How far is Iran willing to go in order to save the Assad regime from crumbling?
No one can truly answer this question; in fact, I think even Assad may not know the answer for sure. it is certainly true that Syria is Iran’s strategic gateway to the Arab world and it’s link with other proxy groups in Lebanon and Gaza. However,The recent events in Syria pose a serious challenge to the complicated relationship between the two countries and will probably expose its strengths and weakness.
Looking back at the past few years may give us some clues about the mindset of both regimes and how united they are at crisis time. While the world was watching closely for a possible Israeli air strike on Iran nuclear facilities, an interesting debate (particularly in Israel) surfaced about the nature of the relationship between Assad ‘s regime and Iran.
In December 2009, the Jerusalem Post published details of a cable written by the United States Embassy in Damascus, dated Dec. 20, 2009, summing up the visits earlier of the Iranian National Security Advisor Saeed Jalili, Vice President and Head of the Environmental Department Mahammed-Javad Mahamadzideh and Defense Minister Ahmad Ali Vahidi to Damascus. The cable cited an unnamed Syrian official who claimed that in the talks, the Syrians told the Iranians that they would not participate in an Iranian retaliation to a potential Israeli strike.
If true, and Assad was unwilling to stand by his closest allies, then what would make us assume that the Iranians would not do the same? This view is echoed by Meir Javedanfar ( Iranian-Israeli Analyst) who argued that Khamenei won’t support Assad to the end in his recent article in the Guardian (August 2011).
However, the British writer Patrick Seale (biographer of Hafiz al-Assad) always argued passionately about the strong ties between Damascus and Tehran. In an interview to Ynet Israel (December 2010), he warned Israel to stop deluding itself. Later, He labeled Syria as “a time bomb, which could truly set the Middle East alight” in another article in Foreign Policy in March 2011.
Rather than being dragged into endless debate about the Iranian mindset, it is probably easier to discuss the Mullah’s potential options (which are not many). They only have two; either to stick with Assad till the end regardless of the outcome or abandoning him when his regime becomes a liability to the Iranian national interests.
Which option would the Iranian choose? It would depend on the Syrian people.
There is no doubt that the smart tenacious and incredibly resilient Syrians are the driving force and the key to the success of their revolution. They fully understand that they have to earn their freedom, as no one will hand it to them. The longer the protests continues peacefully with huge participation, the more the Iranians will be forced to rethink their ties with Assad.
Despite the fact that it is harder and more taxing to undertake, nonviolent resistance is an extremely powerful tool that can successfully dismantle even the most vicious of regimes, as it invokes public scrutiny of the oppressor, something dictators always fear.
There is something about image of victims that profoundly affect minds and emotions (like the image of Syria cartoonist Ali- Ferzat’s hands broken). The more the public opinion is engaged, the more countries like Russia and China would be forced to rethink their position. It may also encourage more defection from high ranked army officers who may be uncomfortable committing such violent oppression on regular basis.
Many reports indicate that Tehran is sparing no efforts to help Assad by supplying him with weapons, surveillance tools and expertise in order to help in crushing the popular protests. Although, history teach us that these methods are no match against the will of people.
However, any attempt to arm the protestors (either from outside Syria or through army defection) against the regime would be counter productive and might play into the hands of the Iranians who thrive on instability and civil war. It would also provide Assad with a pretext to justify more oppression and convert the discrete Iranian support to a potential public and formal one. The Mullah will cherish the opportunity, as they are the masters of instability.
In a country run by a regime that rely heavily on the loyalties of various minority groups, civil war is a huge risk and should be avoided at all costs. If Lebanon teaches us anything, it is how the eruption of the civil war can lead to the creation of groups like Hezbollah ( regardless of their sects).
It is crucial for the Syrians to stay focused, resist the temptation to despair and keep the momentum of their peaceful movement going in order to avoid a similar fate to the Iran’s green revolution. That is what is the embattled Syrian president ultimate goal, he is desperate to show his Iranian allies images like that of Ferzat’s broken hand as a proof of his success in crushing the protests. Hopefully, Firzat self-portrait (even it was fake) would give the Iranians a completely different impression.