Obama versus McCain on Syria and the implications for Iran

As the United States ponders military action in Syria over allegations of the Bashar al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons on Syrian rebels and civilians, Iranian leaders are pondering how to respond. Limited U.S. military action, of the kind proposed by President Barack Obama, could potentially not elicit any kind of response from Iran and its Syrian ally. A more thorough military action which changes the balance of power between the al-Assad regime and the rebels however, of the kind being contemplated by Senator John McCain, could force Iran to take an even more hardline and active hand in Syria.

On 04 September 2013 the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations committee passed a resolution authorizing military action in Syria over the al-Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons. The resolution will be debated before the full Senate next week and, if adopted, would allow military action for up to 90 days. The resolution only passed after amendments co-sponsored by senators McCain (R., Ariz.) and Chris Coons (D., Del.) expanding the scope of U.S. military action were added. The amendments would, among other things, enlarge the goals of U.S. military action to include changing “the momentum on the battlefield” in the Syrian civil war against the al-Assad regime and providing further military and non-military aid to “vetted” Syrian rebels. While the resolution is not guaranteed to be approved by the U.S. Congress, the Obama administration and various lobby groups are mobilizing to convince dovish liberal Democrats and libertarian isolationist Republicans to vote in favor of the resolution.

It remains unclear what, if any, military action will materialize, but the al-Assad regime and its Iranian allies are confronted with at least two scenarios. The first scenario, originally proposed by the Obama administration following the release of video and other material purporting to show the al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, would use cruise missiles and other limited military instruments to degrade the al-Assad regime’s ability to deploy chemical weapons. The second scenario, which has been gaining momentum under Mr. McCain’s leadership, would deploy greater military means to shift the balance of power in Syria in favor of anti-Assad rebels. This second scenario increasingly appears likely and, by significantly weakening the al-Assad regime, would pose a direct threat to Iran’s national security. The al-Assad regime is Iran’s oldest and most reliable state ally in the Middle East. It has long been known that Syria has been Iran’s conduit for providing support to non-state allies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza. The al-Assad regime’s replacement with an anti-Iran Sunni Islamist regime or Syria’s fragmentation would likely decrease or eliminate Iran’s ability to project power through Syria, thereby weakening its retaliatory capability in the event of a U.S. or Israeli military strike on its nuclear facilities. Just as importantly, the rise of a hostile regime in Syria or the country’s fragmentation could destabilize the region, including Iran’s neighbor and ally Iraq, bringing Sunni terrorism to Iran’s very door steps.

In this context, the Islamic Republic is watching the debate in the United States on Syria  closely and considering how to respond in the event of U.S. military action. Its approach thus far was underlined last week in speeches before the fourteenth session of the Assembly of Experts by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Jerusalem Corps (JC) commander Ghasem Soleimani. In his speech Khamenei warned that the United States would only be hurting itself by intervening in Syria, saying “…we think that they are making a mistake, they err and they shall feel the self-inflicted wound in this area and they shall certainly lose out, there is no doubt about it.” Appearing before the Assembly in civilian clothing as a gesture of respect toward the clerical body, Soleimani gave a more detailed assessment of the Syrian crisis. Addressing the United States’ role in the Middle East, Soleimani commented that the global power was not concerned with democracy in Egypt, human rights in Syria, and the nuclear issue in Iran but that “the real goal [of the United States] is to break the Line [Axis] of Resistance”, a reference to the anti-Israel regional alliance spearheaded by Iran. He insisted that Iran would “back Syria to the hilt.” Soleimani said that the United States and its allies had united in Syria to decrease Iran’s regional influence, but using the analogy of the Iraq War argued that their goals would not come to fruition: “When Saddam fell there was discussion by different actors to manage the country, but because of the Shi’a clergy and Iran’s influence in Iraq the United States was unable to reach its goal.”

What is noteworthy about Khamenei and Soleimani’s comments on possible U.S. military action in Syria is that they included less of these hawkish leaders’ usual hardline bravado and more of a realist assessment of Iran’s interests and likely response. Soleimani’s remarks indicated that Iran would view a U.S. attack seeking to shift the balance of power in favor of Syrian rebels, which prominently include anti-Iran Sunni Islamists, through the prism of an attack on its own interests and national security. Soleimani was surprisingly candid about Iran’s involvement in Iraq during the U.S. occupation and raised this spectre when asserting that a U.S. attack on Syria would harden Iran’s support for the al-Assad regime. In a similar vein, Khamenei’s remarks included a note of caution to the United States that once involved in Syria, it could become mired down. Coming in light of the push by Washington hawks last week for more thorough military action against the al-Assad regime, Khamenei and Soleimani’s statements can be read as a warning against specifically such a scenario. As argued by IranPolitik last week, while the al-Assad regime and Iran could potentially ignore a limited U.S. attack degrading Syria’s chemical weapons capability, a broader U.S. attack would force Iran to expand its support for Syria, with implications for P5+1-Iran nuclear negotiations. Could Iran realistically give concessions on its nuclear program even as its national security is being eroded in Syria by the United States? This appears unlikely. Rather than retreat, this could force Iran into a more hardline position, derailing both nuclear negotiations and Rouhani’s attempts at creating a more moderate Iranian foreign policy.