History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
The crisis in Syria is gradually growing into a regional conflict between the superpowers. This conflict is pitting Iran, Hezbollah (with independent Lebanon being dragged in against its will) and Syria against the entire Arab world and particularly the gulf countries. At the superpower level, it is pitting Iran and Russia against the West, which continues to wrangle with how to assist the rebels and consider whether or not President Assad has crossed the red line and used chemical weapons against the rebels.
Since the uprising in Syria began over two years ago, as part of what came to be known as the Arab Spring and the upheaval in the Middle East, the long-standing strategic alliance between Iran and Hezbollah, which is playing an active role in the battles in Syria, has been put to the test, as the fighting is exacting both a political toll and human price in casualties in order to protect Assad’s regime. So far, Iran has not let Bashar down and throughout the crisis has proven its commitment to this alliance. It provides Assad with ongoing military aid, sends in advisors from the IRGC Quds Forces and, with the help of Moscow, grants regional and international political support in the face of the (meek) attempts by the West and Turkey to increase their involvement in the crisis and bring about Bashar al-Assad’s downfall.
Given the extent of the turmoil and upheaval in Bashar al-Assad’s regime, his ally Iran, has stood squarely by his side. It has done so despite, or perhaps because of, the regional circumstances that are reshaping the landscape of the Middle East. It would seem that Iran should have paid a “price” for going against the “Arab Spring” in terms of its stalwart support of Assad. However, Iran believes that its unequivocal support, in contrast with the quick retreat the President of the United States, Barack Obama, made in his support of Egyptian President Mubarak will demonstrate its strength, as the power that has stood by its allies since the Revolution, despite the changing circumstances.
Syria continues to be a critical component in the old regional order in the Middle East, which Iran has nurtured by streaming tremendous funds, massive political and military support. Damascus is the political pillar of support in the “resistance camp” or as Iran calls it, the “golden link in the chain of resistance” against Israel. This is the “camp” Iran has established to counter the continued “imperialist” presence in the region. It is against this reality that the following statement by Hojjatoleslam Mehdi Taeb, head of the Ammar Strategic Base (pro-Khamenei think tank responsible for handling Iran’s soft war) and a former Basij commander, takes on added poignancy: “Syria is (Iran’s) 35th and a strategic province. If the enemy attacks us and intends to occupy either Syria or Khuzestan (Arab minority province in southwestern Iran), the priority is that we keep Syria… If we keep Syria, we can get Khuzestan back too, but if we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran… Syria had an army, but did not have the ability to manage a (urban warfare) war inside Syria’s cities… Iran’s front line is located in Syria. It is for this reason the Iranian government suggested that “in order to manage an urban war you must form (your own) Basij …The Syrian Basij was formed with 60,000 Hezbollah members who took over urban warfare from the army.”
The Arab Spring, or in Iranian terminology – the Islamic Awakening, has more or less positioned Iran at the forefront of the resistance camp. Hezbollah has, in fact, completed its takeover of the Lebanese arena, Hamas has established is control of Gaza and the political process (regarding the Syrian and Palestinian channels) has ground to a halt. Iran, for its part, continued to advance its nuclear programs concurrently with the negotiations with the West and to project regional strength, especially as discourse in the US about completing withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan intensified and while Iran continues to oppose the US and the West. Even the weak criticism at home regarding Iran’s continued support of Assad has absolutely no impact on Tehran’s determination.
The longer the Syrian crisis continues, the more it reveals the expansion of the Arab-Arab rift (between Saudi Arabia and the gulf countries against Syria), intensification of the Arab-Iranian rift and the Sunni-Shiite rift, not to mention the historical Persian-Turkish (Ottoman) rift. At the same time, it also trains the spotlight on the ever weaker position of the US in the Middle East, Iran’s centrality and the rise of Islamic regimes. As a result, one of the key challenges faced by Iran in this space is with Turkey. Both of the countries have powerful imperialist pasts and seek to recapture their former glory, though with a modern twist. They are expected to continue to butt heads on the Syrian crisis, which is actually a microcosm of the ongoing regional and international process to reshape the region after the upheavals of the Arab Spring.
Iran, through Hezbollah and other means, is increasing its footprint in Syria through boots on the ground, and Russia continues to send Assad sophisticated weaponry to help in air and marine defense (S-300 surface-to-air missiles and Yakhont supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles) that could fall into the hands of terror groups such as Hezbollah. It appears that Syria is yet another unresolved front left over from the Cold War, and the battle for its future is perceived by Russia and Iran on the one hand and the West, on the other, as one that can have a decisive effect on the shape the Middle East following the Arab Spring will take.
In the end, it would seem that while the West hesitates on how to address the Syrian crisis, the continued bloodshed (death toll of 90,000, if not higher) and the increasing evidence of the use of chemical weapons, Iran and Russian continue to maintain their united stance designed to keep Bashar al-Assad in control and keep Syria as a stronghold from which they can continue to wage their struggle against the West and Israel.
Assad’s survival to date and, moreover, his future survival will have many negative implications for the shape of the Middle East. Iran’s become even more confident and will increase its operations in the Syria-Lebanon space to influence the Middle East which is taking a new shape. This may be accompanied by completion of Iran’s nuclear program, which will serve as a defensive shield for its foreign policy and more aggressive export of the revolution, in which Syria-Lebanon will play a major role.