Iran convenes conference on Syria, vowing to preserve the 'axis of resistance'

Iran, largely isolated from the West and a steadfast ally of Syria's President Assad, has a lot to lose if the regime in Damascus falls. 

By , Staff writer

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    Syrians check the damage of a destroyed school after it was hit by an air strike, killing six, in the town of Tal Rifat on the outskirts of Aleppo, Syria, Wednesday, Aug. 8.
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After numerous failed diplomatic attempts by the United Nations to rein in the violence in Syria, Syrian ally Iran offered up its own solution: a conference of nations with “a correct and realistic position” on resolving the civil war.

The fall of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad could have destabilizing consequences for the region and Iran, a longtime ally that has largely isolated itself from the West. Iran’s visiting head of national security, Saeed Jalili, said on Aug. 7 that “Iran will not tolerate, in any form, the breaking of the axis of the resistance, of which Syria is an intrinsic part.”

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Iranian officials traveled to Syria this week after rebels kidnapped 48 Iranians. Tehran insists the captured men were religious pilgrims, but the rebels who took responsibility for the kidnapping have said they are members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard.

Iran’s foreign minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, wrote in an Op-Ed for the Washington Post yesterday that “Iran seeks a solution that is in the interest of everyone. Syrian society is a beautiful mosaic of ethnicities, faiths and cultures, and it will be smashed to pieces should President Bashar al-Assad abruptly fall. The idea that, in that event, there would be an orderly transition of power is an illusion.”

However, Western diplomats say the conference in Iran was created to not only preserve Mr. Assad’s rule in Syria, but shift the world’s attention away from the ongoing bloodshed there. 

An estimated 17,000 people have been killed in Syria since fighting broke out in March 2011, according to the United Nations. Today Syrian forces shelled Aleppo, the country’s largest city and commercial hub, and a battleground between regime forces and rebels for nearly a month now. Rebels say neighborhoods were targeted by helicopter fire, reports CNN. The protracted violence has shaken Assad’s hold on the country as diplomats, members of the military, and, most recently, the prime minister have defected.

Amid reports that a ground assault in Aleppo has forced rebels to retreat as ammunition and supplies are running low, The New York Times reports residents received “ominous cellphone text messages asking them to cooperate with the government. One text, signed by the Syrian Army, read: ‘Dear brothers, informing about terrorists means you are saving yourself and your family.’” The regime often refers to rebel fighters as terrorists.

Although Western powers, including the US, and a handful of Arab states are sympathetic to Syria’s rebels, they have not intervened militarily. President Barack Obama reportedly signed a covert directive last week, allowing the CIA and other agencies to offer support for rebel forces, and Obama’s counterterrorism adviser said today that the implementation of a no-fly zone over Syria was not "off the table," reports CNN.

A Western diplomat in Iran said today’s conference illustrated it was “running out of ideas,” Reuters reports. But the International Herald Tribune’s Harvey Morris notes it’s important to look at Syria from Iran’s perspective. In the more than three-decade history of Iran’s Islamic Republic, “Syria is the only state to have consistently stood by it while hostile neighbors and outside powers conspired to bring about its downfall.”

But that doesn’t mean Iran is ready to sacrifice its countrymen for the cause and “fight for Mr. Assad down to the last Iranian," he writes:

To understand the roots of Iranian paranoia, just look at the map. Iran has been steadily encircled by a network of US military bases in the decades since the Iranian revolution of 1979.

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The impact of regime change in the Arab World has in fact been largely negative from Tehran’s perspective. The Muslim Brotherhood leadership in Egypt is closer to Saudi Arabia than it is to Iran. If the Alawite-dominated regime in Damascus were to fall, it would mean the loss of a non-Sunni ally.

So, how far will Iran go towards protecting its long-term partner? It will not be happy if Mr. Assad goes. But beyond cash and supplies and the loan of military advisers, there is not much Tehran can do to determine the outcome.

Its best hope might be the emergence of a post-Assad regime that is not openly hostile to its interests, reserving the option of trying to destabilize a successor regime that was.

Iran's semi-official Fars News Agency reports that Hussein Amir Abdollahian, Iran's deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs, said today’s conference would be attended by representatives of “a remarkable number of interested and influential regional and world states,” according to The New York Times.

That reportedly included China, Algeria, Russia, Tajikistan, Venezuela, Pakistan, India, and six members of the Arab League, although Reuters reports Russia was the only country to confirm its attendance. Just hours before the conference was set to commence, Iran had not disclosed which countries were actually present, reports the New York Times.

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