As Syria Wobbles Under Pressure, Iran Feels the Weight of an Alliance

By: Rick Gladstone

As antigovernment forces in Syria’s violent uprising have increased the pressure on President Bashar al-Assad to step down, Iran, his main Middle East supporter, also finds itself under siege, undermining a once-powerful partnership and longtime American foe.

Bashar Alassad and Ahmade Najad

 

Russia Stands in the Way of U.N. Call for Assad to Step Down (February 1, 2012)
Diplomats Jockey Over Assad’s Future as Syrian Troops Press Attacks Near Capital (February 1, 2012)

In the calculus of predicting the political outcomes of the Arab Spring upheavals, some American officials and political analysts see the possible downfall of Mr. Assad as an event that could further undermine Iran as its economy reels under the sanctions imposed to get Tehran to suspend its nuclear program.

“It would completely change the dynamic in the region,” one Obama administration official said Tuesday.

The departure of Mr. Assad, the thinking goes, not only would threaten to sever Syria from Iran, which has long been a goal of the United States and its Arab allies, but also could deprive Iran of its main means of projecting power in the Middle East. If Mr. Assad were to fall, Tehran would lose its conduit for providing military, financial and logistical support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Both groups, which oppose Israel and are considered terrorist organizations by Washington, have vast arsenals of rockets and other weapons.

Moreover, the sanctions on Iran have severely impeded its ability to provide financial aid to Mr. Assad (let alone Hamas and Hezbollah), whose treasury has been depleted by the uprising and sanctions on Syria. Another senior administration official said Iran had nevertheless tried its best to prop up Mr. Assad, adding that “you would see Assad fall faster if they weren’t there.”

Syria is likewise important to Iran’s efforts to assert its influence over the region, particularly because it borders Lebanon, which provides access to Hezbollah, and Israel, which Iran has declared its enemy.

Ali Banuazizi, a political science professor at Boston College and a co-director of its Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Program, said, “To put it bluntly, if Iran is a threat, then one way to weaken that threat would be to weaken Syria and to help the anti-Assad movement in Syria.”

The weakness of the Syria-Iran axis represents a stark turnaround from a year ago, when Mr. Assad’s grip on power seemed assured and Iran was describing itself as the inspiration for other Arab Spring uprisings and Islamist awakening that would subvert America and its allies. Iran even sent two naval vessels through the Suez Canal to Syria last February — for the first time in more than 30 years — in what the Iranians called a message of peace and friendship.

The uprising in Syria, now in its 11th month, has caused extreme discomfort to Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organization that has been based in Damascus, Syria, for years. Last Friday, Khaled Meshal, Hamas’s leader, left Damascus with no plans to return. Earlier in January, Ismail Haniya, Hamas’s prime minister in Gaza, visited Turkey, a former Assad ally is now perhaps his most powerful regional critic.

It is by no means a certainty that Mr. Assad, who has repeatedly rejected calls for his resignation, will depart soon, despite the increased pressure on him on the streets of Syria and at the United Nations Security Council, where an effort by Western powers and the Arab League is under way to force him aside.

But as signs of his unpopularity have spread in Syria and his list of supporters declines, Iran has been one of the few conspicuous allies of Mr. Assad that has not abandoned him — possibly because it has no alternative. Except for Mr. Assad’s minority Alawite sect, other components of Syria’s fractured sectarian mosaic have no affinity for Iran.

Many Syrians now view Iran as siding with their oppressor. There have been at least three instances in recent weeks of abductions of Iranians in Syria by anti-Assad forces.

The most notable was the seizure last month of five Iranians, whom Iran’s state-run press called engineers but anti-Assad groups said were military advisers. In a video posted online by a unit of the insurgent Free Syrian Army, which claimed to hold the Iranians, one of the men identified as a hostage said the five had been “involved in suppressing and shooting ordinary Syrians,” and urged Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, “to order the Iranian military personnel who suppress the Syrians to be repatriated from Syria, so we can also return home.”

While the veracity of that video has not been confirmed, it suggested a level of resentment in Syria toward Iran that had not been seen before.

Iran has continued to publicly recite Mr. Assad’s version of the uprising — that it is terrorism financed by foreign powers hostile to Syria. Ayatollah Khamenei added his voice on Tuesday, denouncing what he called “the interference of America and its allies in Syrian domestic issues.”

At the same time, American officials said there was growing evidence that Iran was helping train and equip Syrian security forces.

“Our concerns include the fact that some of the tactics being used by the Syrian regime mirror tactics used in Iran against their own population and about increasing evidence of numbers of Iranians in and around Syria,” the State Department spokeswoman, Victoria Nuland, said.

In early January, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force, Qassim Suleimani, visited Damascus, raising suspicions that Iran was advising Mr. Assad on how to quash the uprising. The Quds Force, part of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, conducts operations outside Iran.

Still, Iranian officials have also urged Mr. Assad to show more flexibility toward his adversaries, advice he has basically ignored. While Iran will do what it can to ensure Mr. Assad’s survival, a senior American official said the Iranians would not hesitate to seek a foothold with whoever succeeds Mr. Assad.

“There are certain constraints the Assad regime has that make it unable to reform its way out of this,” said Andrew J. Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and an expert on Syria. “Assad would have to undermine the very people he has to maintain order. I don’t expect it’s going to change now. I think the Iranians know that.”

At the same time, Mr. Tabler said, Mr. Assad’s control has been undermined by American and other sanctions, and the Syrian treasury is dwindling. Given the sanctions on Iran, which have handed Iranians their own economic crisis, the leaders in Tehran are unlikely to provide significant financial aid to Mr. Assad.

“Some time in the middle of the year Syria is going to run out of cash, and it will be interesting to see what happens,” Mr. Tabler said. Mr. Assad’s demise, he said, “would be the biggest blow to Iran’s influence in the region in decades.”

Source: The New York Times

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