Iran's support for Syria still appears strong - but is it hedging its bets?
Even as it continues to provide military support to the Syrian regime, staunch ally Iran is making preparations for life after President Assad.
When the Arab League handed Syria’s long-vacant seat to the Syrian opposition on March 26 and endorsed military aid for anti-regime rebels, the first and loudest complaints came from Iran.
Despite a two-year rebellion that has seen 70,000 deaths and 1 million refugees, Iran has not veered from its staunch support for Syria’s embattled President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime it considers a critical piece of its anti-US, anti-Israel "axis of resistance."
The Arab League's decision set a “dangerous precedent” that would only “add to the problems,” warned Iran’s Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi. It would even “bring an end to the [Arab League’s] role in the region,” asserted his deputy, Hossein Amir Abdollahian.
The Iranian complaints are the diplomatic side of an on-the-battlefield proxy war in Syria, with both sides reportedly receiving a surge of weapons from outside powers in recent months. Iranian military and financial support for Mr. Assad has been stepped up with near-weekly flights (and Russia still continues normal sales to its ally). Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, meanwhile, have ferried fresh weaponry to the rebels, with CIA support.
United Nations envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi says the Syrian conflict is becoming a “playground for competing regional forces.”
As the mish-mash of rebel forces capture more ground, more regime military bases and hardware, and key civilian targets, few analysts predict that Assad’s regime will survive in its current form, or that Syria’s longstanding ruler will be alive when it is over. Even Iran, despite its unbending public support for Assad, appears to be preparing for a post-Assad world.
"Iran so far was successful; without Iran's money and strategic help, Assad would have fallen much earlier," says Mehdi Khalaji, an Iran specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "But in terms of policy, they have a Plan B…. So even if Assad falls, to some extent Iran would be able to protect its interests."
That plan may hinge on a pro-regime militia Iran helped to create called Jaysh al-Shabi. The militia could protect Syria's Alawites – the Shiite Muslim offshoot to which Assad and much of his regime belong – if they are relegated to only a portion of the country in northwest Syria, along the coast to the border with Lebanon.
It's possible that no side will gain a decisive advantage and, with all sides backed by powerful international friends, the country will break along sectarian and ethnic fault lines, with Alawite and Kurdish sections, and a larger Sunni portion.
Since its 1979 Islamic revolution, Iran has used Syria as a conduit for weapons, cash, and support for the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, and later Hamas and Islamic Jihad, all of which form a frontline against Israel. If Assad falls, Iran could lose that channel.
Iran’s Revolutionary Guard commander has been quoted as saying that the Jaysh al-Shabi, a mix of Shiite and Alawite groups, is modeled after Iran’s ideological Basij militia, a large volunteer force that has been used to quell street unrest. Senior US officials, who added Jaysh al-Shabi to its list of sanctioned groups last December, have described it as “an Iran-Hezbollah joint venture.”
“In terms of propaganda, no, I think the Iranians in the near future would not admit this possibility [of Assad falling],” says Mr. Khalaji.
But Iran's Plan B with the pro-regime militia means that even if Assad is removed, as long as an Alawite enclave continues to exist in Syria, Iran may still manage to maintain direct links with militant groups. "By helping them, [Iran would] make sure that some part of Syria can be used as a bridge to reach Lebanon and the Palestinian territories," adds Khalaji."
Gulf, West come together
At the Arab League meeting in Doha, Qatar, countering any Iranian support for the Assad regime may have been behind the readiness to recognize the anti-government coalition as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
“We demand … all forms of support from our friends and brothers, including our full right for self-defense,” said Syrian opposition chief Moaz al-Khatib after taking Syria's seat at the Arab League meeting.
That has reportedly been happening already. The airlifting of military aid by Arab governments and Turkey to Syrian rebels with CIA help “expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year,” The New York Times reported on March 24. According to the Times, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar – Sunni Muslim nations wary of Iranian influence in the region – have carried out 160 military-style cargo flights bringing weaponry to Turkey and Jordan, from which the weapons are smuggled into Syria.
“The intensity and frequency of these [weapons] flights are suggestive of a well-planned and coordinated clandestine military logistics operation,” Hugh Griffiths of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute told the Times.
Likewise, Iran has “significantly stepped up” military support for Assad, according to a mid-March report by Reuters.
The Iranian effort “suggests the Syrian war is entering a new phase in which Iran may be trying to end the battlefield stalemate by redoubling its commitment to Assad” and giving the regime a “crucial lifeline,” Reuters reported, citing Western diplomats and a Western intelligence report from last September.
The intelligence report described shipments, primarily through Iraqi airspace, ranging from communications gear and drone parts to “advanced strategic weapons” such as shore-to-sea missiles and ballistic missiles.
“None of this will be decisive; Assad will lose,” says Kenneth Katzman, an analyst for the Congressional Research Service in Washington. “You’re not going to change the outcome unless you are shipping big-ticket items, which I don’t think anybody is.”
Assad’s military stores are slowly being eroded: Helicopters and planes have been shot down, and many tanks have been taken out and some captured by rebels and turned against government forces.
The Iranians "can’t do much more, because to do more would risk getting things captured and exposed," says Mr. Katzman. “To some extent the [Iranian] mentality is the same as Assad’s mentality: Just be tough, show as much strength as possible, and you’re going to be able to power through it. I think they’ve overestimated their ability to save Assad.”