guardian.co.uk, 8 Feb 2012 - If Iran cannot save Assad, its aim is to ensure his
The prospect of direct western military or “humanitarian” intervention, overt and covert, to speed regime change in Syria appears to be strengthening after last week’s UN debacle and the regime’s ensuing violent efforts to finish off its opponents. But appearances are deceptive. The foreign power most actively involved inside Syria is not the US or Britain, France or Turkey. Neither is it Russia, Saudi Arabia nor its Gulf allies. It is Iran – and it is fighting fiercely to maintain the status quo.
President Bashar al-Assad regularly conjures up the spectre of hostile foreign plots and meddling, accusing the US, in particular, of backing “terrorist” forces. Hillary Clinton was scornful last month, saying Assad was “only making excuses, blaming foreign countries [for] vast conspiracies”. Sadly, her ridicule was fully justified. For Assad’s much slaughtered and abused subjects, there is no decisive western – or other – help at hand.
While there is much loose talk about secret American and British special forces operations inside Syria, about notional Turkish-controlled havens and Nato-patrolled no-fly zones. The Saudis and Qataris are rumoured to be financing rebel forces. Maybe the Free Syrian Army will one day field squadrons of new battle tanks. But that day is a long way off.
The reality is that from Barack Obama down, nobody in the western camp, with honest diplomacy at a standstill, has a clue what to do. They know only what they cannot do – which, primarily, is not get in the middle of another Middle East war.
Not so the rulers of Iran. Closely allied with Damascus since the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Tehran remains Assad’s main political and diplomatic backer, cheap oil provider, and, maybe, his key nuclear weapons collaborator. According to Clinton, the British foreign secretary, William Hague, the French foreign ministry and anonymous Israeli security sources, Iran is the regime’s main arms supplier and financier. And, they say, the flow of weapons, along routes previously used to supply Iranian-funded Hezbollah in Lebanon, has continued unabated in violation of UN sanctions.
Syrian opposition spokesmen point to visits to Damascus since the uprising of General Qassem Suleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force, part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted Syrian sources saying Suleimani was, in effect, acting as chief regime adviser and strategist. During his most recent visit, within the past two weeks, Suleimani “has taken up a spot in the war room, which manages army manoeuvres against opposition forces ... The war room is also reportedly populated by Assad himself as well as his brother, Maher, brother-in-law Assaf Shaukat, and cousin Rami Makhlouf”.
Iranian Revolutionary Guards are said to be present in Syria in numbers ranging into the hundreds, though exact figures cannot be confirmed. They act as trainers, advisers and intelligence-gatherers to regime forces, in much the same way as Iranian agents assisted extremist Shia and Sunni groups fighting US forces during the occupation of Iraq.
A spate of kidnaps of Iranian nationals in Syria, officially described as Shia pilgrims, has been attributed to growing popular hostility to this Iranian presence. Last month, Al-Jazeera television reported claims that Iranians detained by Syrian rebel forces were soldiers operating as snipers in and around Homs.
Iran’s intimate involvement in Syrian affairs does not quite match its influence in Iraq, where the US military pullout is being followed by a startlingly rapid diplomatic drawdown – but it is getting close. Nor is it surprising. The close bilateral relationship reflects a strategic reality in which Assad’s Syria is Iran’s springboard into the Arab Middle East, its partner in the ongoing ideological and physical confrontation with Israel and the US, and its buffer against the pro-western Sunni monarchies of the Gulf. For Assad, Iran is a source of protection, security and funds.
The prospect, some say the inevitability, of Assad’s fall is thus deeply alarming to Iran. For the time being, its leadership is pulling out all the stops to help him hang on. In this struggle, Vladimir Putin’s viscerally anti-American, nationalistic Russian government has become Tehran’s useful idiot, doing its dirty work at the UN and perpetuating a diplomatic masquerade.
But Iran is playing a longer game, too – hence its recent, public support for political reform in Syria. If Assad cannot be saved, Tehran’s aim is to ensure his successor remains closely allied and does not defect to the western camp. Israel and the US want to ensure the exact opposite.
“Syria is becoming Iran’s Achilles heel,” said Efraim Halevy, a former Israeli national security adviser and Mossad chief. “Iran has poured a vast array of resources into the country. There are Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps encampments and Iranian weapons and advisers throughout Syria. And Iranian-controlled Hezbollah forces from Lebanon have joined in butchering the Syrians.”
But realpolitik calculations were also at work, Halevy said. “Iran is intent on assuring its hold over the country regardless of what happens to Assad ... For Israel the crucial question is not whether he [Assad] falls but whether the Iranian presence in Syria will outlive his government. Getting Iran booted out of Syria is essential... If Assad goes, Iranian hegemony over Syria must go with him.”
In short the Syrian opposition, wittingly or not, are fighting not only Assad but the Iranians, too. For some in Israel, this presents a golden opportunity. But contemplating the possibly uncontainable ramifications, western governments, while vociferously condemning the Damascus regime and dreaming of SAS coups, prefer in practice, wisely or cravenly, to sit on their hands. Bottom-line: the price of externally enforced regime change in Syria is just too high.