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Iran’s Imminent Game: Steering Assad Toward an Inevitable Clash with Israel

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By: Rania Kisar 

After the recent American airstrikes targeted militias in Syria, Tehran found it necessary to underscore the Assad regime’s role and responsibilities in the conflict with Israel, portraying Syria as a pivotal member of the resistance axis. The Iranian narrative justifies the Israeli preemptive defensive actions by confirming Syria’s critical support for Hezbollah and Hamas. Yet, it also highlights the urgent need for sustainable solutions that promise long-term stability and improved living conditions in the region.

While Assad frequently expresses support for Hamas, the Iranians singled out a specific statement from him regarding the October 7th Hamas assault, where he noted, “Hamas pushed Israel’s nose in the dirt, despite all the support for its army.” Assad asserted that the Palestinian resistance acts in defense of Syria, suggesting their struggle against Israel serves not only as a counter to Israeli military aggression but also as a protective measure for Syria itself. He further stated, “The price of defense is less than that of surrender,” advocating resistance over yielding to adversaries, which he equates with suicide.

In addition to Assad’s grievances with Israel over the Golan Heights and the strikes on Syrian territories controlled by Iran or Hezbollah, Assad accused “the Israeli army of seeking to overthrow his government by participating in the Syrian conflict.”

He argued that the Syrian war, along with conflicts in Palestine, Ukraine, the South China Sea, Venezuela, and elsewhere, share a common thread: they are arenas where Western powers, led by the United States, seek to dominate the narrative as a means to control the land, positioning truth manipulation as their foremost goal.

Although, Assad acknowledged “his regime’s alliance with Iranian proxies”, Assad sought to distinguish his regime from groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, and the Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq— the very same groups whose support has been crucial for his regime’s survival—by describing them as “armed non-state factions.” This differentiation according to Bashar necessitates the pretense of making ‘independent decisions regarding foreign affairs.’ The Iranian media then strategically maneuvered Assad’s narrative to portray him as a figure of strength and independence but stressed that Assad is “proceeding in accordance with the agreement and in full operational and logistical coordination with the axis” clarifying that he is cautious and takes minimal measures but is “committed to a full”, albeit “undeclared, support of the war against Israel.”

The Iranian analysis confirms the strategic difference for the Iranian leadership regarding the resilience of the Assad regime and the costs of rebuilding it versus rebuilding Hamas. It highlights that while Hamas, as an armed group, can be more easily reconstituted after setbacks due to its simpler organizational structure, rehabilitating a weakened Syrian state poses a far more complex and time-intensive challenge. This perspective reflects not only Iran’s tactical considerations in supporting these entities, but also its broader and ongoing strategy of creating and strengthening proxies such as Hamas for the conflict with Israel, demonstrating a calculated approach to maintaining its influence and goals in the region.

The analysis explicitly points out that “Bashar al-Assad’s primary task is to try to prevent the return of internal protests.” Assad is instructed “not to start a new war with Israel,” which could thrust Syria into a precarious position that exceeds the capabilities of the resistance axis. This caution was further exacerbated by external pressures, notably “the presence of 30 American military bases” in close proximity, alongside Israel’s “support to the Syrian opposition.” These elements are identified as critical risks that Assad must strategically navigate to maintain his internal power and avoid exacerbating tensions with formidable adversaries.

Iran’s assessment of the complex role Assad plays in the regional security dynamics, framed his role as “an essential channel for moving troops and armaments to Hezbollah and Hamas,” underscoring that this alone makes his participation significantly vital to continue the war against Israel. 

Israel’s acute awareness of this Iranian strategy became evident two years ago when its army began its delicate dance of deterrence, conducting airstrikes to disrupt this flow of military support from Iran to Hezbollah through Syria. The Israeli government several times sent Bashar Assad messages stating these strikes are a response to the threats posed by the entrenchment and empowerment of these groups near its borders. However, for all the precise and innovative Israeli strikes, the horrific October 7 attacks by Hamas operatives confirm that Iran has continued to use the Syrian route not only to provide fervor with weapons but to pass drugs that drive fighters to commit savage atrocities.

To further amplify the Syrian proxy, the Iranians claimed that Assad’s military capabilities are superior over other proxies like Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, and the Iraqi militias. Based on that assessment, the Iranians refrained from directly engaging the Assad army with the Israeli army, noting that such strength from the Syrian side would prolong the war and raise the level of the battle. The Iranians say that Assad’s forces comprise ‘270,000 soldiers and military personnel, “271 warplanes, a powerful missile and offensive defense system, about two thousand tanks, and thousands of armored vehicles, in addition to 47 warships and military transport ships.” Such a formidable arsenal, according to the analysis, positions Assad’s army as a key player that could significantly alter the conflict dynamics—”a prospect the resistance leadership reportedly seeks to avoid”. 

Contrasting sharply with Iranian claims, assessments from defected Syrian military officials, including Major General Muhammad Hussein Al-Haj Ali and Brigadier General Khaled Ibrahim, reveal a significantly weakened Syrian army. Detailed studies and expert testimonies paint a picture of an army with no more than 150,000 personnel, a drastic reduction from its claimed strength, with morale at an all-time low. Furthermore, from the original arsenal, only a fraction remains operational—around 160 out of 700 aircraft, 1,000 of the 2,000 tanks, and severely depleted artillery and vehicle numbers. The air force, once a symbol of Assad’s military might, now reportedly comprises fewer than 70 aging aircraft in need of maintenance. Even the naval force, corroborated by Global Firepower’s assessment, consists of merely 47 patrol boats, with only seven qualifying as warships. Such stark discrepancies between Iranian and Syrian opposition assessments show that Iran is exaggerating Assad’s power to portray him as a leader in the axis of resistance. Such allegations can only be interpreted as Iran’s attempt to create a narrative of deterrence against possible further Israeli prosecutions aimed at ending threats on its borders.

The Iranian assessment linked the American retaliatory strikes against military sites hosting Iran-backed militias in Syria, following their attack on Tower 22 which resulted in the death of three American soldiers, directly to Bashar al-Assad. Iran stated that such actions place Assad directly in confrontation with the United States and Israel. From this standpoint, the Iranian regime specifically hints at the possibility of new battlefronts emerging with Israel, especially on the Syrian front.

The new Iranian strategy, which ignores the reality that the Assad regime is experiencing in order to portray it as a deterrent against further international intervention, confirms Iran’s determination to continue exhausting all of its fronts in order to destroy Israel. 

Despite Khamenei’s clear understanding that any aggressive action by Assad’s regime against Israel could accelerate its collapse, his ambitions remain unchecked, particularly the issue of forcing the Syrian front to enter into a direct confrontation with Israel – remain ongoing. Therefore, the pressing question arises: When will Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, instruct Damascus to go to war with Israel? 

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