Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is having a particularly bad week. His country’s Prime Minister Riad Hijab has just defected and appealed to other top officials to "abandon this murderous and terrorist regime." He joined a swelling number of military defectors. The armed opposition continues to strike close to Assad's seat of power, bombing the state television building.
However, Assad can still count on his most loyal ally Iran, whose self-described "axis" with the Syrian regime is alive and well. During his visit to Damascus this week to meet with Assad, Saeed Jalil, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and top nuclear negotiator, declared that"Iran will never allow the resistance axis – of which Syria is an essential pillar – to break."
Assad assured his Iranian guest that he was not about to give in to the "terrorists" who were getting their weapons from "foreign powers."
Jalil picked up Assad's refrain of blaming foreigners for the fighting in Syria. "Iran does not support the solution which is imposed by foreigners," he said. “One should not allow enemies take revenge on Syrian people about defeat from resistance movement (sic).”
Iran is not a foreign power, in the eyes of its leaders, but rather a supporting "pillar" of the "axis" in "protecting the Resistance front in Syria" against its enemies, as Jalil put it while in Damascus. Jalil had also visited Beirut just before arriving in Damascus to meet with the leaders of the third pillar of the "resistance axis" - its terrorist surrogate Hezbollah.
Iran has invested substantial resources to keep Assad in power. It is supplying the regime with money, arms and training by its elite Revolutionary Guards. However, its all-out support for Assad is now starting to catch up with the Iranian government as it faces its own hostage crisis.
On August 4th, an armed opposition group seized 48 Iranians traveling by bus near Damascus, who the rebels claimed were on a "reconnaissance mission" at the time they were captured. At least one of the 48 captives was said to be an officer of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards. "We promise Iran and all those who support this regime ... we will strike at all (Iranian) targets in Syria," one of the rebels said in a video. "The fate of all Iranians who operate in Syria will be the same as those we have here, either captive or killed, God willing."
Three of the hostages were killed as a result of government shelling, according to a spokesperson for the armed opposition group. The group warned that the rest of the hostages could be killed by their captors if the government's attacks do not cease.
The Iranian government is incensed, claiming that the captives are merely innocent Shiite pilgrims visiting religious sites in Syria. “We strongly reject the claims of some media that the kidnapped pilgrims are members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards,” Amir Abdollahian, a deputy Foreign Minister for Arab affairs, said to Iran's Al-Alam Arabic-language network. “All of them are pilgrims who wanted to go to religious sites.”
Predictably, Iranian leaders are blaming the United States for the plight of the hostages. While in Damascus to bolster Assad, Jalili is demanding the release of the hostages. Tehran will use "all potentials leading to release of the 48 innocent pilgrims kidnapped in Syria," he warned.
Speaking to reporters upon arrival in the Syrian capital, Jalili said that "kidnapping innocent people is not acceptable anywhere in the world." Apparently, it was acceptable to the thugs who came to power in Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution who held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.
Now the Iranian government has lodged a protest with the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which represents the U.S. interests in Iran since Tehran and Washington severed diplomatic relations in 1980. Reza Zabib, director general of the North America Bureau of the Iranian Foreign Ministry, told the Swiss envoy that Washington is responsible for the lives of the Iranian nationals kidnapped while on pilgrimage in Syria.
The conventional thinking is that the toppling of Assad would represent a major strategic setback for Iran. For example, Gareth Stansfield, from the Middle East and North Africa programme at Chatham House said that "if Assad goes, he will [be] replaced by a government that is likely to be totally antipathetic to Iran's wider interests."
It is such thinking which animates the Obama administration's latest example of leading from behind as it works with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, France, and the United Kingdom to support the armed opposition in bringing down Assad. The trouble with the conventional thinking is that it does not take account of al Qaeda's increasing role in the armed opposition. It also assumes an orderly succession, when it is more likely there will be a vacuum resulting from the chaos following Assad's downfall that will be opened to Islamist extremists in Syria to fill.
Lest anyone think that al Qaeda and Iran are mortal enemies, our own Treasury Department has said otherwise. In July 2011, the U.S. Treasury Department accused Iran of making a "secret deal" with a branch of al-Qaeda to channel funds and manpower through Iranian territory to facilitate the group's activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The least bad choice among the undesirable alternatives at hand is to stay on the sidelines, unless Assad's chemical weapons come into play or al Qaeda begins to gain the upper hand. Let the Syrian civil war and the wider proxy war being played out among Turkey, the Gulf states, and Iran drag on. The longer Iran remains bogged down in the Syrian civil war and alienates the Syrian people by supporting the increasingly isolated Assad, the more it has to lose.
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