When dealing with the region’s countries and the U.S., Iran acts like it won the war in Syria - the war which the Syrian regime launched against its people. Is such a behavior appropriate and is there anything to justify it?
What is certain is that it’s too early to decisively say that Iran won in Syria and that it can demand Saudi Arabia and other Gulf and regional countries to negotiate with it upon the basis that Bashar al-Assad is staying in power and that any discussions on Syria’s future cannot be carried out without the participation of the regime with Bashar himself as part of it.
Regardless of statements that Iran has devised a plan to end the Syrian crisis and regardless of the fact that Iran has become a major player - or has rather become the major player in Syria particularly since Assad has become like Hezbollah Lebanon, a tool run by Tehran - there are still certain reservations that must be taken into consideration.
Iran opened the borders of Iraq in order to provide a flow of money, men and arms and thus serve itself and the Syrian regimeKhairallah Khairallah
The first of these reservations is that there is a sectarian aspect to the ongoing war in Syria. Syria is a country of a Sunni majority which totally rejects remaining captive to a family that belongs to a particular sect no matter how much this family attempts to hide behind slogans of the Baath Party and resistance.
Avoid wasting time
In clearer words and to avoid wasting time, I’ll just get straight to the point. About 75 percent of Syria’s population is Sunni. The demographics there are complicated yet simple at the same time. There are several sects, religions and ethnicities in Syria. The majority is Sunni while the percentage of Alawites does not exceed 12 percent. The Sunnis’ sweeping majority simply refuses that the Alawite governance should remain. So, what do you think they want when it comes to a specific Alawite family which monopolized power and wealth since Bashar succeeded his father in 2000?
Hafez al-Assad was sly. He knew early on that it’s difficult for an Alawite to govern Syria without making certain alliances with a part of the Sunnis. So he resorted to Sunnis in the countryside after he squashed any influence that Sunnis in cities had. Before seizing power in 1970, Hafez, who hated Sunnis in cities a lot, began to gradually eliminate any presence of prominent Sunni officers at the military institution. He particularly targeted officers who came from big cities, like Damascus, Aleppo, Homs and Hama. In return, he hired Sunnis from the countryside as officers - people like Mustafa Tallas, Hikmat al-Shehabi, Naji Jamil and many others. Meanwhile, the real power was in the hands of Alawite officers in support of him. These Alawite officers, whom Bashar al-Assad turned his back on most of the time, are the ones who protected Hafez al-Assad’s throne when his brother, Refaat, attempted to succeed him at an early point in 1983 and 1984.
When Bashar al-Assad made it to power and as he established a fragile alliance with specific non-Alawite groups which are not influential on the level of political, security and economic decisions, Iran filled the vacuum. Iran sometimes filled the vacuum directly and sometimes it did so indirectly by, for example, using its Lebanese tool, Hezbollah.
Bashar al-Assad’s weaknesses
In all cases, Iran realized Bashar al-Assad’s weaknesses at an early stage. It gradually contained the Syrian regime. Therefore, the latter came under Iran’s mercy in Lebanon after former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and his comrades were assassinated on February 14, 2005 and after Syrian troops totally withdrew from Lebanon by April 26, 2005. If it hadn’t been for Hezbollah, and what the Shiite party represents on the Iranian level, the Syrian regime would not have had any presence worth mentioning in Lebanon.
As the Syrian revolution erupted in March 2011, the Iranian presence in Syria became dominant. Bashar al-Assad wouldn’t have had a chance to confront the Syrian people if it hadn’t been for Iranian support. Iran supported the Syrian regime on all levels and in all fields. In the end, one cannot but admit that most victories which Assad achieved against the Syrians were thanks to Iran, the militia of Hezbollah and the Iraqi Shiite militias fighting across Syria.
Iran opened the borders of Iraq in order to provide a flow of money, men and arms and thus serve itself and the Syrian regime. Above all that, Iran, which sent Hezbollah to Syria, is the one paying for the arms which the Syrian regime is getting from Russia. Meanwhile Russia does not hesitate to resort to its veto power at the U.N. Security Council in order to protect the Syrian regime whenever needed.
Preventing the collapse of the Syrian regime
Iran succeeded at preventing the collapse of the Syrian regime. This is something which cannot be ignored. But is this enough for Tehran to consider that it owns Syria to the extent where it plays the pivotal role in finally reaching an agreement in which rebels exit specific Homs neighborhoods under U.N. supervision? Iran has the right to pride itself in what it achieved in Syria but this does not mean that it owns Syria.
The Syrian people’s revolution hasn’t yet said its final word. This revolution completely rejects Iran just like it rejects the Syrian regime. What’s unfortunate is that the revolution has taken a sectarian angle that cannot be ignored. What’s even more unfortunate is the presence of some parties who think that Syria is a mere bargaining chip used in negotiations between Tehran on one hand and Riyadh and Washington on the other.
Iran’s giving up on Bashar al-Assad, who gave up all Arab relations for Iran’s sake, is difficult. But what’s even more difficult is for Iran to win its Syrian bet. This is unlikely for the simple reason that the sweeping majority of the Syrian people don’t want Iran. If it had been possible to eliminate the Syrian people, their revolution would not have lasted for over three years and despite all the injustice and backstabbing practiced against them from inside and outside Syria.
This article was first published in al-Mustaqbal on May 28, 2014
Khairallah Khairallah is a Lebanese writer who has previously worked at Lebanon’s Annahar newspaper, he then moved to London and began writing political columns in Arabic language newspapers, including Al-Mustaqbal and Rosa El-Youssef.