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Austin Bodetti

How Iran's role differs in Syria and Yemen war

Iran has chosen to launch its bloodiest interventions in Syria and Yemen [Getty]

Date of publication: 21 May, 2018

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Analysis: The differences in Iranian involvement in the Syrian and Yemeni wars offer insights into Tehran's priorities, writes Austin Bodetti.
Over recent decades, Iran has worked to absorb the Middle East into its sphere of influence. 

In Lebanon, the Iranian-aligned militia and political party Hizballah has established a state within a state. In Iraq, a country once at the centre of the American project to reshape the Middle East, Hizballah-style militias bankrolled by Iran dominate not only warfare but also politics. In Bahrain, the monarchy accuses Iran of fomenting democratic protests.

However, Iran has chosen to launch its bloodiest interventions in Syria and Yemen, where civil wars allow the Islamic Republic to sow its influence.

While observers have found plenty of similarities in Iranian involvement in the Syrian and Yemeni wars, the differences offer insights into the priorities of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which exercises primacy in the formation of the country's foreign policy.

Iran has flaunted its support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in public, feeling confident enough to threaten Israel from its military bases in Syria. In Yemen, meanwhile, the Islamic Republic has denied pervasive reports that it provides any military aid to the Houthis, Iranian-friendly rebels fighting a Saudi-led coalition.

Iran has flaunted its support for Assad in public, feeling confident enough to threaten Israel from its military bases in Syria. In Yemen, meanwhile, the Islamic Republic has denied pervasive reports that it provides any military aid to the Houthis

"Iran has an obtainable objective in Syria: protecting one of its few allies in the Arab world," said Dr Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution specialising in foreign policy. "Its goals in Yemen are far less defined."

IRGC intelligence officer Mehdi Taeb once referred to Syria as Iran's "thirty-fifth province," arguing that Iranian support for Assad acted as the first line of defence for the Islamic Republic's own state sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The two countries have enjoyed a special relationship since Assad's father assisted previous Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini during the Iran-Iraq War, when most other Arab countries sided with Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.

The intervention by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United States – Iran's foremest rivals – in the Syrian war only heightened Syria's importance to Iran. Yemen, on the other hand, has little apparent independent connection to the Islamic Republic.

"Although both Syria and Yemen have been within the geopolitical radar of the IRGC for at least the last decade, the former is much more important geostrategically as it constitutes a bridge to Hizballah and the Mediterranean," said Dr Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, an associate at the Belfer Center, and an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations.

"Iran's Yemen activities are primarily geared towards bogging down its regional rival Saudi Arabia."

Iran's Yemen activities are primarily geared towards bogging down its regional rival Saudi Arabia

Despite superficial religious similarities, the Houthis' ideological and spiritual underpinnings overlap little with the IRGC's.

Shiasm, the religious denomination that Iran has championed across the Middle East, comprises three subsects: Zaidis, Ismailis, and Imamis, often described as "Fivers," "Seveners," and "Twelvers" based on the number of Muhammad's descendants whom they revere. As Zaidis, the Houthis have more in common with Sunnis than with Imamis, who compose the majority of Iranians. The IRGC backs the Houthis for political reasons, not religious ones.

"More so than the Houthis in Yemen, perhaps the Alawites of Syria are religiously akin to Iran," noted Dr O'Hanlon. The Alawites, an Imami offshoot that includes Assad and much of his inner circle, have religious ties to Iran much stronger than the Zaidis'.

Damascus also contains the Sayyidah Ruqayya and Sayyidah Zaynab Mosques, shrines that tens of thousands of Iranian-sponsored Imami militiamen from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Pakistan have travelled to Syria to protect.

"The Levant has more ideological and religious importance to Iran than Yemen, given that the region includes Jerusalem," Dr O'Hanlon told The New Arab.

"Yemen doesn't have any of that. A more strategic consideration is the modern-day geopolitics of pressuring Israel: given their mutual border, Syria plays a big role there whereas Yemen has practically none."

On a more practical level, Iran might have calculated that it can earn a higher return on investment in Yemen. The Houthis have kept Saudi Arabia at bay and retained control of Sanaa, the Yemeni capital, with only covert, minimal Iranian support.

The opposite has proved true in Syria. Some observers have gone as far as positing that Assad only retains power because of his patronage first from Iran and now Russia. According to this logic, the IRGC sent thousands of soldiers to Syria because Assad's survival depended on it. The Houthis, though, could likely survive on their own.

The IRGC sent thousands of soldiers to Syria because Assad's survival depended on it. The Houthis, though, could likely survive on their own

"Iran's dividends from Syria will be much more modest than expected or desired," Dr Fathollah-Nejad told The New Arab.

Though Assad – backed by Hizballah, the IRGC, and IRGC-trained militias – has more or less bested the Syrian opposition on the battlefield, he lacks the resources to rebuild his country, and Syria remains a pariah state in the international community. Cash-strapped and considered a rogue state by many, Iran can do little to assist him there.

In Yemen, Saudi Arabia appears no closer to besting the Houthis now than when it launched a military intervention there in 2015, which Iran can count as a victory. The lessons that the Islamic Republic has learned from the variations of its involvement in the Syrian and Yemeni Civil Wars will define how it approaches foreign policy in the future, a startling development for its many rivals in the Middle East.


Austin Bodetti is a freelance journalist focusing on conflict in the greater Middle East and a student in the Gabelli Presidential Scholars Program at Boston College majoring in Islamic Civilization and Societies and studying Arabic and Persian. 

He has reported from Indonesia, Iraq, Myanmar, South Sudan and Thailand, and his writing has appeared in Motherboard, The Daily Beast, USA Today, Vox, Wired, and Yahoo News.

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