Foreign Policy Sifter

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Iran and Syria: The Divorce

It’s axiomatic that Iran will devolve into one giant blubbering existential crisis when Bashar al-Assad’s odious regime succumbs. The mullahs will vent to their psychoanalysts: “We tried to succor the lisping fool with money, friendship, and even acting like he’s a real doctor so he would help us fight the Great Satan! Do you know what it’s like having him stare into your eyes, mustache twitching and that used needle box near by? What do we do NOW?” The accepted truth that regime change in Syria hurts Iran is everywhere. A look at the New York Times or Reuters, for example, provides the requisite mainstream perspective that the Islamic Republic will be a big “loser” when—it’s always when—Assad exits stage dead.

The loss of Iranian power due to Assad’s fall is a given not only in non-ideological articles; this assumption serves as a critical vertebra in the arguments of those who wish to see the United States aid the Syrian mujaheddin in their bloody war. It has remained hip in Washington for over a year and a half now (!) to locate instances where American interests meet American ideals. Syria, where innocent protesters were getting slaughtered by Iranian backed, ‘roided out thugs, seemed the ideal cricket bat with which to beat the recalcitrant Obama administration into acting. That the conflict is a bit more symmetric does not change this rough calculation. Iran sans Syria, advocates like Danielle Pletka and Efraim Halevy claim, will morph the regional dynamic in favor of the US and Israel. Cue up “game-changer” and “whole new ballgame.” What exactly underpins these assumptions?

Stealing a line from real estate agents of yore (Location! Location! Location!), reporters and polemicists refer to Syria as a sort of Iranian “strategic bridge” to the Mediterranean and Arab world.1 But not a bridge to nowhere, for this all relates to Hezbollah. Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, whose most recent statement in support of Assad evokes a sigh, won’t play Iran’s proxy as well without the direct support from neighboring Syria. The terrorist group is a long-term project who many see as a critical piece in the Iranian strategy to antagonize Israel directly and covertly and raise the cost of physically attacking the nuclear program.

Another long-term project is the Iran-Syria alliance itself—the “axis of resistance”—and the prestige the Islamic Republic has balanced on its success. Regime change in Syria would presumably diminish the prominence of an Iranian state that attempted to prop up its ally and failed. The Islamic Republic, already unpopular in the region, would seem weak and unable to convince without using force. The commentariat says and implies that Syria, as Iran’s “lone ally,” is worth more than its direct contribution to Iran’s political goals. And again, these losses could substantially inhibit the nuclear weapons program. 2


No attribution. If Hezbollah sues us the world has already crossed some surrealist boundary and we’ve been reincarnated as llamas. (Note: Nasrallah looks high and hungry)

Despite the fact that many of these contentions have an off-the-cuff quality common to beltway banter, there is some truth to each of them. Judging the full extent of their veracity, however, is beyond our powers of analysis. Instead, here are a few questions/issues/problems with the above assumptions. Please forgive the sweeping generalizations about ethnicity and interests—we know it’s a bit ridiculous.

  • With friends like these… Saudi Arabia is said to be the main beneficiary of Assad’s fall. Nominally a US ally, there are negatives to this for Washington: Sunnis who ascribe to a radical interpretation of Islam—who also COULD be less likely to compromise with other ethnicities—are likely to be the beneficiaries of Saudi largesse. Those Americans interested in human rights, Israel, etc. would bemoan this development—in fact, if the neocons were honest, they would base some of their arguments in favor of US involvement on this gripe. Remember, Saudi Arabia is one of two countries that recognized the Taliban. On the other hand, handing responsibility for the stability of the Middle East to (imperfect) allies is a pillar of realist thought and a risk of retrenchment.
  • Leaving a vacuum… There remains a major and insufficiently described difference between regime fall and regime change. Some articles use these words precisely, but the assumption that regime change will be quick and relatively seamless has challengers. More sober columnists question the ability of the opposition to form or enforce unity and the regional tendency to “angle for sectarian advantage.” So given the 20 month time horizon of nuclear weapons development, would a regime collapse and continued civil war hurt Iranian interests that much? Should the Alawite people, led by the elites or not, try to form their own state, would the Iranians and Hezbollah not back them? Prestige would be diminished, but this a soft concept: it is no more of stretch to say the Islamic Republic would have a small Shi’a protectorate it could righteously defend and therefore raise its domestic and international cachet.
  • The bridge could be overrated… It is difficult to argue against the idea that Syria provides some sort of logistical support for Iranian foreign policy—the government in Damascus certainly makes it easier for Hezbollah and Iran to interact. Felling this bridge, if you will, will decrease their power and influence. (But if Hezbollah is weakened without Syrian backing, does Iran even care that much about them? They want to be behind the A-Team terrorists!) Before celebrating the loss of Iranian agency, remember that Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Sunday that Iran (with Hezbollah) pursues its objectives through international terrorism. Having a secure state sponsor is nice, but not necessary to terrorize. As Stephen Walt likes to point out every other hour, the 9/11 plan was devised in Germany. The foiled and successful suicide plots against Israeli targets this month appeared less than grandiose, but at least one was sadly effective.
  • Lebanon not on solid ground… Believing that the Syrian outcome will not affect the region besides weakening Iran seems a bit optimistic, no? Though stable for the moment, Lebanon’s complex political structure still looks like a Jenga tower and a decline in Hezbollah power might actually make things worse for Lebanese people as different factions vie for power. A disturbing possibility: Weakened terrorist group/political party who is no threat to US interests. Check. Helped unleash civil strife in somewhat peaceful country. Check.

  1. One has to wonder how far this joke can go: is it appropriate to say policy makers will start making up names for Syria like real estate developers do for “changing” urban neighborhoods? We like “Mid Upper Babylon” and “Noraq.” 

  2. This seems like very wishful thinking for those who fear an irrational, nuclear armed Iran: if they are so close to developing the bomb, why would the loss of an ally that is non-essential to the program matter? Regardless, you must read Conrad Black’s comment. The idea might be suspect, but the acid pen is something to behold. 

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