Could Syria become Iran’s 'Vietnam'?

This is one of the ironies of Iran’s role in the region.

Syrian President Bashar al Assad visits Syrian army troops in war-torn northwestern Idlib province, Syria, October 22, 2019 (photo credit: SANA/HANDOUT VIA REUTERS)
Syrian President Bashar al Assad visits Syrian army troops in war-torn northwestern Idlib province, Syria, October 22, 2019
Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett warned Iran that although it appeared to be establishing a ring of fire around Israel, Syria could be Iran’s Vietnam.
“We need to move from containment to attack,” the defense minister said last week.
Middle East focused media is interested in the statement, and it has been picked up by Asharq Al-Awsat and Russia Today.
But could Syria really become Iran’s “Vietnam”?
The concept of a “Vietnam” means being a military blunder, in which a technologically superior military power gets dragged into a conflict by an insurgency. The situation bleeds the powerful country slowly. The term references the French and US experience in South Vietnam and the surrounding countries between 1960 and 1976, but is widely applicable. For instance, Southern Lebanon has been likened to a “Vietnam” for Israel between 1980 and 2000. Afghanistan became a kind of “Vietnam” for Russia in the 1980s. We hear that Yemen is a quagmire for the Saudis, and recent revelations about how the US was misled about Afghanistan also conjure up the Vietnam ghosts.
The term also means a traumatizing experience in which a country, bogged down by foreign war, turns on itself at home. There may be a changeover in power or social revolution. It shatters the status quo and can result in regime change. In that sense, Iran’s role in Syria has real ramifications. Rarely in history has Iran engaged in military adventures abroad the way it has in Syria. As such, the Islamic Republic may have set itself up for Vietnamization because it has committed too many resources in trying to manage Syria, Iraq, Yemen and even Lebanon.
This is one of the ironies of Iran’s role in the region. On the one hand, Iran is seen as complex and all powerful, building new ballistic missiles and drones and threatening the Persian Gulf. It tries to push the US out of Afghanistan by employing diplomatic skills, working with the Taliban and poking at Israel in Gaza through Islamic Jihad. It sends IRGC networks toward the Golan to use “killer drones,” as was revealed in August. Every day brings new Iranian comments about its supposedly vast role in the region. It threatens shipping in the Gulf, downs a US drone, mines oil tankers and sends militias to fire rockets at US bases in Iraq. It even tries to send air defense to Syria and establishes drone and rocket bases. It also is building new tunnels at its Imam Ali base near Albukamal on the Syrian border with Iraq. Unsurprisingly, Iran’s role is seen as octopus-like across the region.
What do we know about Iran’s growing involvement in Syria? Iran is an ally of the Bashar Assad regime, and Damascus is a key conduit for weapon transfers to Hezbollah. Iran sought to support the Syrian regime against the rebels and ISIS. In addition, it sought to carve out massive influence in southern Syria. It established bases throughout Syria, linked to the IRGC. By 2014, it had spent billions of dollars to prop up Damascus. According to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, by 2016 Iran had already lost 500 men in Syria who were sent there to aid Assad’s regime. In addition, 10 senior Iranian officers died fighting in Syria, Israel’s IDF wrote on its website.
Israel says that Iran had up to 2,500 men in Syria at one point. That number declined to less than 1,000 due to criticism at home. Iran sent other Shi’ite militias to fight from Iraq, and also mercenaries from Pakistan and Afghanistan minority Shi’ite communities. Iran’s main unit in Syria was guided by the IRGC’s Quds force and its leader Qasem Soleimani. But smaller units of the Iranian army or Artesh were also sent in 2016. Reports said Iran was paying more than $100 million in salaries to recruits in Syria.
A US Inspector General report said that Iran had deployed up to 3,000 members of the IRGC to Syria, along with another 100,000 Shi’ite fighters. Iran also improved their missiles and drone capabilities.
Israel has increasingly targeted Iranian-linked elements in Syria. In the first years after the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, IAF commander Amir Eshel said by 2017 Israel had struck 100 targets. But by January 2019, this had grown to more than 1,000 targets, according to former chief of staff Gadi Eisenkot. The US also began to notice these strikes increasingly in 2018, remarking on them because of US concerns about Iran threats in Iraq and Syria. IRGC elements fired rockets at Israel from Syria in May 2018 and in January, as well as in September and again in November. A drone was launched in February 2018. Iran also established between 10 and 20 bases in Syria. Many were hit with airstrikes, including one in November that hit the ‘Glass House’ at Damascus Airport, and airstrikes reported near Albukamal.
If Syria has in fact become Iran’s Vietnam – how is it playing out?
Iran has worked hard to support Syria’s regime since 2011, and it has leveraged all its allies in the region, including Iraqi-based Shi’ite militias, and also Hezbollah. That means that in 2012 and 2013, more and more fighters from Lebanon and Iraq went to Syria. Later, recruits from other countries went as well. This was the opposite of the US role in Vietnam. There, the US peak troop strength was over 500,000. South Vietnam’s population was similar to the population of Syria, which had shrunk to 17 m. as the civil war dragged on. Almost 60,000 Americans were killed in Vietnam between 1960 and 1976.
When it comes to casualties and troop strength, Iran has done the opposite of the US in Vietnam – it committed few of its own people. Iran’s strategy is to get others to fight and die for the country. It doesn’t want large body counts. It is reticent to lose its own people.
In terms of spending, however, Iran has wasted vast resources in Syria, estimated to be between $15 billion and $30 billion. There are numerous costs involved in Iran’s complex role.It spends hundreds of dollars a month to fund each of its Afghani and Pakistani mercenaries serving in the Fatemiyoun units. There are also missiles and armored vehicles. One report says that more than 400 vehicles have been sent, along with artillery.
Iran also sends oil to Syria. There is a credit line Iran has extended that may be up to $6 billion. There are hundreds of millions of dollars that go to Hezbollah also, some for Syria operations. Reports agree that Syria changed the way Iran fights wars, and Iran wants a long-term presence in Syria.
That Iran was changed by Syria is clear. Protesters since 2016 have openly condemned Iran for its waste in Syria. Iranians want the spending to end amid sanctions.
The larger question then is whether this could be a Vietnam scenario for Iran. So far, it doesn’t look like it. Because Iran kept its military footprint small and works behind the scenes, its major waste is financial. That has long-term effects at home for protests, and long-term affects for Iran’s role in Syria. Iran wants to establish bases and traffic missiles to Syria. It wants to send precision-guided missiles to Hezbollah. Iran has used Syria as a testing ground for launching missiles against ISIS from Iran and sending missiles and its aerospace force to Syria. But so far, none of this looks like a problem.
Iran wants to colonize southern Syria with influence and doesn’t appear to be losing. Airstrikes on Iranian targets are usually precision strikes, which mean few Iranians are casualties, and usually all that is destroyed is a specific warehouse. Iran can rebuild warehouses, as it has done in its Imam Ali base near Albukamal. It can also replace drones, missiles and air defense. All of this may be a strain on Iran’s economy. However, the real Iranian challenge is not Syria, but its wider involvement throughout the region.
Iran wants a deal in Yemen and has sought out Omani assistance to lower tensions in the Gulf. It also wants to do terrorism on the cheap in Gaza, encouraging some probing of Israel, but not a massive war. In Iraq, Iran is concerned that its local allies are losing influence. Iran seeks a multi-decade entrenchment, not short-term payoff. In this sense, it did the opposite of what the US did in Vietnam. The US thought that superior firepower and flooding the country with soldiers would win the war. The enemy simply waited the US out and built up strength, while the US was supporting a weak and flabby government in South Vietnam.
In contrast, the Assad regime has withstood the eight-year rebellion and enjoys Russian support. Russia provides the air cover and other support, while Iran eats away at the base of the state in Syria, replacing it with Iranian influence. The US never co-opted low level people in Vietnam, nor did it have another ally, a Russia, to help fight the war. Unlike the Việt Minh, the Syrian rebels are not winning and they are not growing in influence. Instead, Iran and its regime ally appear on the home stretch toward victory.
Unlike the support that North Vietnam received, the US is not in Syria to balance Iran. National Security Adviser John Bolton once wanted to balance Iran and keep US forces in Syria. But Bolton is gone. The US has indicated it may leave eastern Syria. Iran is just waiting for the US to leave.
Israel’s role in Syria was not to make it a kind of Vietnam for Iran, at least that’s not historically what Israel said or what reports say Israel did. Precision airstrikes don’t turn Syria into a Vietnam, and Iran isn’t suffering casualties every day. It is suffering some setbacks as its bases are revealed, and it has trouble responding. Iran judiciously husbands its manpower at home. It is not a profligate spender. It knows the Syrian regime needs Iran. All Iran needs to do is help make sure the regime doesn’t fall, and it has southern Syria influence on a silver platter. No one is going to destroy all of Iran’s infrastructure because if 1,000 airstrikes didn’t destroy it over several years, than there is no evidence it can be totally uprooted unless it chooses to do so. As such, Iran may be more threatened by protests at home and in its near abroad in Iraq than by any fighting in Syria.
Insofar as Syria is the “Vietnam” for Iran, then, it is a wait-and-see approach whether Iran’s public ever tires of the regime’s attempts to dominate the region. But Iran’s domination isn’t heavy – it’s about using others. The US and other powers in the West never learned to do what Iran does, as the West tends to mistake massive firepower and the veneer of influence for the importance of slow, multi-decade entrenchment.