Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 March 2012
Issue No. 1088
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Tehran's Damascus axis

The end of Al-Assad's regime will end Iran's regional influence, so one can expect Tehran to play a full hand before it happens, writes Sheherezade Faramarzi

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Demonstrators gather during a protest against Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad, in Yabroud near Damascus

For over three decades, the Islamic Republic of Iran invested billions of dollars in Syria in financial aid, commercial trade and most importantly military and intelligence cooperation. It set up a number of military installations around the country run by its Revolutionary Guards -- to carve up an influential strategic and political power base in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, one of the main slogans of the clerical regime has been to rescue the Palestinians from Israeli tyranny, and presidents Hafez Al-Assad and his son, Bashar, who succeeded him in 2000, were happy to allow Syria to become Iran's transit route to arm and train Hizbullah in neighbouring Lebanon, a resistance group that took it upon itself to successfully challenge the powerful Israel, the country to the south.

Those efforts paid off, bringing Iran to the forefront of regional politics and putting it at loggerheads not only with Israel and the US, but also with some Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia that has portrayed Iran's predominantly Shia background as a direct threat to the Sunni majority in the Middle East.

The efforts also forged a lasting friendship between the Persian and Arab nation. Syria was Iran's unwavering ally during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s; it took the side of Iran in almost every Arab dispute.

Now with the prospect of Bashar Al-Assad being toppled, all those investments and strategy are in jeopardy. More importantly, his ouster would be, as analyst Amal Saad-Ghorayeb describes it, a "quasi-existential" threat to the Iranian regime -- isolating it further internationally and weakening it both regionally and domestically.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made his position clear from the start of the crisis: "Our stance is clear: wherever a movement is Islamic, popular and anti-American, we support it."

Without mentioning Syria by name, he said: "If somewhere a movement is provoked by America and Zionists, we will not support it. Wherever America and the Zionists enter the scene to topple a regime and occupy a country, we are on the opposite side."

At the beginning of the unrest last year, the US -- and Israel -- were happy for Al-Assad to remain in power. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even described him as a reformer. They had hoped that a weakened Al-Assad would strike a grand bargain: they would refrain from supporting the opposition in return for Al-Assad giving up Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas. When Al-Assad refused -- as he's done since 2000 -- US pressure on him became relentless.

The US strategy to weaken Al-Assad was highlighted in US embassy documents that were made public by WikiLeaks. In one section, a US diplomat proposed to play on the fears of Sunni Syrians after reports circulated -- "though often exaggerated" -- "that Iranians were active in both Shia proselytising and conversion of mostly poor Sunnis." "We should coordinate more closely with [Egyptian and Saudi] governments on ways to better publicise and focus regional attention on the issue," suggested the report's author.

Even more worrisome for the Iranian regime is that it could be the next to fall. Already, Iran has seen a tremendous decline in its regional clout, with Hamas, the Palestinian resistance group that Iran supported financially for many years, having left the so-called "resistance axis".

The Arab uprisings that have swept through the region in the past year have damaged Iran's public image and "glory" among the Arab population, who viewed the Iranian regime as the defender of their rights with its defiance against America. Arabs are now more concerned about achieving democracy and reform or overthrowing their nations' dictators, some of which were supported by the US.

The question of Palestine, meanwhile, has taken a backseat for now. Iran's unconditional support for the Al-Assad regime against protesters who had initially merely asked for political reforms will not be lost on the Arab street, which is taking matters into its own hands. So Iran's survival very much depends on the Syrian regime's survival. It will not give up on Al-Assad easily, but how much more can it do to keep him in power?

Earlier in the crisis, Iranian officials offered to mediate between Al-Assad's government and the Muslim Brotherhood, which is among the opposition groups fighting the regime. The brotherhood in Syria, whose branch is reportedly one of the most hostile to Iran, swiftly rejected the offer.

For the time being, Iran will probably take a wait-and-see position, as does the West and Israel, much to the chagrin of Saudi Arabia and Qatar who advocate arming the opposition immediately. Al-Assad still has a relatively widespread support base throughout Syria -- mainly his fellow Alawites, an offshoot of the Shia Islam, Christians, many Kurds and other minorities, as well as the Sunni merchant community. Other Sunnis who support him may do so out of fear of a civil war or uncertainty of who may replace him, a sentiment partly shared by the Americans and Israelis. Since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, Israel has relied on the Al-Assads (father and son) for honouring an informal truce on the Golan Heights.

Although there's barely any evidence that the Iranians have any direct or military role in the repression of Syrian protests, there are indications that they are supplying the government with intelligence assistance.

Shahin Nourbakhsh, a Lebanon-based Iranian blogger and activist, claims Tehran is hacking the e-mails of Syrian opposition figures and is engaged in cyber espionage. "The Syrians are not in need of military assistance because they are not facing a sophisticated armed opposition," said Nourbakhsh. "The local opposition are more active in social networking."

Even their military assistance, analysts agree, is in the form of giving advice to the Syrian army and security. Also, according to an official in the Iranian foreign ministry six months ago, Iranians were transferring their expertise on security matters following their own crackdown on the Iranian opposition following 2009's disputed presidential election.

The commander of the Quds Force, the Revolutionary Guard's external operations wing, paid at least one visit to Damascus in recent weeks. Unconfirmed reports have even claimed that the commander, Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani, was in Syria for the fourth time this past month and met with President Al-Assad.

The Guards, or sepah as they are known in Iran, is one of the regime's most powerful institutions with extensive economic and financial interests across the country. It is in charge of Iran's foreign policy in so-called sensitive countries, such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. The ambassadors to these countries are either former or current sepah commanders, not career diplomats appointed by Iran's foreign ministry.

The Sepah -- by way of Ayatollah Khamenei -- is also in charge of policies vis-³-vis the United States and the nuclear issue.

The current Iranian ambassador to Damascus, Mohamedreza Shaybani, is a former top diplomat to Lebanon who was dispatched to Syria at the height of the crisis in August and receives orders directly from the Quds Force in Tehran.

While the US has military bases in more than 140 countries, Iran boasts of a number of known and secret sepah bases in Syria, including one in Deir Al-Zour in eastern Syria, near the Iraq border, where Israel bombed a nuclear reactor in 2007. The largest base is in Zabadani, near the Syrian-Lebanese border, perched on a mountaintop in a closed 20-kilometre perimeter on the road to Damascus.

Rebel forces briefly captured Zabadani area earlier this year and it's unclear if the Iranian sepah forces are still there.

Iran also has a base near the Golan Heights and the Iranian Defence Ministry has facilities in Damascus.

Iran's financial aid to Syria is crucial at a time when Syria is under an oil embargo, with restrictions on flights and sanctions against the central bank for attacking civilians. Iran's leading automaker, Iran Khodro, has a plant in Damascus under the name of SIAMCO, or Syrian-Iranian Motor Company. Observers speculate that in addition to producing civilian vehicles, the plant also manufactures military equipment. The claim, however, cannot be substantiated.

According to two-month-old documents obtained by the Israeli Haaretz newspaper, Iran has delivered $1 billion to the Al-Assad regime to bypass sanctions. The cash from Iran, which itself is a target of severe international embargo, will be used to pay the salaries of tens of thousands of officials and security officials loyal to President Al-Assad.

Also, Haaretz said, Iran will export to Syria fertiliser and raw materials for the petrochemical industry and will purchase 150,000 barrels of oil from Syria per day for a year "to use it domestically or resell to others." This way, Syria will be able to continue to export oil despite the sanctions.

There's not much more Iran can do to help Syria. Over the past decades, especially in the past year, Iran has become too contaminated in Al-Assad's domestic issues and more recently in his brutal suppression of the opposition that has claimed the lives of more than 7,000.

Tehran itself is a target of a possible Israeli or US attack over its nuclear weapons programme. With the weakening or the ouster of Al-Assad, that possibility may increase. However, there have been suggestions by Israeli officials that if Al-Assad is overthrown, there will be no need to strike Iran since Iran will no longer pose a threat.

What will determine the outcome of the Syrian crisis is, therefore, not Iran, nor the Gulf Arab states, but the United States, which until now has been reluctant to arm the fractious opposition made up of incoherent, confused, disorganised and untrained groups inside and outside the country.

The Free Syrian Army, made up of exiled Syrian army officers, defectors and militias, by no means control any significant territory, albeit because of lack of sophisticated weapons.

The US -- as well as Israel -- is also worried about Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafis, which are among the armed opposition. "We still have a very strong opposition to foreign intervention from inside Syria, from outside Syria," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told the BBC recently.

"We have a very dangerous set of actors in the region, Al-Qaeda, Hamas̉ê¦ claiming to support the opposition. You have many Syrians more worried about what could come next. I think that there's every possibility of a civil war. Outside intervention would not prevent that; it would probably expedite it," said Clinton.

She also admitted that Al-Assad enjoys support inside the country. "We don't know which way to jump and are scared about what might come after, the opposition, which doesn't have any place that can really be a base of operations."

Even if her country agreed to arm the opposition, she said, "What are we going to arm them with?... We're not going to bring tanks over the borders of Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan. That's not going to happen.

"So maybe at best you can smuggle in, you know, automatic weapons. Maybe some other weapons that you could get in. To whom? Where do you go?" said Clinton.

Saad-Ghorayeb and Nourbaksh agree that the Americans have already taken some steps back in the Syrian crisis. "We're witnessing back-peddling on the part of foreign backers of the opposition," said Saad-Ghorayeb, adding that it indicated "a kind of preventive diplomacy". She said in addition to refusing to arm the opposition and calling Al-Assad a war criminal, they have also objected to the Gulf countries' demand to station Arab peacekeeping troops in Syria.

"They've increasingly become stuck between a rock and a hard place. And this might bode well for a resolution," she added.

Paris-based Iranian journalist Ali Mohtadi says before the Americans take any military action or arm the rebels, they need to see the opposition firmly united and willing to guarantee Israel's security. "They are still at the talking stage," he said.

"Clearly if there turns out to be a radically Sunni regime there, that would be very worrisome for them [the Israelis], but I think they are hoping it would be a more Saudi-type regime -- radical when it comes to its internal interpretation of religion and society, but that it is very pliant when it comes to submitting to American and Israeli interests in the region," said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council (NIAC) in Washington.

"Whatever money that's being coming in (to the opposition), there's also Saudi ideology coming in. And that has a reaction inside Syria and you can see it right now when you talk to people of various religious minorities in Syria. You don't see any love for Al-Assad, you see a lot of fear of a situation in which it will fall into the hands of a Sunni majority that is beholden to the Salafis in Saudi Arabia," said Parsi.

The possible and eventual fall of Al-Assad will be the end of Iranian influence in the region, at least in the short term. It will almost certainly unleash a sectarian conflict in the region, if not an outright war. Already a proxy war is being waged on Syrian soil between Iran and its main regional rival, Saudi Arabia.

"Unlike Libya, Syria is of strategic importance, sitting at the centre of ethnic, religious and regional rivalries that give it the potential to become a whirlpool that draws in powers, great and small, in the region and beyond," said Parsi.

Saudi Arabia's principal aim of intervening in Syria, Iran's only Arab ally, is to alter the regional balance of power away from Iran. It reckons when Iran is weakened, the fear of its own Shias in the Eastern Province rising against its rulers will be diminished.

The question is how far the Islamic Republic is prepared to go -- and sacrifice -- to save the Al-Assad regime.

"I think [the Iranians] are committed to making sure that Syria does not end up having a pro-Saudi, pro-American regime," said Parsi. "And if that means accepting that Al-Assad falls, but that there are other elements within his power establishment that take power and then they use their influence with them to strike a compromise. That is certainly a scenario. I don't know if it's the scenario for the short term."

Although very unlikely, Mohtadi said the only way the Syrian army would stage a coup against Al-Assad would be if it were "bought" by Iran or America. "If Iran reaches the conclusion that with Al-Assad's departure a lot of its problems will be addressed, then it may well help stage a coup."

However, he added, the Syrian army is under total control of the Al-Assad family and doesn't appear to be cracking.

In the event of Al-Assad's fall, Saad-Ghorayeb warned: "Iran can set the region on fire if it wants." She said Iran has many cards to play, including causing trouble in Iraq or inciting Shias in the Persian Gulf against their Sunni rulers, such as in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

In such an event, Nourbakhsh said, Iran will have to find a new strategic ally to use against the US and the Gulf states in order to retain its regional power. The only obvious one would be Iraq, even though unlike Syria it has no borders with Israel or Lebanon, but with the help of its Shia majority can exercise its ideological and sectarian influences.

Only time will tell which direction the Syrian crisis takes. As regional and international powers try to reach an agreement to their advantage, ordinary Syrian people will continue to suffer and die.

The local and peaceful opposition -- who initially were genuinely demanding reform and freedom -- see their cause hijacked by bigger and more powerful players inside and outside the country. Al-Assad's mistake was to launch a bloody retaliation against them instead of agreeing to dialogue, prompting them to demand nothing less than his ouster. Al-Assad even ignored his staunch Iranian supporters who advised him to reform.

The Syrian army remains strong and intact. The opposition will continue to receive light arms from the Saudis and others. As a result, Saad-Ghorayeb believes there may be gradual wearing down of the opposition, especially the local opposition, which may eventually relinquish its precondition of Al-Assad's ouster and enter a dialogue with the regime.

Saad-Ghorayeb envisages Qatar, which along with Saudi Arabia insists on arming the opposition, "flip flopping" as it's done in the past and taking a more neutral role, or at the very least stepping aside. "If foreign powers, especially Western powers, realise that there's so little they can do ̉ê¦ The real problem I think now isn't so much for military intervention but rather how much Arabs are willing to equip and arm the opposition and to what extent is this attack against the regime is going to get worse; is civil war going to spread further?" she said.

Meanwhile, a low intensity war will simmer for some time to come, with no winners. Innocent civilians will bear the brunt of this insane conflict that like a vacuum sucked in so many actors. Only time will tell the outcome.

The writer is a Middle East-based journalist and analyst who has covered the region since 1978.

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