Conventional wisdom has led many to consider Iran a staunch ally of the Syrian regime. Iran has offered material and advisory support to Syrian military forces and has used its proxy, Hezbollah, to directly combat Sunni militants and terrorist groups such as ISIS. Yet recent accusations posit that Iranian has offered tacit support for al-Qaeda (AQ) and other groups affiliated with the terrorist organization. Iran has however denied the accusation
Reports of Iranian support for AQ and affiliated groups certainly seem strange in light of recent developments. The expanding reach of ISIS and other Sunni militant organizations has prompted Iran to become increasingly involved in Iraq as well as Syria. Its continued material support for the ruling governments of both countries makes such claims seem quite odd. Nevertheless, reports of tacit Iranian support for AQ surfaced back in February, when the US Treasury Department sanctioned AQ member, Jafar al-Uzbeki, for using Iran to move men into Syria. In the same month, US intelligence officials alleged that AQ operative Yasin al-Suri was funneling money through Iran to Sunni militants fighting in Syria.
It is possible that Iranian support of AQ elements in Syria is part of a complex plan to increase its influence in the country. By offering tacit support for AQ operatives, Iran could well be trying to create conditions in Syria that would give it reason to exercise greater involvement in the country’s affairs. By offering AQ a base of operations for its efforts in Syria, Iran is allowing AQ to strengthen itself. As the strength of AQ increases so does Syrian dependence on Iran.
Even still, such an explanation is merely speculation. The most likely explanation is that Iran is aware of AQ operating within its borders, but remains ambivalent towards its actions to encourage American involvement in the Syrian conflict. Iran might have bet on the possibility that letting AQ do as it pleased would serve as a catalyst for greater American involvement in Syria. It is no secret that Iran is competing with the US for influence in the region. By turning a blind eye to AQ actions within its territory and abroad, Iran was tacitly creating an environment in Syria in which the group could thrive. A thriving AQ is not in the best interests of the US, and would in theory, has led to another costly military campaign that would have further weakened US credibility in the region.