Some media reports said that Iran recently offered to “host” Syrian President Bashar al-Assad – that is, to grant him asylum, and receive him in Tehran as a hero.
This was based on a statement attributed to Ali Akbar Velayati, a foreign policy advisor to the Supreme Leader of Iran, during his visit a few days ago to Syria and Lebanon.
It seems the “positive” atmosphere, rare amidst this destruction, is the reason behind such wishes. The positive news includes the release of the abducted Lebanese soldiers by the terrorist organization al-Nusra Front, following a deal organized by Hezbollah and Qatar.
Iran’s connection to the Assad regime is very strong and deep, and about more than just common interests.Abdulrahman al-Rashed
There has also been positive news on an agreement to bring in Suleiman Franjieh as president of Lebanon, following a long dispute and a presidential vacuum of more than two years.
All this suggests that we've begun to witness breakthroughs! So has the time for Assad's exit come?
Big story, little coverage
If a high-ranking Iranian official like Velayati announces that Tehran will grant Assad asylum, it would be a very significant development that governments and media outlets would certainly not miss.
However, I only read about this in Syrian opposition media outlets, which of course are not a reference regarding news about the regime and rival Iran.
But following a long search, I found the complete video of Velayati's interview with the Al-Mayadeen television channel. Towards the end of the interview, the presenter asked her Iranian guest whether Tehran will receive Assad soon, especially given that Assad “visited Moscow a month ago”.
The question hinted that Iran is abstaining from receiving Assad. Velayati said: “Assad’s presence in Damascus is important. We, in Iran, will receive him when it’s a duty. We don’t impose our opinions on Mr. Assad. We do not want him to leave his country. When he decides to visit Iran, we are ready to warmly receive him, and we’d receive him like a hero. He has defended his people for five years, and we don't want his post to be vacant.”
He who listens to the last part of Velayati's answer will think that Iran welcomes the idea of granting asylum to Assad. However the original question made it clear that Assad, who visited Russia in October, has not yet been received by Tehran as a visiting president.
Velayati’s answer has nothing to do with granting Assad asylum, and is rather mysterious. Velayati did not welcome Assad’s visit directly, but said he did not want Assad to leave his country amid such circumstances. But this is not a convincing excuse, given that we’ve seen Assad depart Damascus and head to Russia. This latter journey takes four hours while the trip from Damascus to Tehran only takes two!
I think Iran’s connection to the Assad regime is very strong and deep, and about more than just common interests. Tehran has been behind Assad’s extremist policy ever since the beginning of the revolution. And those who analyze the situation before the revolution think that the Iranians were managing Syria’s policy since Assad took power in 2000. This explains the Syrian regime’s violent approach in Lebanon and the series of assassinations in which it turned out Iran had an active role in.
Iran also played a role, alongside the Syrian regime, in managing the so-called Iraqi resistance and al-Qaeda from inside Syria following the American invasion of Iraq. The Iranian-Syrian axis lives on until this day, and Tehran will hold on to Assad until the last hour when it loses Damascus.
So are we close to Assad's final hour? It's difficult to estimate the moment of defeat, as many regional and international troops are now involved. However what we do know is that Assad will not emerge victorious no matter how much the Iranians and the Russians succeed at supporting him and at prolonging the duration of war.
As long as the Russians and Iranians agree on Syria, we cannot expect the easy solution of excluding Assad, such as granting him asylum in Iran, to materialize. If Russia and Iran end up having two different stances, the situation of the Syrian regime will be difficult with the presence of Iranian and Russian military forces fighting in Syria – in support of the Assad regime – via ground and air operations.
The Russians and Iranians may currently have different points of view, however not so significantly that you can bet on it – especially after the Turks downed the Russian bomber, something that has brought Moscow and Tehran closer together.
We may see disagreements between Russia and Iran during the Vienna negotiations on Syria’s future and political solutions. The Russian president has said before that Assad remaining in power is not important and that what matters is to maintain Syrian state institutions. This is very different from the Iranian proposal, which states that Assad himself represents legitimacy. This is what Velayati reiterated during his interview with Al-Mayadeen: he said that Assad will stay until the end of his presidential term, and that he must also participate in the upcoming elections, adding that Iran is confident Assad will win the elections again!
Iran’s stance is to insist on Assad’s presence, even if they have to resort to a power of arms and to forging election results. If however the Russians lean towards a political solution that excludes Assad, or makes the latter like Iraq’s president – a figure who holds a mere honorary position – the dispute may erupt between the two allies.
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on Dec. 6, 2015.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.