Iran’s destructive roll: Lessons from Syria to Gaza

Dr. Muhammad Bakr Ghbeis

The latest fighting between Israel and Hamas militants, including Israel’s decision to storm multiple hospitals across northern Gaza and the armed group’s guerilla warfare tactics across the strip, reflect the latest example of Iran’s destabilizing activities across the Middle East. Indeed, the Israel-Hamas war is drastically shifting the region’s geopolitical dynamics, harming broader regional security and innocent people.  

Yet this outcome does not exist in a vacuum. Rather, it reflects the Islamic Republic’s penchant for operating in and deepening chaotic situations across the region to its benefit. Tehran’s malign actions in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) reflect a long-running trend that has produced negative outcomes across the Middle East.  

Syria offers one example. Iran has directly and indirectly supported President Bashar al-Assad’s pariah regime for much of the conflict spanning the last 12 years, providing military equipment, training, and other assets alongside economic assistance and some political cover in regional and international forums. Multiple Iran-backed militias constituting the so-called “Axis of Resistance” operate in Syria, including Lebanese Hezbollah and Hamas, with the backing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). 

These groups regularly smuggle weaponsdrugs, and fighters across Syria in support of Iran’s imperial ambitions. Such operations use pro-regime elements and other groups at the expense of Syrian communities, while breaking down local societal, economic and political systems the conflict has weakened.  

Rather than support the democratic aspirations of most Syrians — who wish to see Assad removed from power and held accountable for brutal war crimes and crimes against humanity like chemical attacks, industrial-scale torture and disappearance, and indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations — these groups aim to prop up the dictator and his cronies as active members of Syria’s war economy. They steal property from Syrian civilians, assassinate political opponents and other individuals viewed as a threat, and open Syria to airstrikes and other terrorist groups. 

Contrary to public statements, these groups do not work in the interest of Syrians, let alone the Syrian government. Rather, they are an extension of Iran’s externalized security strategy that aims to deter Tehran’s enemies. The Islamic Republic’s imperial ambitions across the region half-heartedly claim to support the desires of the Arab and Muslim street as they actively prop-up autocratic actors interested in brutally suppressing resistance while simultaneously welcoming regional conflicts. 

They are repeating this model in Gaza today. While Hamas and Iran claim to support the genuine interests of Palestinians and their hopes for a future state, the reality is much blurrier. These groups utilize Palestinian resistance to advance their agendas — namely Iran’s hopes for regional hegemony and Hamas’s desire to control the OPT.  

Ultimately, Hamas’s platform and ideology incorporates violent resistance and struggle, no matter the cost. This attitude proved deadly for Palestinians in Gaza, who today face a brutal Israeli military campaign that indiscriminately targets civilians and civilian infrastructure. While Iran has denied any role in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks, it has praised Hamas’s fight against Israel, alongside other militias like Hezbollah, as Gazan civilians suffer under a full blockade and strikes that have killed nearly 17,000 people and injured nearly 40,000.  

While Israel owns much of the responsibility for strikes harming civilians per international law, Axis of Resistance actors play a significant role in this nightmare. Hamas actively embeds itself within or near civilian infrastructure, placing civilians in harms way. Worse, Iran’s cynical efforts to arm Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups stokes conflict in Gaza and the West Bank, the latter of which has seen a concerning rise in pro-Iran groups’ popularity amidst a flailing Palestinian Authority (PA). 

In this context, Syria and Palestine represent two sides of the same coin regarding Iran’s destabilizing Middle Eastern role. Tehran thrives in chaos, actively aiming to deepen instability in support of an externalized security doctrine requiring security problems outside of its borders. This approach shifts security threats outwards and away from Iran. It is operationalized by co-opting the interests and hopes of regional leaders, movements, groups, and countries for its own interests. 

Yet Tehran claims to support the interests and ambitions of the region’s people. As Syria and Gaza suggest, this assumption is far from the truth. In Syria, millions revolted against Assad in support of democracy — moves the Islamic Republic actively worked against. The results are obvious — Syria has mostly devolved into a failed state, resulting in disastrous security implications across the region given Syria’s role as the “heart of the Middle East.” Gaza is another unfortunate repeat of this story. 

Syria and Gaza are examples of what happens when Iran is allowed to take advantage of regional instability to its advantage. The outcome does not support a more prosperous, democratic region, but one steeped in conflict and pain. As such, supporting the true democratic aspirations of the people of Syria and Palestine, as an example of a better path for the broader region, must be paramount to resisting such malign actors. Washington’s leading role is more critical than ever in this regard. 

Dr. Muhammad Bakr Ghbeisa cardiac critical care physician and instructor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and president of Citizens for a Secure and Safe America, a leading Syrian American advocacy and civil society group.