The Battle for Syria
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|Michael Segall||August 5th 2012|
Amid the intensifying crisis in Syria, which in recent weeks has seen massacres of the civilian population in various parts of the country, Iranian military, propaganda, and economic assistance keeps flowing in, and its aim is to help President Bashar al-Assad survive. Iran aided Assad in withstanding the waves of protest as soon as they erupted, and it is now backing him and advising him on how to overcome an existential crisis that put to the test the two countries’ strategic alliance.
Iran, which has invested great military, economic, and political resources in Syria – a main pillar of the anti-Israel “resistance camp” and the gateway to aiding Hizbullah – now views Syria, amid the rapid changes in the Middle East, as a key battleground to confront the West. How this conflict unfolds will determine the new landscape that is being shaped in the region.
Syria as a Battlefield
The present state of affairs is highly reminiscent of what transpired after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. Iran backed Hizbullah while Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, and Western states, supported the Lebanese freedom forces. The eventual outcome was Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon at the height of President Bush’s democratization campaign after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Iraqi elections of January 2005. Iran then viewed Lebanon as the first line of confrontation with the West, which was trying, unsuccessfully, to impose a rapid democratization there, too, and disarm Hizbullah. At present, Hizbullah weapons are serving as part of Assad’s apparatus of violent repression – under Iran’s command.
Iran, then, keeps acting by the same logic. It views the confrontation in Syria as critical to the reshaping of the Middle East and to its own role in the region as the party that leads and will continue to lead the resistance to the Western presence and to Israel’s continued existence – even if Assad ultimately falls.
Iran is well aware that its backing for Assad will further widen the rift, which in any case is unbridgeable, between it and the Sunni Gulf states, with Saudi Arabia at the forefront, and also between it and Turkey now that the brief golden age between these two countries, in the aftermath of the Gaza flotilla incident, has ended.
On the Syrian issue, Iran is also increasingly coordinating with Russia – whose role constitutes a brake on international intervention in the matter. On June 7, 2012, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad discussed Syria with Russian president Vladimir Putin at the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) conference in Shanghai.
During the first year of the Syrian crisis, Iran maintained a low public profile about its aid to Damascus. But in recent weeks as the conflict has intensified, senior figures in Iran’s political-religious-military leadership have acknowledged that Iran is militarily involved in Syria through the Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force (IRGC-QF). Reports on this involvement and its characteristics by Syrian opposition elements and Western sources are indeed proliferating.
Meanwhile, Iran is building up its rationale for this involvement – the main point being that since, according to Iran’s perception, regional states led by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with help from the United States, Europe, and Israel, are assisting the Syrian rebels and allowing terrorists to enter the country, Iran has no choice but to help its longstanding ally against the external threats. At the same time, Iran consistently claims that Syria is now paying a heavy price for being “the golden link in the chain of the anti-Israel resistance camp,” and that the West is promoting a false front of popular protest that is actually aimed at undermining Assad’s bold stance against Israel and precipitating his downfall.
In parallel with the internal escalation in Syria and the political and military resources Iran has to invest there, Iran is conducting the nuclear talks with the P5+1 countries (the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany) while using familiar foot-dragging tactics. The aim is to buy more precious time for the ongoing development of its nuclear program and arrive at the bomb.
For Iran, that will mean achieving the strategic objective of entrenching its status as a rising Middle Eastern power while gradually pushing the West out of the region. Iran believes that a Shiite nuclear bomb will afford it immunity and enable it to continue its subversive activity in the region. Hence, Iran does not fear the medium- and long-term implications of sustaining its support for Syria in the disintegrating Arab arena, as the Middle East (including Sunnis) assumes a strong Islamic coloration and the West loses its grip on the region.
The IRGC-QF’s Role in Syria
Esmail Ghani, deputy commander of the IRGC-QF, is the most senior Iranian military official so far to have revealed its activity in Syria. In an interview to the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA), he acknowledged that elements of the IRGC-QF’s Qods Force have been involved in Syrian events. Ghani said this “is aimed at preventing a massacre of people….Before we came to Syria, there was a large massacre of the citizens by the opposition, but with the physical and material presence of Iran, a further massacre in Syria was prevented.” Although this interview was removed from the ISNA’s website immediately after it appeared, it was posted at length on other Iranian sites.
This marked the first time a senior IRGC-QF commander had confirmed reports by Syrian opposition elements (particularly the Free Syrian Army) and Western sources about active involvement of elite units of the IRGC-QF (which operates outside of Iran for special subversion and terror missions), together with the Syrian army, in the violent repression of protests.1 Ghani has been designated by the U.S. Treasury for his role in smuggling arms to African states, Syria, and Hizbullah. As deputy IRGC-QF commander, he has financial oversight of Qods Force weapons shipments.
The opposition, especially the Free Syrian Army, has presented testimonies of direct Iranian involvement in the fighting and has published interrogations of Iranian prisoners and Hizbullah operatives, as part of its online information campaign, along with documentation such as confiscated passports and identity papers. Iranians and Hizbullah operatives have been captured in main centers of fighting including Homs. In their confessions they admit that they belong to the IRGC-QF, and were sent to put down the disturbances in Syria, receiving instructions from Syrian intelligence. The Syrian opposition has also displayed weapons that, it claims, originated in Iran, as well as CDs with pictures of Nasrallah.
In addition, the Free Syrian Army has disclosed buggings of Hizbullah’s communications network in the Albiadha neighborhood of Homs; in them one hears coordinated planning of operations in the city. The Syrian opposition has also revealed what it claims is a fabricated rocket-propellant charge for an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) that was fraudulently sold by Hizbullah to the opposition, and that causes whoever tries to fire the RPG to be killed by the rocket’s explosion.
Iranian assistance to the repression of the Syrian uprising, which has included consultation as well as guidance in the “field,” began shortly after the protests first erupted. This aid was soon reported by Iranian opposition elements, who claimed that the repression in Syria was being carried out by a Syrian contingent of the IRGC-QF that had been operating in the country, and had been responsible over time for military, intelligence, and logistical assistance to Hizbullah in Lebanon. With the outbreak of protest in Syria, the IRGC-QF dispatched special emissaries, commanders of the Basij (volunteer forces of the IRGC-QF that also put down the uprising in Iran), to Damascus to help Assad. Other reports claimed Iran had provided Syria with logistical equipment, sniper rifles of its own make, and advanced Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN) devices for disrupting Internet activity, which allow the identification of activists who converse by phone or use the social networks on the Internet.
The Shabiha: Emulating the Basij
In line with Ghani’s words, in a May 29, 2012, press briefing, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland pointed to Iran’s involvement in the Houla massacre, linking the Qods Force to the incident and implicitly to other incidents in Syria as well. She noted the great similarity in structure and operational methods between the Shabiha forces that stood behind the massacre, according to various testimonies, and the Basij, the volunteer arm of the IRGC-QF. The Basij, who are recruited from among the young, were one of the main elements behind the repression of the protest that erupted after Iran’s 2009 presidential elections. According to Nuland:
Well, it’s Assad and his regime who created this Shabiha.…It very much models the Iranian Basiji model, where they hire young guys to indiscriminately wreak vengeance and do this kind of hand-to-hand violence….Again, the Iranians have clearly provided support and training and advice to the Syrian army, but this Shabiha thug force mirrors the same force that the Iranians used. The Basiji and the Shabiha are the same type of thing, and clearly reflects the tactics and the techniques that the Iranians used for their own suppression of civil rights….We just find it interesting that it was on this very weekend that the deputy head of the Qods Force decided to take credit for the advice that they’re giving to Syria.
Syria and “Palestine” in Iran’s National Security Doctrine
Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, referred to Iran’s ideological and security motives for supporting the Syrian regime. While he indicated that this support is limited to the “ideological and moral level,” his statements implied that the backing is actually much more extensive, and that both its ideological and security motives run very deep and are indeed bound up with Iran’s nature as an Islamic state.
Firouzabadi stressed that “Iran’s support for the Syrian people is linked to Islam and to the directives of Imam Khomeini.” Support for Palestine is also an aspect of the Imam’s defense-security ideology and of Islam itself. “According to this far-reaching concept, Allah ordered us not to allow infidels to rule over Muslims….One of our duties is to defend the Muslims….Syria is the only country that stands firm against Israel’s attacks on the Palestinians.” Firouzabadi added that “this resolute stance jibes with the Koranic imperative, and therefore we support [Syria] and any actor that resists Israel.” According to Firouzabadi, “We are not involved in Syria…we are not enemies of the Syrian people….Syria is a friendly country that is left standing at the front line of resistance to Israel and we provide it with moral and ideological support.” The Armed Forces chief said Iran was involved in “the positive decisions” that the Syrian government and President Assad have been making for the Syrian people, is interested in restoring Syria’s security, and will help protect and stabilize the country.
Mohammad Reza Naqdi, head of the IRGC-QF’s Basij organization, made statements in a similar spirit. In an interview with Hizbullah’s Al-Manar satellite TV station, he said that as long as Syria stands firm against Israel, Iran’s support for it will be assured and non-negotiable. As for the geo-strategic situation in the region, Naqdi said that in the wake of U.S. forces’ departure from Iraq and the collapse of their line of defense for Israel there, the United States was trying to firm up a new line of defense for Israel (the “Jerusalem-occupying regime”) – this time in Syria – against the growing threat from the east. And he asserted that, thanks to the brave resistance of the Syrian people, this hasty activity would likely lead to “a further failure for imperialism.”
In a speech at a conference on “Stable Security” held at the initiative of the IRGC-QF’s Imam Hossein University, IRGC-QF lieutenant commander Hussein Salami also addressed the region’s geostrategic situation in light of the “Islamic Awakening” (the Iranian term for the “Arab Spring”). He called the present moment “the most complex, difficult, and strange time in the history of Islam and Iran” and said the rapid geopolitical developments, particularly in the Muslim states, were uprooting the geopolitical order created by the Western powers. In his view these developments, which stemmed from an Islamic ideology, were gradually eroding the Western powers’ influence in favor of a new, Islamic, revolutionary, geopolitical reality. In this emerging reality “the Zionist regime, which is the source of the threat to the region’s security, is losing the geopolitical props of its regional power.” He underscored that the United States was losing its infrastructure and strongholds in the region, particularly in Afghanistan and Iraq, and that Iran sought to maximally exploit the improvement in its own geopolitical situation by influencing the direction of events.
Overall, the statements of senior IRGC-QF and Armed Forces officials and of the political leadership indicate that the “battle for Syria” has a special importance for Iran. For one thing, Syria is a strategic and loyal ally; it has not signed a peace treaty with Israel, makes a decisive contribution to entrenching Hizbullah in Lebanon, and is home to Islamic and secular Palestinian organizations that oppose an agreement with Israel. But Iran now also regards Syria as the front line in the battle to reshape the Middle East, and as the main arena of Iran’s struggle (Bahrain being an additional one) with the West (including Turkey) and the “moderate” Sunni Arab camp led by Saudi Arabia. It is Syria’s centrality to the general Iranian strategy of seeking influence and regional (and international) hegemonic status that explains the extent of Iran’s assistance to the Syrian regime in many areas and Iran’s desire for its continued survival.
“The Ashes of the Syrian Flames Will Bury Israel”
Along with the military and logistical aid to Syria, senior Iranian officials continue to publicly express unstinting support for it. They also condemn the Gulf states, the West, and Israel for their “scheme” to depose Assad, emphasize that harming Syria means crossing a red line from Iran’s standpoint, and warn that the shock waves from Syria will affect the whole region and especially Israel.
Re-elected Majlis speaker Ali Larijani: “It seems that the U.S. and the West are seeking to prepare the ground for a new crisis [in Syria]….Possibly, U.S. military officials are suffering from a misunderstanding over regional issues because Syria’s specifications are in no way similar to those of Libya….Benghaziation of Syria will spread into Palestine [Israel] and the ashes of such flames will definitely bury the Zionist regime.…U.S. officials should be aware of this dangerous game….Certain reactionaries in the region [i.e., the Gulf states] take pride in the fact that they have used money and weapons to destroy and incite a civil war in Syria.18 During a meeting with Syria-based Ahmad Jibril, secretary-general of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC): “An extensive plot is being orchestrated by global powers, conspiring to bring down independent states like Syria and remove any resistance to the Zionist regime."
Hardliner Ayatollah Seyyed Ahmad Khatami, member of the Assembly of Experts’ presiding board: “As long as the Islamic Republic [of Iran] is standing by Syria, [its] government…will not collapse….Recent elections and other reformist measures in Syria have all been [taken] under the Islamic Republic’s encouragement….The reason why Iran supports Syria is that the West is taking revenge on the country for the Islamic Awakenings, the Islamic Revolution of Iran, and…Hizbullah….Western imperialism is dispatching weaponry to the Syrian opposition, which is disgraceful, and of course the Islamic Republic will not allow their agendas to bear fruit.”
An Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman during a weekly press conference: “The events in Syria can potentially affect the security of the entire region. The wave of Islamic awakening has led to a break in [Arab] dependence on the U.S. and thus threatens the Zionist regime’s interests. Those who are dissatisfied with this [inevitable] process stir up instability and tension in Syria, in order to provide the Zionist regime with an escape route.”
Iranian UN ambassador Mohammad Khazaei “said that the Syrian conflict could engulf the whole region and result in further instability, calling for an immediate end to foreign supplying of arms and money to opposition groups.”
Deputy foreign minister for Africa-Arab affairs Hossein Amir-Abdollahian “said that some participants of the [Friends of Syria] meeting [in Turkey] support the terrorists [and] are to be blamed for the tragic events in Syria. ‘Instead of supporting the terrorists in Syria, they should support…Bashar al-Assad’s reform plan and the efforts by UN-Arab League joint envoy in Syria, Kofi Annan.’”
Applying the Kosovo Model to Syria
Iran is also using the written and electronic state-run media to air its positions on the Syrian crisis. Numerous editorials set forth the arguments articulated by Iranian spokesmen; mordant cartoons convey the propagandistic messages, almost without the need of text (see Appendix). The articles and reports reveal the growing tension in Iranian-Saudi relations and the struggle between Iran’s Arabic and English satellite channels (Al-Alam and Press TV respectively), on the one hand, and the Arab satellite channels, primarily Al Arabiya and Qatar’s Al Jazeera, on the other.
An editorial carried by several news agencies and newspapers claimed that the expulsion of Syrian diplomats from European countries was a rash step revealing Europe’s irrational response to the situation, and creating an obstacle in UN envoy Annan’s path. The article further alleged that the massacres in the Al-Hawlah area of Homs were perpetrated by al-Qaeda and other Salafi and terror groups, and derided Al Arabiya as “the propaganda voice of Saudi Arabia” for broadcasting an interview with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who blamed Al-Hawlah on the Syrian regime. The showing of this interview, the editorial averred, was a further sign that states like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Israel aim to play a key role on Syrian soil, paving the way for the entry of terror groups with the goal of bringing about Assad’s ouster.
The semiofficial Fars news agency published an interview with Mohammad Sadeq al-Hosseini, a senior Iranian expert on Middle Eastern affairs, who decried “the Western and Arab scheme to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime” in an “attempt to carry out a ‘Kosovo for the Arabs’ in Syria.” He said this was a malevolent plan aimed at fomenting a religious, interracial, ethnic, and military war against Syria. Armed groups in Syria, al-Hosseini declared, that “do not shrink from any means and even shoot children and infants,” would “try to add to the tumult in Syria by attacking Palestinian refugee camps or the tombs of prophecy [referring to sacred Shia sites in Syria such as the tomb of Zaynab, granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad] or even churches.” He further asserted that any attempt at military intervention in Syria would bring about “an explosion in the whole region of the Arab and Islamic east.” In such a scenario the peoples of the region would not sit quietly but would intervene in full force, and this would “lead to the eradication of the main plotter in the region, Israel.”
Iran also intends to produce a documentary film about the Syrian crisis called al Fitna al Sham (The Civil War in Syria/Damascus). The movie, which has been approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and will be shot in Syria, Turkey, and France, will undoubtedly visually substantiate the Iran-Syrian propaganda line, which apparently flows from Iranian directives following talks with the Syrian regime.
Before the latest escalation and massacres, Iranian spokesmen had also been declaring that “the worst is already behind us” and that Syria was on the way to surviving the crisis; this was perhaps an attempt at encouraging Assad. Recently the same notion was reiterated by Expediency Council secretary Mohsen Reza’I, who said Syria had now passed the “danger point” but would still eventually have to implement reforms. Other Iranian spokesmen have stated that Syrian reforms are needed and that the president has indeed launched them, but the West and “certain countries” (mainly Saudi Arabia) are not interested in their success.
Saudi Arabia an “Enemy” of Iran
The Saudi, along with Western and Turkish, backing for the Syrian rebels has increased the tension and further widened the rift between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That tension reached a new peak over Saudi plans to “annex” Bahrain and thereby shield it from the lengthening Iranian shadow and unrelenting Shia protests, which have been encouraged and abetted by Iran.
In May 2012 the popular Iranian website Stop Iran posted a poll in which viewers were asked to define Saudi Arabia as a “friend,” “rival,” or “enemy” of Iran. Out of about 23,000 voters, over 72 percent saw Saudi Arabia as an enemy of Iran, 21 percent as a rival, and 6 percent as a friend.
An editorial on the site published under a title that accurately reflects the poll, “Saudi Arabia Is an Enemy of Iran,” notes that aside from historical factors, the two states’ relations are fraught with deep disagreements on many regional issues that “have created a high wall of distrust between [them].” Surveying the main landmarks in the deterioration of these relations since the Islamic Revolution, the editorial specifies Bahrain’s separation from Iran during the Shah’s reign as the starting point. It says relations have long gone beyond mere rivalry and reached a level of confrontation, noting, for example, Saudi Arabia’s joining in the efforts to boycott Iranian oil.
The editorial also asserts that the two states’ lack of common interests further aggravates their disputes. In this context it emphasizes that, whereas in the case of Iran and Turkey, these two states’ common (economic and political) interests prevent a conflict from emerging over their differences regarding Syria, in the case of Iran and Saudi Arabia the story is completely different and the situation between them is one where the only possible “balance” is a victory of one over the other. The article also notes the profound religious rift between Shiite Iran and Wahhabi Saudi Arabia, which cannot be attributed to foreign involvement. It predicts that Iranian-Saudi relations will only continue to worsen since regional Islamic trends are working to the detriment of Saudi Arabia, whose current role far exceeds it real, logical weight, which stands to be balanced in the future by Egypt’s and Iraq’s return to the regional equation.
The editorial sums up by saying Riyadh is clearly interested in Assad’s downfall – and not because it longs for Syrian democracy! Instead, the Saudis want Assad’s ouster to compensate for the imbalance vis-à-vis Iran that was created by Mubarak’s fall, and because in any case, as long as the current Middle Eastern upheaval continues, relations between Tehran and Riyadh will also remain turbulent until one of them has to raise the white flag.
Iran will continue to support Assad and his regime. Syria’s significance for Iran goes well beyond the two states’ political ties as part of their strategic alliance. Despite – indeed, mainly because of – international and Arab pressure on Damascus, Iran is continuing to back Syria and no longer bothers to conceal its military assistance to the Syrian security branches that are violently repressing the protests. Iran is also projecting an aura of relations-as-usual with Syria. Visits, and economic and cultural activity, are ongoing and Ahmadinejad has indeed invited his counterpart Assad to the summit conference of nonaligned states planned for the end of August 2012 in Tehran. It will be interesting to see if Assad leaves Syria to participate, assuming he survives until then.
The confrontation over Syria with the West and the “moderate” Arab states gives Iran a good opportunity – even if Assad ultimately falls – to convey the message that, when it comes to the emerging new order in the Middle East, it is a central player that cannot be ignored and has the power to influence the process and pace of events.
By publicly acknowledging that the IRGC-QF is active on Syrian soil, Iran is signaling that it has the ability to sustain symmetry: if the West provides military assistance to the opposition, then Iran provides it to the regime. Iran is also trying to make such symmetry part of its nuclear talks with the West. It seeks to infuse broader content into these talks concerning the region’s security and energy sources, as well as Iran’s key role in both. From time to time Iran raises the issue of the Strait of Hormuz and its ability to strike every American base in the Middle East, along with, of course, the entirety of Israeli territory (in part by Hizbullah).
Syria, like Lebanon and “Palestine,” represents a major component of Iran’s security doctrine, the Islamic Republic’s first line of defense. Assistance to Syria manifests that outlook, part of which involves distancing threats from the homeland and waging the struggle with Israel and the West in regions far from Iran, while building a response capability against Israel in these same regions for whenever the moment of truth arrives.
Iran emphasizes that Syria has stood for years at the front line of the resistance to Israel, is now paying the price for this, and hence should be helped in this struggle. In actuality, Israel (and hatred of the West) remains, even in the new reality – or Islamic Awakening as Iran sees it – the only common denominator that Shia Persian Iran has with the Sunni Arab states.
In dealing with the crisis on Syrian soil (as with the crisis in Lebanon after the Hariri assassination), Iran is making clear that it does not shrink from confronting broad-based international moves, even if this entails considerable conflict with the West and the moderate Arab states. For Iran, this is another opportunity to demonstrate its growing power and ability to affect regional processes that are “generational.” Iran’s rapid progress toward a nuclear bomb, let alone its reaching that goal, while the nuclear talks continue in different modalities, will enable it to act freely – and perhaps even more aggressively – in pursuing its vision of a Middle East that is subject to its hegemonic ideological-religious, economic, and political sway on the ruins of Pax Americana.
IDF Lt.-Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, from where this article is adapted.