Is Iran Essential to Syria’s Future?

After 23 months of fighting, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power is increasingly tenuous. Fearing its greatest ally could be ousted, Iran has reportedly begun forming large sectarian militias in Syria to bolster the regime in the short term, and also to preserve its influence should Assad be overthrown. With so much at stake, Iran will only continue to increase such efforts as the regime’s position becomes more vulnerable. These militias pose a huge threat — it is imperative that the United States and the international community try to prevent the formation of a Syrian style-Hezbollah by bringing Iran into peace mediations led by the U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.

The United States has been understandably reluctant to agree to the idea of including Iran which was initially advocated by Brahimi’s predecessor Kofi Annan. Washington believes Iran has played a destructive role in Syria and expects it to only pursue its own interests in negotiations, even if it comes at the expense of the Syrian people. However, continuing to exclude Iran is highly imprudent. The United States must consider whether it is better to try and incentivise Iran to use its influence productively in concert with international efforts to stabilize Syria, or exclude it from the peace process and risk a perpetuation of the current chaos.

Assad’s regime plays a pivotal role in the Resistance Axis, and Iran can’t afford to lose Syria’s partnership there. The overthrow of Assad would deprive Iran of its primary means of arming Hezbollah and would not only severely undermine its deterrence capability vis-à-vis Israel, but also Iran’s ability to exert influence in the Levant. Senior advisor to Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, Ali Akbar Velayati, said as much when he publicly stated that the overthrow of Assad was a “redline” for Iran. Iranian cleric Hojjat al-Islam Mehdi Taeb went even further, referring to Syria as Iran’s 35th province and claiming that if Iran lost Syria it could not keep Tehran.

If the current regime is overthrown, which most analysts believe is now inevitable, Iran’s support for Assad during this conflict will likely preclude any chance of amiable relations with a future Syrian government. The next government in Damascus, for both ideological and financial reasons, is likely to be pulled into the Saudi-U.S. orbit. This realignment would represent an unacceptable shift in the regional balance of power away from Iran.

The regional Cold War with the Saudis means that Iran cannot afford to allow Syria to switch sides without inflicting massive penalties. Iran has already demonstrated its adroitness at exploiting sectarian rifts in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. So, the funding of a Syrian Hezbollah would be an expedient way to undertake a relatively cheap scorched earth campaign that makes a post-Assad Syria more of a liability for the Saudis.

After almost two years of conflict, not only has much of the country been destroyed, but so too has the social fabric that once bound together the various sects and ethnic groups. It will be a Herculean task for any new government to pull Syria out of its current cycle of chaos and restore normalcy even without Iran complicating things. However, if Iran decides to play the spoiler role, then it could well prove impossible to achieve even a modicum of stability in Syria.

As such, it is critical that attempts are made to get Iran to cooperate with the international community to find a political solution in Syria. This will require assuring Iran that its interests will be reasonably protected in a future government. The Geneva Communiqué, which calls for the creation of a transitional government until free and fair elections can be held, could be a good framework to achieve this. Allowing former regime members that have developed strong relationships with Iran to be part of a transitional government, and excluding those with the most blood on their hands, might convince Iran that its interests are best served by joining the peace process rather than working to foment further violence. For not only will these Iran-friendly regime members maintain the continuity of Iranian relations with Damascus, but they will also improve the likelihood that Alawites, a group more apt to be sympathetic to Iran’s interests than the Sunni dominated opposition, will have a role in Syria government going forward.

By preserving influence with the incoming government, Iran will be able to better counter and limit the expansion of Saudi-U.S. interests, while maintaining Syria as a market for Iranian wares. Not to mention that working with the international community as a peace maker, and not against it to perpetuate a sectarian civil war, will play much better on the Arab streets — a place where Iran is keen to maintain a positive image.

Despite its current pariah state status, Iran sees itself as a major regional power and strongly desires to have the world recognize it as such. Reportedly, Iran recently offered to host negotiations, further demonstrating its interest in playing a central role in shaping the outcome of this conflict. Thus, the recognition of the importance of Iran’s role in this conflict and the prestige that comes with offering it a seat at the negotiating table could be an incentive in and of itself.

Additionally, allowing Iran a role in the peace mediations could offer benefits in areas outside of Syria. Iran has shown interest in bringing the Syria subject into the nuclear negotiations with the permanent five members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany. With a new round of nuclear negotiations approaching, conceding a role in Syrian negotiations to Iran may be the good faith gesture needed to motivate Iran to reciprocate with a more conciliatory stance on its nuclear file and help end the current nuclear stalemate.

However, in order to work with the United States and the international community, Iran would be required to concede the main benefit it currently enjoys from its relationship with Assad regime — the ability to arm and supply Hezbollah. It is possible that ensuring some of its allies are allowed in a new Syrian government will prove insufficient to persuade Iran to change its behavior in Syria at the present time. Yet, that Iran could refuse to cooperate should not preclude the United States from making such an effort.

Furthermore, if or when Assad falls, Iran will lose much of its ability to support Hezbollah anyway. Militias may be well suited for causing mayhem, but they will be incapable of replacing Assad as Hezbollah’s main supplier. If facts on the ground change and Iran accepts that Assad’s days are numbered, cooperating with the international community on Syria may become a more attractive option. Getting Iran to cooperate with the international community on Syria and getting the United States to relinquish its desire to see Iran isolated by Assad’s fall will be an uphill battle. Yet with the stakes so high in Syria a novel and pragmatic approach is badly needed.

Loren White is currently conducting research on the Levant at the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East at the Atlantic Council. This piece first appeared on Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel.

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