Syria: What does Iran stand to lose?

As the Arab Spring inspired popular revolt in Syria continues into its ninth month, many analysts and policymakers have begun asking themselves what a serious challenge to Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian Arab Republic means for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Some have proposed that the fall of the al-Assad regime, which they deem likely, would be a devastating blow to Iran’s strategy in the Middle East, particularly vis-à-vis its common front against Israel and support for Hamas as well as Hezbollah. Furthermore, this group views the very existence of a popular revolt in Syria as an awkward reversal in fortunes for Iran in the Arab Spring. However, this view oversimplifies the problems that the Syrian revolt poses for Iran and other states.

Syria is a centerpiece of Iran’s regional strategy against Israel. Not only is Syria strategically located at the heart of the Middle East, it is also the only Arab state which continues to actively oppose Israel and is part of Iran’s Islamic resistance against Israel. Syria also provides a conduit for Iran to directly support Hamas and Hezbollah, both of which are also crucial to the Islamic resistance. Iran has acknowledged Syria’s importance with its continued support for the regime, even as evidence mounts that al-Assad has killed thousands of protestors, and important regional actors (like Turkey) turn on him. Yet in the last few weeks Iran has changed its tone, now calling for dialogue and reform instead of its previous position of unconditional support. While some see this as Iran’s attempt to backpedal on its support for the Syrian regime in the face of a popular uprising, it could also suggest that Iran feels like it has alternatives to al-Assad, or at least options. In order to properly assess Iran’s options, we must first consider possible models for the Syrian uprising in the context of the Arab Spring.

One of the first models that could potentially materialize is a humanitarian military intervention similar to what is taking place in Libya. A no-fly-zone could help create ‘safe-zones’ where Syrian military defectors and other anti-regime forces could rally, receive logistics and training and begin challenging the regime militarily. While this model is not impossible, there are a number of obstacles to its realization. Despite calls for al-Assad to step down, the United States and its Western allies are occupied with the mission in Libya for the time being, and do not seem eager to intervene militarily in Syria. This reluctance on the part of the Western powers (and even Syria’s arch-nemesis, Israel) may be in part due to the difficulty of the mission and anxiety over what could come next. Is another UN-mandated international mission possible? Is a no-fly-zone sufficient, and can the West avoid being drawn into a protracted conflict? Is there a real alternative to al-Assad more amenable to Western interests?

Syria is not Libya, which had limited international support. Iran, Russia and China stand quietly behind al-Assad, and this could make a resolution difficult to pass through the UN Security Council. In the event that an actual military intervention takes place, Syria’s backers could make it more complicated. And even if the regime is overthrown, a strong pro-Western alternative does not seem to exist, even with the announcement of the Syrian National Council (SNC). While the Syrian regime’s portrayal of peaceful demonstrators as armed gangs of Sunni extremists appears largely exaggerated, it nonetheless has raised the specter of Islamic fundamentalists seizing the country in the minds of Western and Israeli policymakers.

A second model on the other end of the spectrum could be a pro-regime military intervention similar to Saudi Arabia’s intervention in Bahrain on behalf of the minority Sunni al-Khalifa regime. Iran, for example, could militarily intervene in Syria on behalf of the minority Alawite al-Assad regime, quell the uprising and stabilize the country. Yet the sensitivity of the West and its regional allies and Arab public opinion to such an action will deter Iran from this course. Additionally, the lack of a common border with Syria and the necessary military capabilities would make this a fool’s errand for Iran.

A third model could be a political compromise similar to what happened in Egypt. Bashar al-Assad could step down and stand trial, while the regime could negotiate with the opposition on a framework for reforms, preserving the regime overall, while introducing some changes. But as the death toll rises, the room for a political compromise shrinks. There is no one to play the role of the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in Syria, where the entire regime has blood on its hand, and the opposition may increasingly feel like it has no option other than armed confrontation.

The above three models suffer from another critical shortcoming: None are known to work in the long-term. Although Muammar Gadhafi has been overthrown in Libya, it’s uncertain if that country will transition to a stable democracy. While the al-Khalifa regime has been kept in power in Bahrain, the demands of Bahraini people (especially Shiites) remain and could be expressed more violently in the future. Finally, even as the SCAF in Egypt has managed to partially preserve the ancien regime, anti-SCAF forces took to Tahrir Square once more this week to ‘reclaim’ their revolution.

The rejection of these three Arab Spring models means that the status-quo is likely to continue, leaving us with two possible scenarios. The first is that the al-Assad regime crushes the uprising. Afterward, it will recoil like a wounded animal and will lean even more on Iran, who will have proven its loyalty and be left in a stronger position than before.

A second, and increasingly likely, case is that Syria spirals into a civil war. While this is not a good scenario for Iran, it is likely just as bad for the West and most regional states. To begin, a civil war in Syria could unleash sectarian rivalries resulting in instability that would not be contained in Syria’s borders. The outcome does not require a huge stretch of the imagination. The collapse of central government and widespread fighting could result in a humanitarian disaster which would require a massive international effort lasting years to alleviate. Syrian Kurds in the north could declare autonomy or independence, stirring up Turkish Kurds and forcing Turkey to intervene militarily. Syria could become a haven for Sunni extremists, who could strike into Iraq, Israel or other neighbours at will. All the while Iran, which is familiar with the country and has experience in civil war conditions (like Lebanon in the 1980s and Iraq in the 2000s), could very easily carve out its own domain in this post-apocalyptic Syria and continue about its business.

In the best case civil war scenario, even if Syria managed to transition to a stable democracy relatively quickly, it cannot be taken for granted that a new regime would not share some common interests with Iran, especially vis-à-vis Israel. The current uprising has more to do with domestic politics, and it is not unrealistic to think that a future Syrian government could continue its strategic co-operation with Iran on certain issues.

The sad truth may be that as much as the West, Turkey and even Israel have publicly denounced Syria, it is in all of their interests as well as Iran’s for the current regime to stay in power. While the current discourse over Syria has been framed as a potential strategic loss for Iran and gain for the West and its regional allies, this may not be the case. All parties may have something to lose, but Iran at least appears to believe that it has recourses even if the current regime in Syria is deposed.