Is Iran Turning its Back on Syria?

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. 


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.

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