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What Exactly is Iran Doing in Syria?

In Syria, Iran is working extensively and spending heavily on choreographed efforts meant to minimize the possibility of president Bashar al-Saad falling from power any time soon. In addition, the state is simultaneously preparing favorable grounds in Syria to retain its ability to harness the resources and spaces available there and realize its regional goals should Assad leave office.

Iran is using its security forces and intelligence services to give strategic advice to the Syrian military, which in turn helps Bashar al-Saad stay in power. So far, the assistance has morphed into an Iranian expeditionary training mission under the leadership of specific branches of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). The involvement of the IRGC’s Ground Forces in a conflict beyond Iranian’s borders denotes the country’s intention and capacity to assert its military power at the international level.

Iran has also been sending aircraft to deliver stockpiles of weapons to Syria. Syria needs that sort of assistance with several resupply roads connecting Damascus and Baghdad unavailable as militia gain significant ground. The military supplies have played a major role in any significant strides that the Syrian army has made against the enemy.

Iran has also been extending help to shabiha militia that’s been fighting on the side of the Syrian government. To some extent, Tehran is doing this to gain a hedged position in case of Asaad’s fall or the shrinking of the government’s grip to just Damascus and the coastal enclave of Alawite. Such an outcome would be beneficial to both the militias and Tehran, with Iran preserving some space within Syria, from which it may act and project its military force.

Iranian involvement in Syria seems to mirror the activities and interests of several other armed groups. A case in point is Lebanese Hezbollah, which swung into direct action in the Syria war immediately after the government started losing control over parts of its territory in 2012. This organization has helped sustain Asaad through its well-drilled military wing, whose activities in Syria mirror the strategic objectives of Tehran.

Evidently, circumstances beyond the control of Iran have meant that the country’s influence over Syria is constrained. Additiionally, it’s highly unlikely that Tehran will retain its current capacity to showcase military power in the event that the war ends and Asaad loses power. However, Iran is establishing counter-measures so that, if and when Asaad cedes power, it can continue chasing its strategic interests in the region. This strategy borders on the use of certain Syrian territories under the control of pro-regime or pro-Tehran groups after the fall of Assad, assuming that rebels will fail to set up full control over the entire country.

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