Is Iran Turning its Back on Syria?

Syn­op­sis
Syr­i­an Pres­i­dent Bashar al-Assad’s staunchest ally, Iran, is hint­ing that its sup­port for the embat­tled leader is not uncon­di­tion­al. Iran­ian Supreme Leader Aya­tol­lah Ali Khamenei is prepar­ing for the like­li­hood that Assad will fall.

Com­men­tary

THE ONGOING pop­u­lar revolt in Syr­ia against Pres­i­dent Bashar al Assad is putting strains on his rela­tions with Iran’s theo­crat­ic ruler Aya­tol­lah Khamenei. Syria’s rela­tion­ship with Iran has been based on polit­i­cal oppor­tunism rather than a shared com­mon good. Unlike the Islam­ic repub­lic, Syr­ia has been ruled as a sec­u­lar coun­try even if its Shia-relat­ed Alaw­ite sect dom­i­nates the Arab nation’s Sun­ni Mus­lim major­i­ty.

Nev­er­the­less the alliance with Khamenei puts Assad at odds with his Arab brethren, many of whom see Iran as a sub­ver­sive pow­er seek­ing to under­mine them with the wave of anti-gov­ern­ment protests sweep­ing the Mid­dle East and North Africa. But it gave Assad polit­i­cal clout and allowed him to posi­tion him­self as the one Arab leader who had not bowed to the West.

Safe­guard­ing Iran­ian inter­ests

In return Assad was Khamenei’s wedge in the Arab world and his con­duit to Hezbol­lah, the Shi­ite mili­tia in Lebanon on Israel’s north­ern bor­der. Syr­ia was the only Arab state to back Iran in its eight-year long war against Iraq in the 1980s. The Arab League that groups the region’s 22 Arab states has con­demned Assad’s bru­tal crack­down on the anti-gov­ern­ment pro­test­ers; Sau­di Ara­bia and most oth­er Gulf states have with­drawn their ambas­sadors from Dam­as­cus. The Syr­i­an military’s vio­lent crush­ing of the pro­test­ers in the past six months has iso­lat­ed Assad inter­na­tion­al­ly. Turkey, and even his staunchest non-Mus­lim friends, Chi­na and Rus­sia, are pulling back and demand­ing that he halt the blood­shed against his own peo­ple.

As the inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ty antic­i­pates that Assad’s ouster is just a mat­ter of time, Iran’s Khamenei is not about to become the only leader to back a los­er. How­ev­er Khamenei is unlike­ly to declare his change of heart pub­licly, for that would make the Islam­ic repub­lic look like a fair weath­er friend.

Khamenei, how­ev­er, will want to sal­vage what he can by posi­tion­ing him­self for the post-Assad era so that he can safe­guard Iran’s strate­gic inter­ests in Syr­ia. He is con­scious that sup­port for Assad erodes Iran­ian cred­i­bil­i­ty in the Mid­dle East and North Africa. A recent poll con­duct­ed in six Arab coun­tries by the Arab-Amer­i­can Insti­tute showed that Iran­ian pop­u­lar­i­ty had dropped dra­mat­i­cal­ly, while there are reports by defec­tors from Assad’s secu­ri­ty forces that Iran­ian mil­i­tary per­son­nel and snipers have been deployed along­side the Syr­i­an leader’s acolytes to fire on pro­test­ers. Khamenei is said to be sig­nalling that their alliance may not be eter­nal.

Writ­ing on the wall

Going by the Iran­ian state-run media Khamenei and oth­er Iran­ian lead­ers are for the first time start­ing to pre­pare for a world with­out Assad.

To be sure, the Iran­ian press con­tin­ues to give loud sup­port to Assad and denounce the pro­test­ers as for­eign agents backed by the Unit­ed States, Britain and Israel. Iran­ian news agen­cies still allege that mil­lions are on the streets of Syr­i­an cities to express their sup­port for Assad. But for the first time, the media are also report­ing on Syr­i­an mil­i­tary attacks on unarmed pro­test­ers, quot­ing human rights activists, and not just echo­ing Syria’s offi­cial ver­sion that it is bat­tling armed Al Qae­da-inspired gangs oper­at­ing on behalf of for­eign pow­ers.

In fact, the Iran­ian media have start­ed to go fur­ther, call­ing on Assad to engage the pro­test­ers and embark on a road of reform rather than rely on mil­i­tary might to resolve his domes­tic prob­lems. “Assad’s sal­va­tion is in reforms and not in the bar­rel of the gun,” read a recent head­line in Jomhouri Esla­mi, a news­pa­per with close ties to Khamenei.

The news­pa­per report­ed that the Syr­i­an mil­i­tary had killed hun­dreds of civil­ians in the cities of Homs and Dera’a. “A ques­tion which Assad and his advis­ers have to answer is: how long can they con­tin­ue with armed con­fronta­tion and vio­lence? Can they use more vio­lence than Gaddafi and bom­bard demon­stra­tors like him? Did Gaddafi’s use of vio­lence return the peo­ple to their homes?” Jomhouri Esla­mi asked in ref­er­ence to Libyan leader Colonel Moam­mar Gaddafi’s bit­ter war against rebels seek­ing to over­throw him. The paper’s com­ments are remark­able giv­en the Unit­ed Nations-autho­rised no-fly zone in Libya and NATO back­ing for the rebels.

Los­ing Iran would leave Assad com­plete­ly iso­lat­ed – espe­cial­ly in the wake of Turk­ish warn­ings that Ankara can no longer stand idly by as the killing in Syr­ia con­tin­ues. The writ­ing is clear­ly on the wall for the embat­tled Syr­i­an pres­i­dent.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.

More news and arti­cles can be found on Face­book and Twit­ter.

Fol­low GlobalDefence.net on Face­book and/or on Twit­ter

Team GlobDef

Team GlobDef

Seit 2001 ist GlobalDefence.net im Internet unterwegs, um mit eigenen Analysen, interessanten Kooperationen und umfassenden Informationen für einen spannenden Überblick der Weltlage zu sorgen. GlobalDefenc.net war dabei die erste deutschsprachige Internetseite, die mit dem Schwerpunkt Sicherheitspolitik außerhalb von Hochschulen oder Instituten aufgetreten ist.

Alle Beiträge ansehen von Team GlobDef →