'US arming Syrian rebels forces Iran to bleed resources'

Analysis: Keeping Iran and Hezbollah engaged in the conflict and pouring resources into Syria weakens them substantially.

Free Syrian Army fighters in Mleha suburb of Damascus 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)
Free Syrian Army fighters in Mleha suburb of Damascus 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)
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 basis.
To the frustration of military experts and Western officials, the Iranians release no defense budget, and certainly no inventory for covert aid.
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.
But Iranian 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.
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Iran 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 weaponry.
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.
Now, in 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 East.
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 substantially.”
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 line.”
“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 compartmentalized.”
But the alternatives for the president are unclear.
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 striking.”
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 harm’s way.
That may be the key difference constricting the military options of the United States and those of its adversaries.
“Even with 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 the Iranians.”