WASHINGTON – In a darkening Syria, airstrips serve as the veins of the Assad
government. Flying over quiet, unsupervised Iraqi airspace, Iranian craft
transport undocumented weapons to their chief ally in the region on a routine
To the frustration of military experts and Western officials, the
Iranians release no defense budget, and certainly no inventory for covert
Unlike in the United States, the Iranians don’t experience military
leaks. So no one can say confidently how much the Islamic Republic is spending
to keep Assad in power. But they have made no secret of their priorities: Iran
will not tolerate Assad’s fall, and its leadership will do whatever is necessary
to prevent it.
Over two years into the conflict, that promise has
manifested itself in the form of arms, loans, hard cash and people. Gunmen and
lifelong guards, from both Lebanon and Iran itself, are directly changing the
outcomes of important battles with their boots on the ground.
blood is being spilled in Syria as the conflict drains Iran’s resources.
Considering the veracity of the regime’s pledge, it is safe to conclude that the
longer the conflict lasts, the more Iran will exhaust itself.
capitalized on a similar realpolitik in 2006 in Iraq, after Ayatollah Khamenei
saw that America’s democratic project was falling apart. His preferred plan was
to use political influence in a weak Iraq to elevate Shi’ite allies within the
newly created democratic system. His backup plan was to bleed American
resources, soldiers and willpower through the arming of insurgents with light
A covert network was built through 2005 in the form of safe
houses and couriers, and contact was made with virtually every group. But Iran
activated the network only in 2006, when the idyllic, peaceful jockeying of
influence gave way to harsher realities.
The United States was committed
to the Iraqi project, and a terrorist hub was seeded on Iran’s doorstep. It was
an opportunity for the Iranians amid a plethora of bad options.
the greater chess game that is the Middle East, tactical lessons from Iraq could
be playing in reverse in Syria.
In his decision to arm Syrian rebels with
light weaponry, President Barack Obama may see merit in bleeding Iran, just as
Iran bled the US in Iraq, so much so that the American people are simply
unwilling to shed any more of their treasure in the Middle
Columnist Fareed Zakaria called that consideration a “clever,
effective, brutal strategy to bleed America’s enemies” on Sunday, calling other
justifications for the decision to provide only light arms “like trying to get a
little bit pregnant.”
“The fact that Iran and Hezbollah are sending
militias, arms and money into Syria is not a sign of strength. It is a sign that
they are worried that the regime might fall,” says Zakaria. “Keeping them
engaged and pouring resources into Syria bleeds them. It weakens them
But Kenneth Pollack, formerly a CIA intelligence analyst
and National Security Council staffer now with the Brookings Institution, said
that the US “has no clue” what the Iranians are truly providing, or what those
provisions are costing the regime.
“We know that Iranian support is
important to Assad, but we couldn’t quantify it, and we don’t know the extent of
the support,” Pollack told The Jerusalem Post
. “Typically, we find it doesn’t
cost a whole lot of money to provide Kalashnikovs and RPGs. The Iranians can
provide lots and lots of them, and it’s really not going to affect their bottom
“As a strategy, I’m not sure it’s really going to send a political
signal to Iran writ large,” says Frederic Wehrey, an expert at the Carnegie
Endowment for International Peace, who says the Iranian strategy in Iraq was to
play both arsonist and fireman. “This new war can be conducted in the shadows,
and the costs of it are largely hidden from the Iranian public and even parts of
the Iranian political elite, because its Guards force is so
But the alternatives for the president are
A consistent bombing campaign of Syria’s key airstrips would
present multiple problems for the US. The Pentagon is definitively opposed to
such moves. But it would perhaps force Iran to face an even starker choice:
accept steeper costs in alternative forms of delivery for weapons, or risk
losing Assad to rebel forces.
“That strategy is asking people to stand in
front of a moving bus to slow it down,” says Danielle Pletka, a veteran senior
staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who says she would be
surprised if a strategically protracted conflict was a consideration in the
White House. “The immorality of that strategy would be
Indeed, the interventionists in Congress and in the
president’s national security team seem to be advocating for action based on a
mix of strategic and humanitarian grounds.
Driving the angst on both
sides of the aisle are liberal and protectionist ideals: a desire to protect the
lives of foreign peoples, and an imperative to keep American troops out of
That may be the key difference constricting the military
options of the United States and those of its adversaries.
their own people, if they have a few hundred or even a few thousand people in
Syria, you’re not bleeding Iran,” Pollack added. “Our society is very casualty
sensitive, and it becomes very politically costly. It’s just not that way for