Involvement Of Iran In The Syrian Conflict From A Realist Approach: Analytical Essay

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A Syrian conflict is a major event that appears in the news for years now. It is a wicked conflict that involves numerous different parties, and because many great powers are involved, the conflict indirectly affects a major part of the globe. One of the most important involved countries in the Syrian conflict is Syria’s ally, Iran. By giving a brief summary of the Syrian conflict and a short explanation of the IR approach realism, this article will analyze to what extent Iran is involved in the Syrian conflict. Furthermore, this article will be, based on the moves of Iran in the conflict, analyze whether Iran works as a defensive or an offensive realist, additionally, it will reveal several motifs of the alliance between the two countries. This article will be focused on the period of 2011 until 2019.


For tens of years, Iran has backed the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. Iran supported the regime with military advice, donations of weapons, and both diplomatic and financial aid (Terrill, 2015). Together they have a high political influence in the Middle East. This article will mainly focus on the involvement of Iran in the Syrian conflict in the period from 2011 until 2019.

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In 2011 the Arab spring, an overwhelming wave of protests, broke out and that is when the alliance between Syria and Iran faced one of its most serious challenges. Because the protests evolved into a wicked and interconnected conflict. The whole protest started when several fifteen-year-old Syrian children in Deraa were arrested for writing slogans on their school walls asking for freedom (Albasoos, 2017). People stood up for those children and many protests against President Bashar Al-Assad and his family arose. Despite the threat of arrest, torture, or death the Syrian citizens turned against Assad and protested against domination, exploitation, and suppression of freedom. As the struggle progressed, the citizens noticed that they would never overcome the Assad regime with peaceful protests, therefore, they took on a new strategy of armed attacks. Also, the nature of the conflict began to occupy a strong sectarian character (Terrill, 2015).

Syria started to divide into different parties, pro-Assad and, counter-Assad. The Assad regime who still runs the power in Syria is supported by Hezbollah, Iran, Russia, Al-Nusra, and many other actors. They fight against different counter-Assad groups such as the Kurds who are supported by The United States, the free Syrian army (FSA), and the Sunni’s. Not only do the counter Assad parties fight against Assad but they are also fighting each other which causes even bigger chaos. The Syrian conflict since 2011 was an absolute disaster for the citizens who were living there. Houses, schools, and hospitals got destroyed, every way you turn in Syria there is detritus, people were forced to migrate, and they live in fear every day.

As mentioned before Iran is a very important ally of Syria, therefore, the role of Iran in the conflict will be further explained. Iran is constantly involved in a war, since the birth of the country it has to fight for its existence in the Iranian war. After the eight-year fight, Iran had to deal with constant threats of instability received from its neighbor countries. Therefore, Iran required alliances with other countries that could help it survive in the national system. Because of the Syrian conflict, Syria also suffered the loss of military and financial capacity. Both countries needed help and support, and they happened to have the same interests, an alliance was formed. Iran became a very important member of the Assad regime and has been now an ally of Assad for decades. The relationship between those countries is formed by utilitarian interests and is based on shared strategic goals. Different underlying reasons for this cooperation are believed (Yolcu, 2016).

First of all, Syria and Iran are two countries that share a lot of interests, they both have an anti-Sunni ideology which pushes them closer together and they have corresponding interests in the region alongside Lebanon (Yolcu, 2016). Furthermore, by cooperating with Syria, Iran maintains a very strong position in the Arab world. This strong position will slump when the regime of Assad falls, additionally, Iran would gain several new enemies and lose its allies. Thus, the fall of Assad’s regime will be viewed as a tremendous strategic and foreign policy setback for Iran (Yolcu, 2016). From the perspective of Syria, the aid received of Iran is a necessity to have a chance of overcoming the conflict. ‘

Iran provides Syria with financial support, intelligence support and most importantly military support which consists out of air, ground, and sea dimensions. This aid is crucial for Syria as it has lost most of its military equipment and members of its army in war. Besides supporting the Syrian military with financial and military aid, Iran also helps Syria with its own army. It has supported exporting Islamic Revolution, Shiite takeover of States, and State interference through militias and terrorist groups (Treviño, 2013). Because the alliance is based on the mutual need for economic, diplomatic and political assistance, there exists a strategic partnership between the two countries.

Introduce analytical lens

To further explain the behavior of the Iranian government this article will apply a lens with a realist approach of International Relations. Realism is a school of thought or rather a spectrum of ideas, with several different definitions (Wohlforth, 2008). The theory explains the manner of acting of governments and states and explains what drives their decision-making. Realism knows several definitions in which every interpretation of the concept is different. Furthermore, realism contains a whole family of different approaches. However, this section will first be explaining the shared ideas of the realist approach. First of all, we must acknowledge that from a realist point of view the national system is anarchic (Glaser, 2013). Secondly, it is a necessity for a state to be in a powerful position, a powerful position contains a great military force, a state’s wealth, population, and technological refinement. When a state interacts between those social and material powers, it will be presented with great power. This power is very useful as realists characterize the international system with the possibility of war (Wohlforth, 2008). Finally, Realists see states as rational and fundamental united actors with a significant role in the international system who act out of egoism (Glaser, 2013).

As mentioned before, the realist approach contains several subschools with different ideas. After the development of classic realism, scholars were caused to think more obstinate and more about the concealed forces that drive international relations. In the 1980’s neorealism developed as a subschool to realism (Wohlforth, 2008). This approach focused on the external- and internal balancing of states which contains forming alliances and increasing military force. From this approach, new methods developed which created the so-called ‘realist family’. This family exists of structural realism, also called neorealism, defensive realism, and offensive realism. The two subschools which will be used to explain the involvement of Iran in the Syrian conflict are defensive and offensive realism and will, therefore, be further explained.

Offensive realism is a very competitive subschool of realism. Offensive realists seek to maximize their power (Glaser, 2013). They believe that no other state can be trusted and therefore they attempt to be militarily prepared for potential attacks. When another state increases its power, offensive realists suspect that these states will attack and are accordingly tempted to expand their power and attack first. In an offensive realist world, states survive in a competitive anarchy world in which every state tries to seek the most power. This manner of acting creates a strained and competitive atmosphere in the international system.

In contrast to offensive realism, defensive realism does not seek power to attack other states but to rather defend itself. It is difficult for a state to be secure in an anarchic unsafe world, defensive realists, therefore, seek ways to defend themselves without threatening others. Unlike other realists, they want to build a more peaceful international system (Wohlforth, 2008). A popular strategy of defensive realists to create more peace is cooperation. By cooperating with others, states magnify their military capacities, increase their political relations, and enhance their assurance (Glaser, 2013). This realistic lens of IR will be further applied to the involvement of Iran in de Syrian conflict in the period of 2011 -2019.


To further explore the involvement of Iran in the Syrian conflict after 2011, this article will apply a realist lens from IR. Based on given examples of actions of Iran in the Syrian conflict, this article will give an interpretation of whether Iran works as a defensive or as an offensive realist.

In 2012 Iran donated tens of tons of weapons to the Syrian security forces to fight the rebel groups, and in 2013 Iran and its other ally Hezbollah had trained and supervised local pro-Assad groups to fight other rebel groups in Syria. The longer the conflict held on, the more money and military capacities it demanded of Syria. Syria was running out of financial capacities to finance the conflict and that is where Iran also stepped in to help. Iran has loaned billions of euros to Syria what made the footprint of Iran in the Syrian conflict even bigger (Risseeuw, 2019)

All these actions, the military donations, financial loans, and military attacks, all had the common goals of Iran keeping itself safe. By forming alliances with Syria and the Assad regime, Iran protected itself from a world full of enemies, violence, and terrorism. It does not use its expand of power to attack other countries, but rather to defend itself against potential harm (Treviño, 2013). As discussed earlier in the paper these are characteristics of a defensive realist.

Even though, Iran sees itself as a defensive realist Iran’s neighbor countries do fear that Iran could possibly be an offensive realist. Actions such as the training of the Syrian security forces and the fighting against rebels in the Syrian conflict, make other countries mistrust that Iran is only trying to protect itself. It appears to them that Iran is rather attempting to expand its territory, and thereby attempting to gain more control in the region. However, even if Iran would work as an offensive realist, and try to become the main power in the region, Iran is still not in a position to dominate its neighbors, because the State is not capable enough to transform its expand of power into a strong State function. It would almost be impossible to overcome countries such as the Arab Gulf, as they have tons of money because of their oil built military machines. Furthermore, the Israeli and U.S. interests in limiting Iran’s influence in the region are also a major hold down for Iran to become the main power (Treviño, 2013). To conclude, because of several actions and attacks of Iran in the Syrian conflict, Iran’s neighbor countries see Iran as a threat and a legitimate danger for the regional stability in the region and, therefore, have a misperception of Iran’s intentions (Treviño, 2013).


The extend of the involvement of Iran in the Syrian conflict from a realist approach of IR is major. Both Syria and Iran need each other in order to survive in the conflict, therefore there exists a strategic partnership between the two countries. Iran supports Syria with financial, military and educational aid. By supporting Syria, Iran expands its influence in the region and arouses fear at its neighbor countries. They suspect Iran for wanting to become the main power in the region, and therefore gain this amount of power. However, this is not the reason of Iran for making alliances and expanding its power.

By forming these alliances Iran indeed did expand its influence in the region, but with the goal of safeguard itself and not develop itself as the main power. For this reason, Iran works as a defensive realist. Because of the expanding influence of Iran, it’s neighbor countries do fear Iran using its power to become the main power. They carry a misperception of Iran being an offensive realist. Nevertheless, they see Iran as a potential hegemony, Iran sees itself as a survivor in the dangerous world of The Middle East.


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