In the spring of 2011, watching the groundswell of dissent that eventually came to be known as the Arab Spring, commentators of various political stripes and nationalities expressed hope that the region would move toward democracy. Iran had experienced a similar moment two years earlier, when millions of citizens protested what they saw as the fraudulent reelection of hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But by 2011, Tehran had effectively crushed that movement. As a result, many Iranians watched the Arab Spring unfold with envy.
Syria, in particular, captured their imagination. Under the Assad family’s rule, Syria had been a crucial ally to the Islamic Republic and the country’s only real Arab partner. For that reason, many Iranians who opposed their own government cheered the anti-Assad protests that broke out in early 2011 and welcomed the prospect of Bashar al-Assad’s downfall. Officials in Tehran, by contrast, observed the situation in Syria with deep unease. Fearful that the friendly regime in Damascus would collapse, they committed significant resources to shoring up Assad, deepening Iran’s involvement as the uprising in Syria morphed into a vicious civil war.
To date, Tehran has spent an estimated $15 billion propping up Assad—even as the Iranian economy has crumbled under sanctions for the better part of the war. Additionally, the Islamic Republic is thought to have sent some 10,000 operatives, including combat troops, to Syria between 2011 and 2014. This number omits non-Iranian forces backed by Tehran, which The Wall Street Journal put at 130,000 in 2014. And by Tehran’s own admission, at least 2,100 Iranians had died in the conflict by 2017, including a number of high-ranking military commanders. Today, even as the war winds down, Iranian body bags continue to return home.