The Syrian regime's crisis likely to continue
The visit to Tehran by Syrian President Bashar Assad, the first since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, was a clear declaration of the death of any chance for Syria, in its Assad version, to reintegrate the Arab League.
During the Syrian conflict, Assad avoided going to Iran, despite the great support he received from Tehran and despite the quasi-total severance of his regime’s ties with the Arab context.
By contrast, Assad visited Moscow several times, most likely because it must have seemed to him that visiting a major power such as Russia would not be taken as a challenge or provocation by the other major powers, especially the United States.
He was also hoping that his reception at the Kremlin would represent a regional and international rehabilitation of his regime, which killed hundreds of thousands of Syrians and displacing millions more, as well as destroying most cities and urban centres in Syria.
Assad arrived in Tehran in a move that reflects the end of any chance for the Syrian regime to improve its regional and international standing. After timid initial enthusiasm, Arab countries have taken a step backward.
The United Arab Emirates backed out of appointing an ambassador to Syria and recalled its charge d’affaires in Damascus. The Egyptian Foreign Ministry had taken steps to facilitate the return of Syria to the Arab League but now has withdrawn the invitation. Bahrain scrapped its announced plans to reopen its embassy in Damascus.
There must have been something that had put the brakes on the initial Arab impulse towards Syria. That thing was the clear messages that the United States would not grant any legitimacy to the Assad regime, as long as the transition phase in Syria does not result in a change in the structure of the regime and in the country’s constitution based on the Geneva decisions.
The most important reason, however, was that the Assad regime did not show any intention of ridding itself of Iran’s influence or take steps that might suggest it might someday leave Tehran’s bosom.
In this context, the Syrian opposition reported that Assad’s visit to Tehran had to do with another aspect that relates to the Russian-Iranian rivalry in Syria. This rivalry had not reached the stage of opposed interests in Syria but that does not hide the fact that each country is working on its own to strengthen its influence inside the Syrian state and the military to the extent that this competition has resulted in clashes between pro-Russian factions headed by Major-General Suhail al-Hassan and the 4th Brigade headed by Maher Assad, who is described as Iran's man in the Syrian military establishment.
The same sources said, quoting Russian sources, that the Syrian Army is incapable of entering the area east of the Euphrates, while some of the forces concerned by that statement explained the Russian position by Moscow’s lack of enthusiasm to fight a battle east of the Euphrates because the outcome would give control of the area to the Iran-backed militias and their allies rather than to the regime’s forces, which have been described as weak.
Here, the Russian position joins the Turkish position of not engaging in confrontations in the region, where regional and international interests are intertwined regarding the Kurds and the safe zone and where there is still an American presence even though US President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of US troops.
Among information confirming the existence of a US plan to besiege the Syrian regime, it was reported that the US administration had pressured the Syrian Democratic Forces in north-eastern Syria to stop supplying the regime with oil derivatives, a move aimed at tightening the screws on Damascus and preventing it from renewing its relations with its supportive environment.
Another proof of this plan is news reported by Syrian opposition sources in Cairo that the US administration requested that the Egyptian government deny access to the Suez Canal to Iranian ships going to the Syrian coast.
Assad's visit to Tehran occurred amid US actions to besiege the Syrian regime and in the context of Tehran’s firm belief that American escalation against it will not stop and that it will reach Assad’s regime.
Therefore, the change in Syria and its reconstruction are governed by two conditions. The first relates to the termination of Iran’s influence in Syria or at least its great reduction, and the second is the transition from a dictatorial regime to a system that allows the participation of independent entities and opposition forces.
Both conditions are fatal to Iran’s influence in Syria and to Assad’s regime. The former will not tolerate any project to kick it out of Syria and the later will not be able to remain in power if it agrees to make even the slightest change in the structure of the regime.
All signs in Syria indicate that the crisis is ongoing and that there won’t be a solution any time soon. That’s what the US actions show and is supported by Tehran’s and Russia’s inability to bear the cost of reconstruction and of shoring up the regime without Arab and foreign help. Russian President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged the necessity of that help and said Russia was working to ensure it.
Assad also realises that the chances of his survival lie in the continuation of the crisis, as long as the solutions are neither in his hand nor in those of his allies alone.
He is more deeply aware that his survival in power and the continued support of his allies require the continuation of the crisis because that is the only way that makes Russia and Iran cling to his presence. Any move towards an international settlement of the Syrian crisis would make him a scapegoat, either directly in his person or indirectly by a regime change.
The danger that looms over Iran in Syria makes Tehran cling more to Assad and makes Assad more reassured by Iran’s presence, as long as they remain the main causes of the crisis in the American strategy and as long as Russia does not see it that way. Russia is the one side that has several options since the powerful nations have admitted Moscow’s key role in Syria.
Ali al-Amin is a Lebanese writer.