Illustration: Iranian Leader Ali Khamenei meets Syrian President Bashar al-Assad by Fars News Agency [CC BY 4.0] via Wikimedia
INTO THE FRAY: Recent media reports of a series of air attacks on Iranian-related targets in Syria — widely attributed to Israel — have once again raised the question of whether such attacks will eventually convince Tehran to curtail its efforts to set up a permanent military presence in Syria and withdraw its forces, currently deployed in the country.
Conflicting strategic aims
One the one hand, Israel has declared its unflinching resolve to prevent Iran from establishing such a presence on its northern neighbor’s territory — and has backed up its words with impressive deeds, inflicting considerable damage on both Iranian forces and installations, as well as on their Syrian hosts.
On the other hand, Iran is determined to achieve its strategic aim of establishing a Shi’ite land bridge, linking it to the Mediterranean coast, via Syria. The question, then, is whose will is likely to prevail.
Clearly, the Syrian president, Bashar Assad, is deeply indebted to the Iranian regime — since, in great measure, it was due to Iranian forces — and Russian air power — that he managed to survive the brutal Syrian civil war and avoid being ejected from power. However, the continuing assaults on Iranian targets in his country are becoming increasingly costly — considerably reducing the value of continued Iranian presence for Damascus.
Transforming Iranian presence from an asset to a liability
Accordingly, the Israel-attributed attacks are transforming the deployment of Iranian troops on Syrian soil from being a vital asset to an increasingly onerous burden for Assad. This is something, which, despite the Syrian regime’s current weakness, cannot but militate towards their eventual removal.
However, what is likely to be the dominant factor in determining the fate Iranian presence in Syria is the domestic situation in Iran, where the re-imposed U.S. sanctions are taking a heavy toll on the local socio-economic fabric. Galloping inflation and steep devaluation of the Iranian currency, shortages of basic goods, spiraling unemployment (especially among the youth), together with a looming water crisis of potentially crippling dimensions and simmering ethnic tensions, all work to sap the stamina, which the regime may have for sustaining its expansionist ventures abroad — including in Syria.
Thus, while the attacks attributed to Israel undoubtedly inflict considerable cost on Tehran for its presence in Syria, it is likely that the pressure of U.S.-led economic sanctions will, in the final analysis, be the deciding factor.
Will a flap of a butterfly’s wings in Minneapolis cause a tornado in Tehran?
It is thus crucial for these sanctions to be sustained.
In this regard, much depends on the upcoming U.S. presidential elections in November. After all, it is more than likely that a Democratic victory will usher in a far more conciliatory policy towards Iran — including a significant easing of sanctions — than would be the case if Trump triumphs.
Which, of course, brings us to the "George Floyd factor" — and the question of whether the current upheaval in America in the wake of his death, will work for, or against, a Trump reelection.
Will the rampant anti-white resentment, directed against the current administration, outweigh the fear of a total breakdown of law and order that it has generated — and erode support for the incumbent president, who has vowed to restore calm. Or will the converse dynamic prevail and propel a rising pro-Trump sentiment to provide a repeat Republican win?
This then, is the emerging conundrum: Will a tragic incident on a Minneapolis curbside determine the fate of the political order in Tehran — and its military deployment across the ravaged realms of Syria?