It is almost impossible to predict how Syria might emerge after Assad. Many hope for a stable, democratic state. Though, instability, civil war and an Islamic state are also real possibilities. Regardless of the outcome, the collapse of the Assad regime in Syria will have an enormous impact on the wider Middle East particularly on Iran.
The heat of the Syrian volcano will be felt in Tehran far more than in Beirut, Amman and Istanbul. The Mullahs who stood by Assad for decades already faces daunting challenges today, and those challenges will multiply and grow in the near future and on several fronts.
The Domestic Front:
Perhaps the worst nightmare for the Mullahs is the implications on the domestic front. The psychological impact of the fall of Assad may inspire many in Iran to reignite a second green revolution. This is a red line for the Mullahs that must be avoided at all costs, and they would not hesitate to ruthlessly crush any rebellion. The Green movement is also watching the Arab spring, and they may learn a thing or two from their neighbors, the huge decline in the economy recently can also help their cause. However, it is essential to remember that the power base of the Mullahs and their revolutionary guards is probably still strong with no indication of any erosion, yet!
The Syrian Front:
With the potential loss of the massive Iranian investments in Syria, the economic impact of the fall of Assad could be enormous. However, the political impact would be devastating. By losing Syria, Iran would lose its strategic depth and gateway to the Arab world. How the Mullahs will respond to this serious blow? That remains to be seen.
Judging by their past responses, the Mullahs would probably resort to a quick policy of damage limitation and exploitation of any instability. The details will depend on events on the ground in Syria. Chaos, civil war, even a military quo is the Iranians’ best outcomes, as it this would give them more scope to maneuver in exploiting the situation to their advantage and allow them rebuild their links with the newly emerging power groups within Syria and to continue smuggling weapons to Hezbollah. Ironically, a stable, democratic Syria would be Iran’s worst nightmare and a Sunni Islamic regime would not be good either.
The Lebanese Front:
By throwing in its lot with Assad, the Iranian proxy group Hezbollah stands to lose a lot following the departure of its ally. Whilst it is certainly true that Hezbollah’s center of gravity is within Lebanon, and it is independent of Assad’s regime, however, the destruction of their main bridge with Tehran will have massive implications for Hezbollah’s policies over years to come. In fact, it is no exaggeration to suggest that Hezbollah views the collapse of the Baath regime in Syria as an existential threat.
How Nasrallah will respond? Can he succeed in maintaining his power?
No one can predict the future but at least we can discuss his options, Nasrallah will have a potentially three options:
a- Do nothing: It is probably wise for Nasrallah not rush to respond to any events in Syria and play for time until a clearer picture emerges, however, there is a risk that a lack of response may be perceived as weakness by his political opponents. It is highly unlikely that the likes of Jumblatt would continue his support for the current government one more day after the departure of Assad! Will Nasrallah sit & watch March 14th regain power and send his “Brave Fighters” to the STL?
b- War: Five years since 2006 war are enough for Hezbollah to reinforce its military capabilities. Nasrallah will not hesitate to spark a fight whenever convenient. However, this option is not without its risks particularly without the support of Syrians, his ability to engage in hostilities will be severely hampered. Any failure will totally eradicate his gains from the 2006 war and can permanently weaken his political stance in Lebanon.
c- Emerge from the shadows: Nasrallah may decide to use his weapons in order to enforce a loyal government. Being the only armed faction, Hezbollah will not hesitate to use force in order to maintain their strategic interests. If war with Israel can weaken Nasrallah stance, openly turning against his fellow Lebanese would be a political suicide and may even drag Lebanon down into another round of civil war.
Will the events in Syria trigger an all out war between Iran and Israel? The answer depends on Israel as well as Iran. Can Israel resists the temptation or will be dragged into unpredictable war with Hezbollah or Iran? The Iranian may increase their rhetoric with Ahmadinejad ranting and raving in front of global media, but starting a risky war? Dare I say “Unlikely”.
The Mullahs fully understand the challenges facing them in the new, evolving Middle East. They will continue to do whatever it takes to secure their own survival and maintain their tight grip on power. Despite their crazy rhetoric, they are certainly not suicidal and have no plan to gamble with their own future. They will pick their fights where and when they are ready for them.
Syria might trigger a grand game of snakes and ladders with numerous real life serpents that are far more deadly than those printed on the board.The US Ambassador Ford has correctly urged the US government to start planning for the day after Assad; the Iranian regime is probably busy formulating a plan too.