For the past week or so, Iranian official media and social networks have been abuzz with anecdotes woven around a football match in Tehran between Iran and Syria and the light it might shed on a complicated relationship.
According to most accounts, a group of Syrians flown in by special charter to cheer their national squad in its bid for a place in the World Cup in Moscow staged an anti-Iran demonstration in the stadium. The Syrian contingent included young ladies who refused to wear the Iranian-style hijab.
Their presence in the stadium highlighted the fact that no Iranian woman is allowed to attend a football match after a fatwa by the “Supreme Guide” that women watching young men running around with bare legs might cause “undue excitement”
In any case, the Syrian fans seized the opportunity to unleash a torrent of venom against Iran and Iranians. If videos posted on the web is a clue, the Syrians used words and expressions that are not fit to print. That, in turn, provoked an equally abusive torrent from Iranians on social media.
The incident also prompted a debate over Iran’s role in the Syrian tragedy.
“What are we doing there?” was a question repeatedly posed.
The initial answer provided by the Khomeinist authorities was that Iran is fighting in Syria to prevent the fall of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime which had been an ally during the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s and now a member of the Resistance Front led by Iran.
That answer, however, failed to convince many people, even within the regime’s base.
Then another reason was cited: Iran was fighting in Syria to prevent the destruction of Shiite holy shrines. Official media published lists of such shrines, sometimes with photos.
But that, too, was challenged by “troublemakers” who pick holes in the regime’s shaky claims. More than 90 per cent of Syrian “Shiite holy sites” turned out to be burial places of ancient Jewish prophets or Sunni Muslim theologians and scholars.
The latest and current justification cited by the regime for Iran’s role in Syria, which means helping President Assad kill more Syrians, is that the Islamic Republic needs a secure land access to the Lebanese border where, thanks to Hezbollah, it sets the agenda.
The Syrian part of that dream corridor, which must also pass through a long sliver of Iraqi territory, skirts the fertile plains to the south of Damascus. Hence the idea of a deal with Turkey with Russia’s blessing. Under the deal, Iran will station troops in a “de-escalation zone” south of Damascus while Turkey seizes control of a chunk of Syrian territory in Idlib.
The putative deal is supposed to receive an official façade during talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, under the auspices of the United Nations.
A Syria divided
If put into practice, the Russian “de-escalation” project will freeze the division of Syria into five segments, with Russia, Turkey, Iran dominating three, and the US and its Kurdish and Arab allies present in the remaining two. The Russian scheme may end, or at least tone down, the fighting for a while but risks leading to the destruction of Syria as a unified nation-state.
However, a closer look at Syrian realities might show that the Russo-Irano-Turkish scheme is doomed to fail. From what I know of Syria, a country I have observed and visited wince 1970, despite almost seven years of tragedy, the sense of “Syrian-ness” is still strong enough to frustrate putative imperial appetites.
In that context, Iran has even less chance of succeeding than Turkey or Russia.
In Idlib, Turkey has the advantage of territorial contiguity with Syria, a fact that facilitates logistics and permits significant military intervention to pursue political ambitions.
Also, Turkey has close ties with some elements in Iraqi Kurdistan and could use them to influence at least a segment of Syrians Kurds to accept the “de-escalation zone” as the least bad option. The presence of small groups of Turkmen and Turko-Circassian minorities in the area is an additional boon for Ankara.
Russia is also in a better position than Iran to secure a piece of the Syrian cake.
Thanks to its monopoly of firepower in Syrian air-space Russian air force can be used in support of any design on the ground. Much of the Russian “piece of cake” is in the Mediterranean, easily supplied and defended by Russian naval power. Moreover, a majority of the local population, having adopted an ambiguous posture towards the Assad regime, might prefer Russian domination to domination by Iran.
The Iranian Islamic Republic has none of those advantages.
Syria is not Lebanon where Shiites, accounting for a third of the population, have always looked to Iran as a protector. At different times, notably in the heydays of pan-Arabism under Nasser, Iran, under the Shah, was seen even by Lebanese Christians as a counter-balancing force. Iranian presence and influence in Lebanon date back to the early stages of the Safavid dynasty more than 500 years ago with close family ties, especially among the clergy and traditional business families.
In contrast, Syria has always had a black image in Iranian religious folklore as the base of Ummayads whose caliphate was destroyed by an Iranian revolt led by Abu-Muslim Khorasani. Seen by Iranian mullahs, Damascus is regarded as “Gateway to Hell” because it was there that, according to folklore, the head of Hussein bin Ali, the third Shiite Imam, was presented to the Umayyad Caliph Yazid.
Tehran’s attempts to cast Syrian Alawites as “almost Shiites”, thus deserving” protection” as Lebanese Shiites do, have failed. Not a single Ayatollah has agreed to cancel the countless historic fatwas that castigate Alawites as “heretics” or even crypto-Zoroastrians. This means that, unlike Lebanon where at least part of the Shiite community is sympathetic to Iran under any regime, in Syria today Iran lacks a local popular base.
Iranian general Hussein Hamadani, killed in action in Syria, admitted that much in a revealing interview he granted weeks before his demise. In it he reveals that even supporters of Assad within the Syrian army and Ba’ath Party were hostile to Iranian presence in Syria. “The way we think, the way we live is abhorrent to them,” he said.
In a recent TV interview, Assad indirectly echoed that sentiment: “We look east to Russia,” he said. No mention of Iran. Empire building isn’t easy, especially when you have neither the military power nor the religious and cultural charisma needed to win native support.
Iran is bound to learn that, unfortunately, the hard way.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat.
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987. Mr. Taheri has won several prizes for his journalism, and in 2012 was named International Journalist of the Year by the British Society of Editors and the Foreign Press Association in the annual British Media Awards.