Saving President Assad

Iran and its proxies mobilize to preserve Assad

Jerusalem Post, 28/9.

A report issued by the US Treasury Department this month and picked up by the Washington Post newspaper accused the Lebanese Hizballah organization of increasing its support for the beleaguered regime of Bashar Assad in Syria. This report follows recent statements by senior officials of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps confirming the IRGC’s involvement in an ‘advisory’ capacity in Syria.

The Treasury Department report asserted that the IRGC and Hizballah are coordinating their efforts in Syria, which include training for Syrian forces and provision of military aid.

But while the new ‘revelations’ may garner media attention, they do little more than add additional evidence to a picture which has been plainly apparent since the first months of the civil war in Syria: the Iran-led regional alliance, using its various assets, is engaged in an all out effort to preserve the Assad regime.

The self-styled Iranian-led ‘resistance axis’ is a tight knit bloc whose various components work in close coordination.

Even prior to the outbreak of the uprising against Assad in March, 2011, Iranian involvement in Syria was extensive. The Revolutionary Guards maintained a permanent facility – the ‘Amr’ base – in Damascus.

This IRGC presence in Damascus was, according to Iranian opposition sources, responsible for Iranian military, intelligence, and logistical assistance to Hizballah in Lebanon.

As the Syrian uprising spread in late March, 2011, evidence rapidly emerged of overt Iranian involvement in the attempt to suppress protests.

As early as April 14th, 2011, US officials confirmed that Iran was aiding in the repression.

State Department Spokesmen accused Teheran of providing the Syrian authorities with ‘know how’ for monitoring and shutting down communications by activists.

On April 22 of that year, President Barack Obama said in a statement that Bashar al-Assad “sought Iranian assistance in repressing Syria’s citizens through the same brutal tactics that have been used by his Iranian allies.”

On May 12, 2011, the first concrete evidence of Iranian assistance emerged. A classified, leaked United Nations report stated that Iran was covertly shipping arms to Syria in violation of international sanctions.

The report listed six out of an alleged nine incidents in which Syria was the final destination of illegal arms shipments from Iran. One arms shipment intercepted by Turkish authorities in March contained “60 Kalashnikov rifles, 14 BKC (Bixi) machine guns, 7,920 rounds of Kalashnikov ammunition, 560 60 mm mortars and 1,288 120 mm mortars.

Since then, ample additional evidence has emerged of Iranian arms, personnel and know how reaching Assad.

Defecting Syrian soldiers, too, have confirmed the presence of non-Arab speaking ‘advisers’ deployed with their forces.

A former Syrian paratroop officer interviewed by this reporter in Idleb province in February, 2012 said that the presence of the Iranians and their ruthlessness was one of the central factors which precipitated his own defection.

As for Hizballah, its leader Hassan Nasrallah and its propaganda arms have been outspoken in their support for the Assad regime since the beginning of the uprising.

The US Treasury Department officially designated the organization for supporting the Syrian regime six weeks ago (a move which has little practical import, given that the US already regards Hizballah as a proscribed, terrorist organization)..

In a statement made at that time, David Cohen, Treasury Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, said that Hizballah has “directly trained Syrian Government personnel inside Syria and has facilitated the training of Syrian forces by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qods Force.”

Again, testimony by Syrian civilians regarding the presence of men with Lebanese accents accompanying Syrian troops and paramilitaries in incursions into rebel-supporting areas offers supporting evidence.

An additional component playing a supporting role in the Iranian effort to preserve Assad is the Maliki government in Iraq. According to intelligence reports cited by US officials, Iraq is permitting its airspace to be used to bring weaponry from Teheran to Damascus.

The Syrian civil war is the first clear indication that the new Shia ascendancy, in Iraq, contrary to the hopeful assertions of some analysts, is drawing closer to Iran.

Assad has benefited enormously from the tenacious support he has been offered by his regional allies over the last 18 months. It is this, along of course with the staunch backing of Russia and China, which has enabled him to escape the fate of fellow Arab dictators in Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia.

In offering their staunch backing to Assad, Iran and Hizballah have forfeited much of the support they possessed among Sunni Arab populations. Syrian Sunni supporters of the rebel side now routinely refer to Hizballah (Party of God) as ‘Hizb a-shaytan’ (the party of Satan).

Movement banners and Iranian flags are frequently burnt during opposition demonstrations.
But the Iranians evidently calculate that the concrete presence of an ally in Damascus is worth more than the shifting, nebulous sympathies of the Sunni Arab populations.

The stakes are high for Iran, and the evidence of a concerted, all-out mobilization of resources and assets suggest that Teheran understands them very well.

As part of its effort for regional hegemony, Iran wants to build a contiguous line of pro-Iranian states stretching from the Afghan-Iran border to the Mediterranean Sea. This line would consist of Iran itself, Shia-dominated Iraq, Assad’s Syria and then Hizballah-dominated Lebanon.

The fall of Assad to the Sunni rebels would end this aspiration. Hence Teheran and its allies are working furiously to keep the Syrian dictator in his place. The report issued by the US Treasury Department indicates that the west is clearly aware of what is taking place.

Whether half-hearted sanctions against Iranian and Hizballah officials, and expressions of surprise at Iraqi ingratitude will prove sufficient to offer a counterweight to this all-out effort by Teheran and its allies is an entirely different question.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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