THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN AND THE STRUGGLE FOR SYRIA

THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC OF IRAN AND THE STRUGGLE FOR SYRIA

SOURCE: The Race For Iran

by Flynt Leverett and Hillary Mann Leverett

Recent developments in Syria have prompted a predictable escalation in Western/expatriate Iranian commentary that the Assad government’s fall—widely treated as inevitable—will severely damage the Islamic Republic’s regional position.  One piece of this sort which caught our eye was authored by Farideh Farhi, see here.  Farhi’s article, couched as a critique of Tehran’s Syria policy, opens with the observation that,

“by providing full-fledged public support to Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Iran’s leaders have made a critical policy move.  They could have made a different choice…a more balanced and proactive approach to Syria that did not place all of Iran’s eggs in Assad’s basket from the beginning of the unrest.”

Farhi professes some sensitivity to various factors that might have prompted Tehran to adopt the policy it did, including Saudi, Turkish, Israel, and U.S. support for the Syrian opposition, not least on the grounds that “the fall of the Syrian regime would constitute a ‘strategic’ blow against Iran.”  But,

“regardless of the reasoning behind the decision-makers’ rationale, given what has transpired in Syria, Iran’s chosen policy appears to have been the wrong one.  Instead of hedging by trying to establish links with a multiplicity of political forces as Iran did effectively in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the policy of fully supporting Assad’s regime has not only come to naught, it is also hurting Iran’s attempts to develop relationships with newly elected Islamist governments in the region, particularly in Egypt, a country with which the Islamic Republic hoped to improve relations rapidly following the ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood.  More importantly, this one-track Syria policy has diminished Tehran’s leverage when it comes to gaining a seat at the table where regional issues are deliberated upon.”

We have a very different read of the strategic acuity of the Islamic Republic’s Syria policy.  Among other things, Farhi’s analysis only holds up if the Assad government is not just overthrown but also replaced by an internally coherent coalition decisively aligned with the West and against Iran.  However, rather than review Farhi’s arguments ourselves, we thought it useful to juxtapose her assessment against a recent article by Mehdi Mohammadi, translated by Iran Review, see here.

Mohammadi notes that “the dominant view on the Syrian situation in Western circles” is “not a factual explanation of the situation” but rather “part of a heavy psychological war.”  And in that war, “realities are carefully picked up by Western media and only those realities which are in line with the [prevailing narrative] are reflected.”  Mohammadi argues that the Syrian opposition “is not popular in nature”; this is why it

“rejects any solution based on elections and negotiations.  The opposition figures are well aware that if the general atmosphere is calmed down, at least to allow for free elections, and if people went to the ballot boxes, they would never prefer radical Salafi elements”

to the current government.  “The fear that the Sunni majority has of a Salafi minority is a very important, and often censored, reality about the situation on the ground in Syria.”

Mohammadi then zeroes in on the central role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian opposition, offering a profoundly challenging analysis of the motives for different currents among the Brothers to involve themselves in the current uprising.  (We would note that some of the edgier aspects of Mohammadi’s analysis could be applied as well to the evolution of Turkey’s Syria policy since March 2011.):

“The important question is what are the Muslim Brotherhood’s main goals and why the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which is essentially very different from its counterparts in Egypt, Sudan, and Palestine, has decided out of a sudden to pave the way for the Zionist plots in Syria?  The fundaments of the Muslim Brotherhood’s behavior can be summarized as follows:

First—A certain part of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is actually pursuing to establish a new government in Syria which will implement the mandate of Sharia law—of course as perceived by Salafis—in the country.  This is the part of the Muslim Brotherhood that even in case of Assad government’s fall, is very unlikely to enter into a compromise with Israel.  Therefore, some analysts maintain that their motives for creating new conflicts in Syrian border areas which are adjacent to Israel are even more powerful than the Alawites.

Second—The second part of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood has reached the conclusion that the future of the region is essentially at the Muslim Brotherhood’s hands.  Therefore, they do not have to rely on governments which are not affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood.  As a result, although this group of the Muslim Brotherhood is well aware of the historical support provided by Syria for the anti-Israeli resistance front, they believe that new anchoring points like the new government in Egypt will make them needless of maintaining past relations with Syria.

Third—The third group which probably constitutes the majority of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is basically using outward concerns about Sharia as a means of attracting support from the ordinary people and money from Saudi Arabia.  They are in cahoots with secular elements that are constantly in contact with France and the United States as well as similar political groups like the March 14 Alliance in Lebanon and the secular government of Jordan.  This part forms the spine of the armed opposition in Syria.

The bottom line is that even in a best case scenario, the Muslim Brotherhood is making a dire strategic mistake.  In a worst case scenario, they have reached a clandestine deal with the United States. An inevitable reality—which is again among those realities which are intentionally and generally censored—is that even if Assad’s government falls, the Americans will not Americans will not allow the Syrian government to fall into the hands of that part of the Muslim Brotherhood which seeks to continue and even give more depth to the existing conflict with Israel.  Therefore, if this group has decided to waste its energy and potentials on toppling Assad, the final result for it will be new banishment from the power and this time, by those who are in complete collusion with the United States and Israel.

The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood should know that the sole way for them to enter the government is survival of the current state and achieving a final agreement on a new system of government based on elections.  Otherwise, even if Assad goes, they will not have their anti-Israeli government.  There is also a pessimistic view according to which parts of the Muslim Brotherhood have reached the conclusion that they should basically give up the resistance strategy, accept the existence of Israel and reach a strategic agreement with the United States in order to keep future regional governments under control.  At the first glance, this may seem to be not only too pessimistic, but also too naïve.  Unfortunately, however, it should be noted that parts of the Islamic currents in the region—which are still a minority—have apparently reached the conclusion that, for example, Qatar, the only Arab country which has official relations with Israel, is a better base for the anti-Zionist resistance than Syria which has been supporting resistance for 30 years without asking anything in return!”

Mohammadi argues that the Syrian opposition owes its longevity “to plans made by the United States and European Union as well as the Arab League and finally the UN-Arab League special envoy on Syria, Kofi Annan.”  With regard to Annan’s diplomatic efforts, Mohammadi notes that, since they have “gotten underway and international observers have been based in Syria as part of that plan, the rate of violence has increased by more than 20 times.”  He argues that, at bottom, the “Annan plan is, in fact, a ploy to pursue a single strategic goal:  to tie the hands of the Syrian army and give an opportunity to the opposition to regroup and rearm its forces.”  Moreover, “the plan lacked any specific political outlook from the beginning…It never clarified in what way the crisis in Syria is supposed to hit its end.  It was also silent on the future power structure in the country and specifications of the transition period.”

For ourselves, we are more inclined to see the deficiencies in Annan’s plan less in terms of the corrupt nature of the former Secretary-General’s project than in the single-minded prioritization, by the United States and its European partners, of regime change in Damascus over any possibility for conflict resolution in Syria.  As Hillary pointed out in an appearance on Al Jazeera last week to discuss Syrian developments, a negotiated political outcome is, at this point, the only way to stop Syrians from dying.  But the West refuses to acknowledge that the Syrian opposition it backs so assiduously cannot kill all of the Alawis, Christians, and non-Ikhwan Sunnis who support the Assad government, or that the international community cannot deny them and their supporters a role in any meaningful and legitimate political process aimed at ending the violence.  Such a process, by definition, must involve all the relevant parties in Syria—and it must involve all relevant regional and international players, including the Islamic Republic.  Given the West’s refusal to face these realities, one must ask just who is really responsible for prolonging the violence in Syria?

More broadly, Mohammadi offers an extremely important observation about the shared interests and goals of the United States, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Turkey “to contain” the Arab spring.  (This was also a point that Hillary made in her Al Jazeera appearance.)   These countries, Mohammadi writes,

“reached a conclusion that the best way for preventing Arab Spring developments to serve Iran’s increasing power in the region was to turn the whole situation into a conflict between Shias and Sunnis.  The archetype of Shia-Sunni animosity has turned into a tool in the hands of the Western states in order to distort the entire Arab spring.  By doing this, they would be able to take the energy of the regional revolutionary figures and redirect it toward Iran instead of the United States and the West which are main masterminds of decades-old sufferings of the Arab world.  As a result, the political forces released by the Arab spring and Islamic revolutions in the region will spend much of their force on deepening Shia-Sunni rift in the region.”

Finally, Mohammadi offers a revealing assessment of how the situation in Syria is viewed in Tehran and how Iranian policymakers are making their calculations about it:

First,

“there is a high degree of confidence that the Syrian government will not fall in medium term.  Perhaps it will be weakened or will become subject to more severe international pressures, however, the government in Syria will stay in place.  As a result of this situation, firstly, the Syrian government will think of various security scenarios to take revenge of various parties that have been involved in the Syrian unrest as soon as it gets out of the current red alert security state…Its anti-American and anti-Israeli motivations will become hundreds of times stronger.  This will certainly further strengthen the overall power of the anti-Israeli resistance axis in the region which will be of vital importance to Iran.”

Second,

“it is very unlikely that Russia and China will reach an agreement with the West over Syria.  Both countries have already found out in Libya that the Americans have no plan to recognize or meet their national interests.  On the contrary, the United States is trying to foment unrest in areas which are of vital importance to these two countries.  Therefore, unlike the past experiences when the behavior of Russia and China was unpredictable and they were expected to forge an agreement with the United States at any moment, it is now clear that no deal will be reached between these two countries and the United States, even on Iran’s nuclear dossier anymore.  Creation of a reliable anti-West front consisting of Russia and China will be a strategic achievement for Iran.”

Third,

“it is obvious that the Western countries have attuned the schedule of their plans on Iran’s nuclear program with the pace of political developments in Syria.  If Syria gets out of the current crisis, the West’s diplomatic approach to Iran’s nuclear energy program will totally change.  The Western countries’ analysis is that Iran will only change its plans for going on with the nuclear energy program when it reaches the conclusion that its security index is going down and down.  The fate of Syria is among few factors which can play a key role in making Iran reach that conclusion.  Also, the high probability that Israel will fall into a state of chaos after Syria weathers the current dire straits is another factor which can make the West give major political concessions to Iran.”

And so, “despite what may seem on the surface, the strategic equation of the region as a result of the ongoing developments in Syria has by no means changed to the detriment of Iran.”

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