Iran is using Assad

Friday 30/10/2015

Syrian President Bashar Assad has finally discovered that Iran is not a charity. He only realised this after Tehran demanded financial compensation for every dollar it had spent on his regime after he had been under the impression that what he has done to further Iran’s expansionist ambitions was priceless.

Tehran used Assad after realising that he was the best tool to turn Syria into an Iranian colony. Syria was a bridge for Iranian support of Lebanon’s Hezbollah, a group that Assad appears to be in awe of, to the point of claiming that the Shia militia secured “strategic parity” with Israel, even if this came at the expense of Lebanon and the Lebanese people. Assad failed to see that Hezbollah is nothing more than a sectarian militia that is serving a project to turn Lebanon into an Iranian protectorate.

Assad failed to learn from the experiences of his father. Hafez Assad thought he could use Iran to serve his regime in particular and Syria’s Alawite community in general. He was careful to ensure that he did not become too dependent on Tehran.

Hafez Assad sought a delicate balance, strengthening Damas­cus’s relations with Iran in its war with Iraq, while not cutting Syria’s relations with its other Arab neighbours. For him, Tehran was a card that he could play against the Arabs. As for Bashar Assad, he is a card in the hands of the Iranians, which they are playing against the Arabs.

However, Bashar Assad began to wake up to the threat posed by the Iranians about a year ago, particularly after Tehran began to demand specific guarantees, including Syrian real estate, to continue its support.

At the beginning of the Syrian revolution, in March 2011, Iran’s support and assistance to Syria was unlimited and uncondi­tional. But with the emergence of a costly sectarian civil war in the country, Tehran had to rethink things, particularly given the almost limitless requirements of the Assad regime in terms of arms, finances and even fighters.

So it is the unfolding reality on the ground that is causing Iran to reconsider its strategy as the Syrian war is a protracted conflict that Assad is unable to fight on his own. This is a war on the Syrian people no less, the majority of whom oppose Assad. Syria’s Sunni majority no longer accepts Assad’s Alawite rule, which has served narrow sectar­ian interests for 45 years.

Most importantly, Iran is a third-world country and simply cannot afford to finance costly wars such as this indefinitely. This is what prompted it to sign the nuclear deal with the P5+1 to lift international economic sanctions. But even the lifting of sanctions will not be enough to save Assad.

Iran is facing major domestic problems, so how can it afford to keep pumping money to Assad to keep the war going?

At the same time, many Alawites prefer the Russians to the Iranians, particularly follow­ing Iran’s Shiaisation campaigns in the country and following the realisation that Moscow is the stronger protector.

The turning point for Assad came when Tehran demanded guarantees in return for new aid, with Iran seeking to directly take control of significant Syrian real estate. With both sides appearing to reconsider their respective positions, Russia is emerging as the main player.

Assad wants to show that he has other cards in his hand, particularly amid tensions between Alawite military officers and Iranian and Hezbollah commanders. The death of high-ranking Syrian intelligence officer Rustum Ghazali, at the hands of the bodyguards of an Iranian commander, cannot be downplayed.

So how does Assad benefit from Russia? Does his recent meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow actually mean anything?

Iran has used up its Syrian cards, including Assad. Now it’s Russia’s turn. When he took office, Assad did not know that he would end up being nothing more than a card traded between stronger powers. Hafez Assad was the one who manipulated and used others; his son Bashar is simply being used.

Will Assad’s luck with the Russians be any better than it was with the Iranians? That is unclear but what is certain is that there is a new phase in Syria in which Russia is in the ascend­ancy.

So, yes, Assad now realises that Iran is not a charity, giving out funds for nothing. But will he, in time, understand that he is nothing more than a card that Russia will play to serve its own political interests, regardless of what happens to him?