Arab Affairs: Tehran to the rescue

If you were the Iranian regime, and Bashar Assad was in trouble, wouldn’t you be likely to help him?

Ahmadinejad Assad 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Ahmadinejad Assad 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Evidence is beginning to emerge of an active Iranian role in aiding the Syrian crackdown on protests. Opposition reports suggesting an Iranian presence in parts of Syria, and Tehran’s providing equipment and training to help suppress the demonstrations, have been in circulation since March. In mid-April, unnamed US officials quoted in The Wall Street Journal for the first time also said that Iran was helping to suppress the protests. State Department Spokesman Mark Toner in the following days confirmed these allegations, expressing the US’s “real concerns” at the role being played by Iran.
An Iranian oppositionist site, the Green Voice of Freedom, has now quoted “official sources” who claim that a meeting took place in Damascus in mid-April between Syrian officials and Iranian Brig.-Gen. Ahmad Reza Radan. Radan, a senior police commander, is generally credited with the successful crackdown on protests following the allegedly rigged Iranian presidential elections in 2009.
However, a former Iranian diplomat told the Los Angeles Times that he doubted this meeting had taken place. Radan, he suggested, was too “notorious and recognizable” for the Islamic Republic to risk his presence in Damascus. Still, the former diplomat agreed that it was likely Iran was offering its ally assistance of some kind. He suggested the secretive Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards as the most likely agency engaged in this.
The precise nature of the support arriving from Iran differs depending on who is asked. Among Syrian oppositionists, there are persistent rumors that the snipers whose bullets have taken a terrible toll among the protesters in recent weeks include some Iranians.
Others suggest that the Syrian authorities have learned less lethal and more effective methods from their Iranian friends. Thus, the recent wave of massive roundups of activists in centers of unrest is said to resemble similar mass arrests after the 2009 protests in Iran. In both cases, apparently, the authorities found that the mysterious disappearance of protesters, who reappeared later, sometimes after torture, proved an effective method of intimidation.
The latest claim of Iranian involvement in Syria comes from that usual bastion of support for anti- Western regimes in the region, the Al Jazeera satellite network. According to the Qatari channel, one of its employees, Iranian-Canadian-American journalist Dorothy Parvaz, is currently incarcerated in Iran, after being detained at Damascus airport.
All of the evidence offered so far is circumstantial.
There is no smoking gun yet. But the circumstantial evidence is accumulating, and the variety of sources from which it is emanating point to there being at least something to it.
BUT THERE is a further test to be applied to the claims – namely the test of probability. If you were the Iranian regime, and Bashar Assad was in trouble, wouldn’t you be likely to help him? The Syrian and Iranian strategic partnership runs deep, and there is every reason for the Iranians to wish to preserve it. Syrian-Iranian military cooperation is formalized (a cooperation treaty was signed in 1998) and intensive. Syria gives Iran a presence on the Mediterranean. It is the key arms conduit between Tehran and its Hezbollah client in Lebanon. It is also a major recipient of Iranian arms and aid. And Iran tends to stick by its allies.
There is an additional important motive: The socalled Arab Spring until now has seen the departure of two pro-Western regimes – Zine El Abidine Bin Ali’s in Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt. The recent independent Saudi and Gulf state action in Bahrain indicates that the confidence of regional states in their US patron is at a low.
The main strategic process under way in the Middle East is the conflict for domination between Iran and its allies, and the US and its clients. Syrian regime survival would be a glowing advertisement to regional leaders that unlike the US, Iran will do all it can to keep its friends from overthrow. The message being: The Iranian/Islamist bloc is the one to align with if you want to survive.
Victory in Syria would bring a further potential propaganda victory for Iran and its allies. It has been noted in the region and beyond that the Western condemnation of Syria has been tepid in the extreme. This is in direct contrast to the treatment doled out to western allies (Egypt, Tunisia) or nonaligned oddities (Libya). There is a growing perception that the intervening factor protecting Syria, and differentiating Assad from these other unfortunates, is his alignment with the brutal “resistance axis” in the region. It gives him deterrent power.
Assad and his allies in Iran and Lebanon lack any talent in the realm of social and economic development.
One area in which they are truly worldclass, however, is the employment of proxy military force.
In Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, Iraq and beyond, both Syria and Iran possess well-armed clients, available for activation. The US wants to draw down in the region in the next years. It wants to leave Iraq and Afghanistan. Taking on Iran-allied Syria could have a very serious effect on these plans. Fear of the possible consequences is likely to keep Syria safe.
Syria is not without recourse, and the West knows it. When the corrupt regime associate Rami Makhlouf told the readers of The New York Times this week that “when we suffer, we will not suffer alone,” there was some substance behind his words.
Of course, the problem with buckling to these kind of threats is that you look weak. And the ones who successfully threatened you (Iran and Syria) look strong. It is not yet too late for the US and the EU to prevent this.
Beginning an active drive for the downfall of Assad and adopting appropriate sanctions against him would be a start. This, however, would require a reversal of thinking on the region that shows no signs as yet of arriving.
The writer is a senior research fellow at the Gloria Center, IDC Herzliya.