Iran vs. NATO: The twi­light war in Syria

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Syria’s Arab Spring civil war be­gan as an­other round in a long strug­gle be­tween the 10 per­cent and the 90 per­cent — the 10 per­cent loyal to the Alaw­ite dic­ta­tor­ship of the As­sad clan ver­sus ev­ery­one else. The civil war has now ex­panded into a twi­light re­gional war be­tween Iran and NATO, with Turkey as NATO’s front­line ac­tor.

At one level, Iran and NATO share a com­mon con­cern: Syr­ian dis­in­te­gra­tion. Where they dif­fer — greatly — is on who or what pre­vents dis­in­te­gra­tion.

Syria is a frag­ile mo­saic of re­li­gious and eth­nic groups, to in­clude Arabs, Kurds, Druze and nu­mer­ous Chris­tian sects. Think frac­tious Le­banon, only big­ger, and hand­cuffed by a brit­tle po­lice state. Sunni Mus­lim rebels, in­clud­ing mem­bers of the Mus­lim Brother­hood, present the big­gest chal­lenge to the nom­i­nally Shia Mus­lim Alaw­ites (the sect is the­o­log­i­cally het­ero­ge­neous). In 1982, Syr­ian forces un­der Hafez alAs­sad (fa­ther of Bashir alAs­sad, the cur­rent dic­ta­tor) mas­sa­cred at least 10,000 Sunni rebels in the city of Hama. In that pre-In­ter­net and cell phone era, the regime hid the killing fields.

Bashir al-As­sad’s forces have been more re­strained. 2011’s dig­i­tal com­mu­ni­ca­tions pro­vide real-time pic­tures of mur­der. NATO’s Libyan in­ter­ven­tion re­minds As­sad that he could also face overt in­ter­na­tional ac­tion if he threat­ens mass reprisals. So his regime, sup­ported by Ira­nian in­tel­li­gence and spe­cial forces, has fought a slow war of re­pres­sion, a cruel en­durance con­test with its own peo­ple, killing some 2,700 civil­ians since the re­bel­lion erupted in Fe­bru­ary.

The regime, how­ever, is fal­ter­ing. The mo­saic con­tains too many en­e­mies. Iran has no- ticed. Ear­lier this month, Ira­nian pres­i­dent Mah­moud Ah­madine­jad told As­sad to end his vi­o­lent crack­down.

Iran wants to buy time, hop­ing As­sad and his killers will en­dure. This would be an op­ti­mal out­come for Iran’s Is­lamic rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. As­sad’s Syria pro­vides Iran with a for­ward base in its proxy war against Is­rael, sup­port­ing Hezbol­lah and other ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions.

The As­sad dic­ta­tor­ship, how­ever, is no longer ac­cept­able to NATO. U.S. Pres­i­dent Barack Obama made that clear last month when he said, “For the sake of the Syr­ian peo­ple, the time has come for Pres­i­dent (Bashir) As­sad to step aside.”

Iran could live with an As­sad re­place­ment who would con­tinue to sup­port its prox­ies. Ex­il­ing As­sad might make room for an al­ter­na­tive Alaw­ite dic­ta­tor, a man with a dif­fer­ent face, but there is no guar­anty that a new Alaw­ite face will halt the re­bel­lion. The Libyan rebels ouster of dic­ta­tor Muam­mar Gad­hafi has en­cour­aged Syr­i­ans. For that mat­ter, it has en­cour­aged Ira­nian dis­si­dents — which is an­other rea­son Tehran’s dic­ta­tors want the As­sad regime to pre­vail.

NATO would like to deny Iran its Syr­ian base but also pre­vent dis­in­te­gra­tion while avoid­ing di­rect mil­i­tary in­ter­ven­tion. It would also like to avoid a peace­keep­ing mis­sion and na­tion-build­ing op­er­a­tion, though that may not be pos­si­ble.

Here’s the dis­in­te­gra­tion night­mare: armed sec­tar­ian mini-states, a Kur­dish tri­an­gle and frag­ment en­claves of fear and suf­fer­ing run by neigh­bor­hood war­lords, each a pos­si­ble Ter­ror-Stan open to ex­trem­ist sub­ver­sion.

For­tu­nately, there are Syr­ian rebel lead­ers who know that the big losers in this hell are the Syr­ian peo­ple. Two weeks ago, af­ter months of dis­cus­sion, Syr­ian rebel lead­ers meet­ing in Turkey formed a national coun­cil. It is a di­verse group, but an at­tempt to unify Syr­ian op­po­si­tion to the As­sad regime. Coun­cil rep­re­sen­ta­tives hope their or­ga­ni­za­tion can fun­nel in­ter­na­tional sup­port to rebels in­side Syria, coun­ter­ing Ira­nian sup­port for As­sad.

Ac­cord­ing to The New York Times, the coun­cil fa­vors “a mul­ti­eth­nic and plu­ral­ist Syria, run with­out any po­lit­i­cal em­pha­sis on re­li­gion. “ That’s NATO’s op­ti­mal out­come. Can it be achieved? Do­ing so re­quires regime change in Da­m­as­cus, con­tin­u­ally thwart­ing Iran and po­lit­i­cal buy-in by a ma­jor­ity of Syria’s cit­i­zens. At some point it will also re­quire de­ploy­ing an in­ter­na­tional se­cu­rity force in­side Syria, to counter venge­ful Ira­nian sub­ver­sion.

Austin Bay is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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