragraph cf. Jenkins (2014).

[61] For whole paragraph cf. Lawson (2014), p. 1353.

[62] Fulton, Holliday, Wyer (2013), p. 26.

[63] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2014), p. 396f.

[64] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 16.

[65] Cf. Ansari, Tabrizi (2016), p. 7.

[66] Cf. Nasser-Edine (2016), p. 114.

[67] Cf. Akbarzadeh (2016), pp. 128-144.

[68] Cf. Joshi (2016), p. 27.

[69] Cf. Olanrewaju, Joshua (2015), p. 46.

[70] Cf. Hokayem, (2012), p. 9.

[71] For whole paragraph cf. Jenkins (2014), pp. 3 and 6.

[72] For whole paragraph cf. Fulton, Holliday, Wyer (2013), p. 26.

[73] Fulton, Holliday, Wyer (2013), p. 26.

[74] Cf. Pantucci, Stephens (2016), pp. 49f and 51.

[75] Cf. Monshipouri, Dorraj (2013), p. 141.

[76] Cf. Ansari, Tabrizi (2016), p. 6.

[77] Cf. Ehteshami, Hinnebusch (1997), p. 97.

[78] Cf. Goodarzi (2013b), p. 27.

[79] Cf. Odinius, Kintz (2013), p. 648.

[80] Cf. Hokayem, (2012), p. 12.

[81] Cf. Steinberg (2014), p. 24.

[82] Cf. Ehteshami, Hinnebusch (1997), p. 30.

[83] Cf. Ismail (2016), p. 90.

[84] Cf. Legrenzi, Lawson (2016), p. 38.

[85] Cf. Gause III (2014), p. 7.

[86] Cf. Quamar (2015), p. 83.

[87] Cf. Bunzel (2016), p. 8.

[88] Cf. Bunzel (2016), p. 12.

[89] For whole paragraph cf. Gaub (2016b), p. 2f.

[90] Cf. Pasha (2016), p. 393.

[91] Cf. Ennis, Momani (2013), p. 1130f.

[92] Cf. Quamar (2015), p. 76.

[93] Cf. Gause III (2014), p. 13.

[94] Cf. Bardaji (2016), p. 90.

[95] Cf. Adelphi Series (2013b), p. 118.

[96] Cf. Jenkins (2014), p. 1.

[97] Cf. Hokayem, (2012), p. 12.

[98] Cf. Hassan (2013), p. 17.

[99] Cf. Stephens (2016), p. 44.

[100] Cf. Ennis, Momani (2013), p. 1130f.

[101] Cf. Hassan (2013), p. 21.

[102] Cf. Chatham House (2012), p. 9f.

[103] Cf. Hokayem, (2012), p. 8.

[104] Cf. Goodarzi (2013b), p. 26.

[105] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2014), p. 400.

[106] Cf. Sadjadpour (2013).

[107] For whole paragraph cf. Fulton, Holliday, Wyer (2013), p. 11.

[108] Press TV (2016).

[109] Cf. Geranmayeh, Kadri (2017), p. 86.

[110] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 18.

[111] Cf. Ansari, Tabrizi (2016), p. 6.

[112] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2014), p. 399.

[113] Cf. Dajlili, Kellner (2014), p. 398f.

[114] Cf. Hokayem, (2012), p. 11.

[115] Cf. Alam (2016), p. 13.

[116] Cf. Hassan, Tabrizi (2016), p. 35.

[117] Cf. Wastnidge (2015), p. 364.

[118] Cf. Saikal (2016a), p. 21.

[119] Cf. Monshipouri, Dorraj (2013), p. 134.

[120] Cf. Tabatabai (2017), p. 15.

[121] Cf. Ehteshami, Hinnebusch (1997), p. 33ff.

[122] Cf. Akbarzadeh, Conduit (2016a), p. 136.

[123] Cf. Akbarzadeh., Conduit (2016a), pp. 2-10.

[124] Cf. Monshipouri, Dorraj (2013), p. 142.

[125] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 22.

[126] Cf. Ansari, Tabrizi (2016), p. 4.

[127] Cf. Akbarzadeh, Conduit (2016a), pp. 139-145.

[128] Cf. Akbarzadeh (2016), pp. 129-144.

[129] Cf. Akbarzadeh., Conduit (2016a), p. 9.

[130] Cf. Zuhur (2015), p. 144.

[131] Cf. Bhalla (2011), p. 5.

[132] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016a), p. 4.

[133] Cf. International Crisis Group (2013), p. 17.

[134] Cf. International Crisis Group (2013), p. 17.

[135] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016c), p. 288.

[136] Cf. Akbarzadeh (2015), p. 45.

[137] Cf. Saikal (2016a), p. 27.

[138] Cf. Ansari, Tabrizi (2016), p. 4.

[139] Cf. Adelphi Series (2103b), p. 125.

[140] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2014), p. 400.

[141] Cf. Akbarzadeh, Conduit (2016a), p. 136.

[142] Cf. Tabatabai (2017), p. 12.

[143] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016a), p. 2.

[144] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 18.

[145] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2014), p. 400.

[146] Cf. Ansari, Tabrizi (2016), p. 5.

[147] Cf. Ansari, Tabrizi (2016), p. 5f.

[148] Cf. International Crisis Group (2013), p. 17.

[149] For whole paragraph cf. Al-Khoei (2016), p. 10.

[150] Cf. Alam (2016), p. 11.

[151] For whole paragraph cf. Al-Khoei (2016), pp. 11-13.

[152] Cf. Pantucci, Stephens (2016), pp. 47-52.

[153] Cf. Lucas (2016), p. 12.

[154] For whole paragraph cf. Al-Khoei (2016), pp. 11-14.

[155] Cf. Alam (2016), p. 15.

[156] Cf. Fulton, Holliday, Wyer (2013), p. 22.

[157] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2014), p 401.

[158] For whole paragraph cf. Iran Watch (2011).

[159] For whole paragraph cf. Chatham House (2012), p. 9.

[160] For whole paragraph cf. Fulton, Holliday, Wyer (2013), p. 19.

[161] For whole paragraph cf. Fulton, Holliday, Wyer (2013), p. 16.

[162] Cf. Hokayem (2014), p. 56.

[163] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2014), p. 401.

[164] For whole paragraph cf. Al-Khoei (2016), p. 6.

[165] Cf. Pantucci, Stephens (2016), pp. 48-53.

[166] For whole paragraph cf. Al-Khoei (2016), pp. 11-14.

[167] Cf. International Crisis Group (2013), p. 17.

[168] Cf. Lawson (2014), p. 1353.

[169] For whole paragraph cf. Joshi (2016), p. 28.

[170] Cf. Al-Khoei (2016), p. 11.

[171] Cf. Al-Khoei (2016), p. 12.

[172] For whole paragraph cf. Fulton, Holliday, Wyer (2013), p. 22.

[173] Cf. Akbarzadeh (2016), pp. 128-143.

[174] Cf. Akbarzadeh, Conduit (2016a), p. 136.

[175] Cf. Jenkins (2014), p. 7f.

[176] Cf. Hokayem (2014), p. 64.

[177] For whole paragraph cf. Fulton, Holliday, Wyer (2013), p. 22.

[178] Cf. Joshi (2016), p. 27.

[179] Cf. Al-Khoei, H. (2016), p. 12.

[180] Cf. Zuhur (2015), p. 144.

[181] Cf. Joshi (2016), p. 26f.

[182] For whole paragraph cf. Jenkins (2014), p. 7f.

[183] For whole paragraph cf. Jenkins (2014), p. 7f.

[184] Cf. Ansari, Tabrizi (2016), p. 4.

[185] Cf. Hokayem (2014), p. 56f.

[186] Cf. Ansari, Tabrizi (2016), p. 5.

[187] Cf. Smyth (2015d).

[188] Cf. Smyth (2015i), p. 2.

[189] Cf. Smyth (2015c).

[190] For whole paragraph cf. Lawson (2014), p. 1353.

[191] For whole paragraph cf. Fulton, Holliday, Wyer (2013), p. 24.

[192] For whole paragraph cf. Fulton, Holliday, Wyer (2013), p. 19.

[193] Cf. Smyth (2015e).

[194] Cf. Smyth (2015b).

[195] Cf. Smyth (2015g).

[196] Cf. Smyth (2015f).

[197] Cf. Smyth (2015h).

[198] Cf. Al-Khoei (2016), p. 11.

[199] Cf. Al-Khoei (2016), p. 12.

[200] Cf. Hokayem (2014), p. 56.

[201] Cf. Al-Khoei (2016), p. 12.

[202] Around 1 million Afghani refugees live in Iran: cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016c), p. 106.

[203] Cf. Ansari, Tabrizi (2016), p. 5.

[204] Cf. Al-Khoei (2016), p. 12.

[205] For whole paragraph cf. Jenkins (2014), p. 6f.

[206] For whole paragraph cf. Al-Khoei (2016), p. 12.

[207] Cf. Smyth (2015a).

[208] Cf. Smyth (2015b).

[209] Cf. Al-Khoei (2016), p. 12.

[210] For whole paragraph cf. Fulton, Holliday, Wyer (2013), p. 23f.

[211] Cf. Fulton, Holliday, Wyer (2013), pp. 19-26.

[212] For whole paragraphcf. Peterson, S. (2015).

[213] Cf. Butter (2015), p. 3.

[214] Cf. Gupta (2016), p. 36.

[215] Cf. Monshipouri., Dorraj (2013), p. 135.

[216] Cf. Butter (2015), p. 23.

[217] Cf. Butter (2015), p. 24.

[218] Cf. Pantucci, Stephens (2016), pp. 50-52.

[219] Cf. IMF (2016).

[220] Cf. Butter (2015), p. 25.

[221] Cf. Kellner (2017), p. .

[222] Cf. Pantucci, Stephens (2016), pp. 47-52.

[223] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 18.

[224] Cf. Butter (2015), p. 25.

[225] Cf. Alam (2016), p. 15.

[226] Cf. Akbarzadeh, Conduit (2016a), p. 134.

[227] Cf. Butter (2015), p. 3.

[228] Cf. Alam (2016), p. 15.

[229] Cf. Butter (2015), p. 19.

[230] Cf. Butter (2015), p. 19.

[231] Cf. Butter (2015), pp. 19 and 23.

[232] Cf. Pantucci, Stephens (2016), pp. 47-53.

[233] Cf. Akbarzadeh, Conduit (2016a), p. 136.

[234] Cf. Pantucci, Stephens (2016), pp. 48-52.

[235] Cf. Akbarzadeh, Conduit (2016a), p. 146.

[236] Cf. Hokayem (2014), p. 56.

[237] Cf. Syrian Economic Forum (2014).

[238] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016a), p. 2.

[239] Cf. Esfandiary, Tabatabi (2015), p. 13.

[240] Cf. Nasser-Edine (2016), p. 117.

[241] Cf. The Economist (2013).

[242] Cf. Chatham House (2012), p. 9.

[243] Cf. Sadjadpour (2013).

[244] Cf. Butter (2015), p. 16.

[245] Cf. Lacourt, Lester, Parkes, Wilmshurst (2013), p. 2.

[246] Cf. Hokayem, (2012), p. 8.

[247] Cf. Hokayem (2014), p. 55.

[248] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2014), p. 401.

[249] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 23.

[250] For whole paragraph cf. Jenkins (2014), pp. 1-3.

[251] Cf. International Crisis Group (2013), p. 1.

[252] Cf. Lain, Sutgayin (2016), p. 21.

[253] Cf. Ibish (2016), p. 18.

[254] Cf. Lain, Sutgayin (2016), p. 23.

[255] Cf. Lain, Sutgayin (2016), p. 20.

[256] Cf. Lucas (2016), p. 14.

[257] Cf. Ansari, Tabrizi (2016), p. 4.

[258] Cf. Lucas (2016), p. 12.

[259] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 19.

[260] Cf. Lain, Sutgayin (2016), pp. 18-20.

[261] Cf. Alam (2016), p. 15.

[262] Cf. Lain, Sutgayin (2016), p. 19.

[263] Cf. Chaziza (2014), p. 249f.

[264] Cf. Paulraj (2016), p. 105.

[265] Cf. Geranmayeh, Kadri (2017), p. 89.

[266] Cf. Lain, Sutgayin (2016), pp. 18-20.

[267] Cf. Katz (2013), p. 38f.

[268] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 23.

[269] Cf. Talmadge (2008), p. 82.

[270] Cf. Olanrewaju, Joshua (2015), p. 50.

[271] Cf. Garver (2013), p. 73.

[272] Cf. Garver (2013), p. 84.

[273] Cf. Goodarzi (2013b), p. 26.

[274] Cf. Chaziza (2014), p. 253.

[275] Cf. Friedman (2015), p. 4.

[276] Cf. International Crisis Group (2013), p. 36.

[277] For whole paragraph cf. WikiLeaks (2015).

[278] Cf. Adelphi Series (2013b), p. 119.

[279] Cf. Hokayem (2014), p. 47.

[280] Cf. Chatham House (2012), pp. 10-15.

[281] Cf. Berti, Guzansky (2014), p. 28.

[282] Cf. Kuznetsov (2016).

[283] Cf. Zuhur (2015), p. 145.

[284] Cf. Hove, Mutanda (2014), p. 560.

[285] Cf. Zuhur (2015), p. 144.

[286] Cf. Hassan, Tabrizi (2016), p. 33.

[287] Cf. Berti, Guzansky (2014), p. 28.

[288] Cf. Gause III (2014), p. 16.

[289] Cf. Adelphi Series (2013b), p. 122.

[290] Cf. Hassan (2013), p. 23.

[291] Cf. Hokayem (2014), p. 48.

[292] Cf. Steinberg (2014), p. 26.

[293] Cf. Stephens (2016), p. 39.

[294] Cf. Stephens (2016), p. 40.

[295] Cf. Chatham House (2012), p. 11.

[296] Cf. Hokayem (2014), p. 46.

[297] Cf. Gaub (2016a), p. 19.

[298] Cf. SIPRI (2016), p. 20.

[299] Cf. Cronin (2013), p. 3.

[300] Cf. Chatham House (2012), p. 10.

[301] Cf. SIPRI (2015), p. 14.

[302] Cf. Akbarzadeh, Conduit (2016b), p. 179.

[303] For whole paragraph cf. Shapir (2016).

[304] For whole paragraph cf. Gaub (2016b), p. 3.

[305] Cf. Berti, Guzansky (2014), p. 28.

[306] Cf. Mitton (2016), p. 284.

[307] Cf. Chatham House (2012), p. 9f.

[308] Cf. Zuhur (2015), p. 145.

[309] Cf. Stephens (2016), p. 39.

[310] Cf. Zuhur (2015), p. 148.

[311] Cf. Quamar (2014), p. 157.

[312] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 19.

[313] Cf. Kuznetsov (2016).

[314] Cf. Steinberg (2014), p. 24.

[315] For whole paragraph cf. Zelin (2014), pp. 10-12.

[316] Cf. Obaid (2016).

[317] Cf. Obaid (2016).

[318] Cf. Stephens, (2016), p. 40f.

[319] Cf. Hassan (2013), p. 23.

[320] Cf. Kuznetsov (2016).

[321] Cf. Zuhur (2015), p. 156.

[322] Cf. Ennis, Momani (2013), p. 1132.

[323] Cf. Pasha (2016), p. 394.

[324] For whole paragraph cf. Berti, Guzansky (2014), p. 27-32.

[325] Cf. Kinninmont (2016b).

[326] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 24.

[327] Cf. Zuhur (2015), p. 152.

[328] For whole paragraph cf. Berti, Guzansky (2014), p. 28f.

[329] Cf. Hokayem (2014), p. 50.

[330] Cf. Esfandiary, Tabatabi (2015), p. 12.

[331] Cf. Zuhur (2015), p. 152.

[332] Cf. Jenkins (2014), p. 9.

[333] Cf. Al-Khoei (2016), p. 13.

[334] Cf. Chatham House (2012), p. 10f.

[335] Cf. Berti, Guzansky (2014), p. 29.

[336] For whole paragraph cf. Jenkins (2014), p. 9.

[337] Cf. Ennis, Momani (2013), p. 1133.

[338] Cf. Quamar (2014), p. 149.

[339] Cf. OPEC (2016).

[340] For whole paragraph cf. Jaffe, Elass (2016).

[341] Cf. von Soest (2013), p. 629.

[342] Cf. Pasha (2016), p. 393.

[343] Berti, Guzansky (2014), p. 28.

[344] Cf. Berti, Guzansky, (2014), p. 28.

[345] Cf. Steinberg (2014), p. 24.

[346] Cf. Adelphi Series (2013a), p. 159.

[347] Cf. Hokayem (2014), p. 44.

[348] Cf. Steinberg (2014), p. 24.

[349] Cf. Olanrewaju, Joshua (2015), p. 49.

[350] Cf. Saikal (2016b), pp. 165-180.

[351] Cf. Gallarotti, Al-Filali (2014), p. 242.

[352] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 26.

[353] Cf. Hassan (2013), p. 22.

[354] Cf. Hassan (2013), p. 19.

[355] Cf. Stephens (2016), p. 42.

[356] Cf. Jaffe, Elass (2016).

[357] Cf. Quamar (2014), p. 153.

[358] Cf. Stephens (2016), p. 43.

[359] Cf. Friedman (2015), p. 3.

[360] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 27.

[361] Cf. Chatham House (2012), p. 9f.

[362] Cf. Quamar (2014), p. 153.

[363] Cf. International Crisis Group (2013), p. 11.

[364] Cf. Ismail (2016), pp. 83-102.

[365] Cf. Stephens (2016), p. 42.

[366] Cf. Zelin (2014), p. 11.

[367] Cf. International Crisis Group (2013), p. 13.

[368] Cf. Stephens (2016), p. 39.

[369] Cf. Hokayem, (2012), p. 13.

[370] Cf. Gause III (2014), p. 21.

[371] Cf. Stephens (2016), p. 42.

[372] Cf. Hokayem (2014), p. 44.

[373] Cf. Stephens (2016), p. 40.

[374] Cf. Gaub (2016b), p. 3f.

[375] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 22.

[376] Cf. Shapir (2016).

[377] For whole paragraph cf. Kuznetsov (2016).

[378] Cf. Bardaji (2016), p. 91.

[379] Cf. Bardaji (2016), p. 91f.

[380] Cf. Ibish (2016), p. 22.

[381] Cf. Obaid (2016).

[382] Cf. Bardaji (2016), p. 91f.

[383] Cf. Akbarzadeh, Conduit (2016a), p. 137.

[384] Cf. Hokayem, (2012), p. 9.

[385] Cf. Saikal (2016a), p. 26.

[386] For whole paragraph cf. Hokayem (2014), p. 65.

[387] Cf. Goodarzi (2013b), p. 29.

[388] Cf. Gause III (2014), p. 14.

[389] Cf. Steinberg (2014), p. 24.

[390] Cf. Hokayem, (2012), p. 8.

[391] Cf. Steinberg (2014), p. 23f.

[392] Cf. Adelphi Series (2013b), p. 121.

[393] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016c), p. 307.

[394] Cf. Goodarzi (2013b), p. 30.

[395] Cf. Nasser-Edine (2016), pp. 103-120.

[396] Cf. Djalili, Kellner (2016b), p. 19.

[397] Cf. Ennis, Momani (2013), p. 1140.

[398] Cf. Gause III (2014), p. 16.

[399] Cf. Hassan (2013), p. 20.

[400] Cf. Ennis, Momani (2013), p. 1140.

[401] Cf. Hokayem (2014), p. 62.

[402] Cf. Stephens (2016), p. 40.

[403] Cf. Steinberg (2014), p. 24.

[404] Cf. International Crisis Group (2013), p. 7.

[405] Cf. International Crisis Group (2013), p. 32.

[406] Cf. Akbarzadeh, Conduit (2016b), p. 178.

[407] Cf. Ibish (2016), p. 7.

[408] Cf. Balanche (2015), pp. 1 and 3.

 [FH1]Bei kellner bei military support

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