Why Iran’s plan in Syria will fail


Em­pire-build­ing is not easy, es­pe­cially when you have nei­ther the mil­i­tary power nor the re­li­gious and cul­tural charisma needed to win native sup­port. Iran is bound to learn that, un­for­tu­nately, the hard way.

FOR the past week or so, Ira­nian of­fi­cial me­dia and so­cial net­works have been abuzz with anec­dotes wo­ven around a foot­ball match in Tehran be­tween Iran and Syria, and the light it might shed on a com­pli­cated re­la­tion­ship. Ac­cord­ing to most ac­counts, a group of Syr­i­ans flown in by special char­ter to cheer their na­tional squad in its bid for a place in the World Cup in Moscow staged an anti-Iran demon­stra­tion in the sta­dium. The Syr­ian con­tin­gent in­cluded young ladies who re­fused to wear the Ira­nian-style hi­jab.

Their pres­ence in the sta­dium high­lighted the fact that no Ira­nian woman is al­lowed to at­tend a foot­ball match af­ter a re­li­gious edict by the coun­try’s supreme leader that women watch­ing young men run­ning around with bare legs might cause “un­due ex­cite­ment.”

The Syr­ian fans seized the op­por­tu­nity to un­leash a tor­rent of venom against Iran and its peo­ple. If videos posted online are a clue, the Syr­i­ans used words and ex­pres­sions that are not fit to print. That pro­voked an equally abu­sive tor­rent from Ira­ni­ans on so­cial me­dia, and a de­bate over their coun­try’s role in the Syr­ian tragedy. “What are we do­ing there?” was a ques­tion re­peat­edly posed.

The ini­tial an­swer pro­vided by the author­i­ties was that Iran is fight­ing in Syria to pre­vent the fall of the As­sad regime, which had been an ally dur­ing the war with Sad­dam Hus­sein’s Iraq in the 1980s, and is now a mem­ber of the Iran-led “axis of re­sis­tance.” That an­swer failed to con­vince many peo­ple, even within the Ira­nian regime’s base.

Then an­other rea­son was cited: Iran is fight­ing in Syria to pre­vent the de­struc­tion of Shi­ite holy shrines. Of­fi­cial me­dia pub­lished lists of such shrines, some­times with pho­tos. That too was chal­lenged, as more than 90 per­cent of Syr­ian “Shi­ite holy sites” turned out to be burial places of Sunni Mus­lim the­olo­gians and schol­ars.

The lat­est and cur­rent jus­ti­fi­ca­tion cited by Tehran for its role in Syria, which means help­ing As­sad kill more Syr­i­ans, is that Iran needs se­cure land ac­cess to the Le­banese bor­der where, thanks to Hezbol­lah, it sets the agenda. The Syr­ian part of that dream cor­ri­dor, which must pass through a long sliver of Iraqi ter­ri­tory, skirts the fer­tile plains to the south of Da­m­as­cus.

Hence the idea of a deal with Turkey with Rus­sia’s bless­ing. Un­der the deal, Iran will sta­tion troops in a “de-es­ca­la­tion zone” south of Da­m­as­cus, while Turkey will seize con­trol of a chunk of Syr­ian ter­ri­tory in Idlib prov­ince. The pu­ta­tive deal is sup­posed to re­ceive an of­fi­cial fa­cade dur­ing talks in As­tana, Kaza­khstan, un­der UN aus­pices.

If put into prac­tice, Moscow’s “de-es­ca­la­tion” project will freeze the di­vi­sion of Syria into five seg­ments, with Rus­sia, Turkey and Iran dom­i­nat­ing three, and the US and its Kur­dish and Arab al­lies pre­sent in the other two. The scheme may end, or at least tone down, the fight­ing for a while, but it risks lead­ing to the de­struc­tion of Syria as a uni­fied na­tion-state. It is doomed to fail.

From what I know of Syria, which I have ob­served and vis­ited since 1970, de­spite al­most seven years of tragedy, the sense of “Syr­ian-ness” is still strong enough to frus­trate pu­ta­tive im­pe­rial ap­petites. In that con­text, Iran has even less chance of suc­ceed­ing than Turkey or Rus­sia. In Idlib, Turkey has the ad­van­tage of ter­ri­to­rial con­ti­gu­ity with Syria, a fact that fa­cil­i­tates lo­gis­tics and per­mits sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion to pur­sue po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tions.

Also, Ankara has close ties with some el­e­ments in Iraqi Kur­dis­tan, and could use them to in­flu­ence at least a seg­ment of Syr­ian Kurds to ac­cept the “de-es­ca­la­tion zone” as the least bad op­tion. The pres­ence of small groups of Turk­men and TurkoCir­cas­sian mi­nori­ties in the area is an ad­di­tional boon for Ankara.

Rus­sia is also in a bet­ter po­si­tion than Iran to se­cure a piece of the Syr­ian cake. Thanks to its mo­nop­oly of fire­power in Syr­ian airspace, Rus­sia’s air force can be used in sup­port of any de­sign on the ground. Much of Moscow’s piece of the cake is by the Mediter­ranean, eas­ily sup­plied and de­fended by its navy. And a ma­jor­ity of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion, hav­ing adopted an am­bigu­ous pos­ture to­ward the As­sad regime, might pre­fer Rus­sian dom­i­na­tion to Ira­nian.

Iran has none of those ad­van­tages. Syria is not Le­banon, where Shi­ites — a third of the pop­u­la­tion — have al­ways looked to Iran as a pro­tec­tor. At var­i­ous times, no­tably in the hey­days of pan-Ara­bism un­der the late Egyp­tian Pres­i­dent Ga­mal Ab­del Nasser, Iran un­der the shah was seen even by Le­banese Chris­tians as a coun­ter­bal­anc­ing force.

Iran’s pres­ence and in­flu­ence in Le­banon date back to the early stages of the Safavid dy­nasty more than 500 years ago, with close fam­ily ties, es­pe­cially among the clergy and tra­di­tional busi­ness fam­i­lies.

Tehran’s at­tempts to cast Syr­ian Alaw­ites as al­most Shi­ites, and thus de­serv­ing pro­tec­tion, have failed. Not a sin­gle ay­a­tol­lah has agreed to can­cel the count­less his­tor­i­cal re­li­gious edicts that cas­ti­gate Alaw­ites as “heretics” or crypto-Zoroas­tri­ans. This means that un­like Le­banon, where at least part of the Shi­ite com­mu­nity is sym­pa­thetic to Iran un­der any regime, in Syria to­day Tehran lacks a lo­cal pop­u­lar base.

Ira­nian Gen. Hus­sein Ha­madani, killed in ac­tion in Syria, ad­mit­ted as much in an in­ter­view he granted weeks be­fore his death. In it, he re­vealed that even As­sad sup­port­ers within the Syr­ian Army and Baath Party were hos­tile to Iran’s pres­ence in Syria. “The way we think, the way we live is ab­hor­rent to them,” Ha­madani said.

In a re­cent TV in­ter­view, As­sad in­di­rectly echoed that sen­ti­ment. “We look east to Rus­sia,” he said. No men­tion of Iran. Em­pire-build­ing is not easy, es­pe­cially when you have nei­ther the mil­i­tary power nor the re­li­gious and cul­tural charisma needed to win native sup­port. Iran is bound to learn that, un­for­tu­nately, the hard way.

Amir Taheri was ex­ec­u­tive ed­i­tor in chief of the daily Kay­han in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or writ­ten for, in­nu­mer­able pub­li­ca­tions and pub­lished 11 books. Orig­i­nally pub­lished in Asharq Al-Awsat.


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