As the situation in Syria continues to deteriorate, with the collapse of the
Assad regime becoming increasingly more imminent, further direct intervention by
Iran in the Syrian conflict in an effort to save the regime should not be ruled
out. For Iran, the Assad regime represents the linchpin of their regional
hegemonic ambitions, and as such preserving the regime is central to
safeguarding Tehran’s axis of influence, which encompasses Syria, Iraq and
Direct Iranian involvement in Syria, while a given, further
aggravates the already volatile situation in the Middle East. The question is:
when will the Western powers led by the US, the Arab states, Turkey and Israel
take the necessary and credible steps to force Tehran to stop meddling in
Syria’s internal affairs and prevent it from playing a direct role in an effort
to quell the Syrian uprising? Having already sent military advisers along with
members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards disguised as pilgrims, and pledging firm
support for the Syrian government, it is hard to imagine that Tehran will stay
idle in the face of Assad’s imminent demise.
Should Iran decide to
further deepen its involvement in Syria, its decision would be based on
long-term considerations rather than the prospect of achieving any immediate
Indeed, from the Iranian perspective, regardless of how the
crisis in Syria may unfold, Tehran is determined to maintain its influence, as
the loss of Syria would represent a colossal defeat and severely weaken Iran’s
hold on the “Shi’ite Crescent” that extends from the Persian Gulf to the
Whereas until recently Iran tried to obscure its
involvement in Syria, in the past few days Iranian lawmakers called on their
government to tell the Iranian public why Syria under Assad is of strategic
importance. Ahmad Reza Dastgheib, Deputy Head of Iran’s Majlis Committee of
National Security and Foreign Policy, said: “We should make all our efforts to
prevent the Syrian government from falling.”
In a further indication of
Iran’s concerns over the future of the Assad regime, it has dispatched
high-level officials including Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran’s Supreme National
Security Council, to assure Assad that Iran will not allow its close partnership
with the Syrian leadership to be shaken by the uprising or external
Tehran is not convinced, as of yet, that the Western powers (led by
the United States) will in fact challenge Iran directly should Iran decide to
play a more direct and active role to save both the Assad regime and its larger
Iran knows that the Western powers and Israel, along
with Turkey and the Arab states, would like to pull Syria outside of Iran’s
orbit. To persuade Iran that its continuing involvement in Syria is short-lived,
the US, the Arab League (AL), the EU and Turkey must work in concert and adopt
coercive measures to demonstrate to the Iranian mullahs that this is a no-win
situation and that their continued involvement could be disastrous for the
The Arab states’ reaction must not be limited to another
declaration of outrage as previously expressed by the Arab League. Countries
such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar should openly expand their supply of military
equipment, financial aid, medical supplies and other necessary provisions to the
Syrian opposition in order to shift the conflict to the rebels’
Israel, which would certainly feel directly threatened by the
Iranian presence in a neighboring country, should also send a clear warning to
Iran (if it has not already done so): Israel will not hesitate to take any
action deemed necessary to protect its national security interests.
also understands that should it end up being present on Israel’s borders, Israel
would be provided with an excuse to attack Iranian nuclear facilities. Of
particular concern to Israel are Syria’s chemical and biological weapons, which
may fall into the hands of militant Islamist groups who may seek to attack
Israel at the first opportune moment.
Syria has become a battleground
between the Shi’ite and Sunni communities.
The involvement of Shi’ite
Iran in Syria would assuredly change Turkey’s (which is predominantly Sunni)
position altogether. Notwithstanding the ongoing discussion between Ankara and
Tehran, Turkey should make it abundantly clear that Iran’s direct interference
in Syria will not occur with impunity.
Regardless of the existing
strategic military alliance between Iran and Syria, this does not provide Iran
with a license to intervene, particularly because Syria is not threatened by
outside powers. Such Iranian interference should prompt Turkey to carve a large
swath of land that connects Aleppo with Turkey in which a safe haven for Syrian
refugees and an operational base for the Syrian Free Army would be established
while, with the support of Western powers, a no-fly zone over the seized Syrian
territory would be imposed.
Russia, which has been adamantly against
outside interference, will certainly continue to support Iran tacitly but can do
little to prevent the countries concerned from acting against Iran should
Tehran’s involvement become increasingly more transparent.
most importantly, the US poses the greatest threat to Iran. For this reason,
Iran is not likely to defy the American warnings, as stated by Secretary of
State Hillary Clinton, that the US will not tolerate any power crossing such a
red line. For Iran to take the American warning seriously, the threat must not
be veiled by political ambiguities, as Iran will not be deterred from aiding
Assad militarily unless the threat to them is clear and credible. To that end
the US must take decisive measures, without necessarily placing military boots
on Syrian territory.
In this regard the US should move from debating the
need for imposing a no-fly zone to implementing it with the support of Turkey
and work with other countries, including Russia and the rebels, to safeguard
Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons.
Moreover, the US must facilitate
the supply of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons, and encourage top Syrian
officials to defect now with the promise of a future in the new Syrian
The US must also make it abundantly clear to the Syrian
National Council and the Syrian Free Army that they must work in concert and
send a warning to all Syrian minorities that they have a serious stake in
Syria’s future and only if they work together will they will blunt further
Iranian interference and ensure peaceful transition instead of plunging into
sectarian war that will tear Syria apart.
Short of taking these measures,
the United States will not only risk the opportunity to remove Syria from Iran’s
belly but also forsake the chance of playing a significant role in shaping the
new political order in Syria.
The ultimate question is whether Iran will
gamble by taking such a risk.
The answer, I believe, rests with Tehran’s
paramount desire to preserve first and foremost its own regime, and that may
well depend on whether or not Tehran takes the threats of Western and regional
powers seriously. This is the time when only action matters.
the region will be swept into horrifying conflagration in which every state will
be a loser, especially the United States and its allies.
The writer is a
professor of International Relations and Middle Eastern Studies at the Center
for Global Affairs at New York University, and a Senior Fellow and the Middle
East Project Director at the World Policy Institute.