Amid the unrest in Damascus it has come to light that Tehran has been funneling weapons and other support to President Bashar Al-Assad’s government to insure that a revolution will not overthrow the government. Tehran’s motives appear to be driven by the desire that its regional partnership with Damascus remains in place. Tehran has been offering assistance in tracking down the leaders of the protest movement in Syria and they have also shipped the government crowd control gear such as tear gas and riot gear. “We believe that there is credible information that Iran is assisting Syria,” said State Department spokesman Mark Toner in reference to evidence of tertiary and direct support from Tehran to Damascus.
Tehran is uniquely qualified to assist Syria in putting down dissent. Iranian unrest following the widely panned 2009 presidential election and recent unrest following the turmoil in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya demonstrates the abilities of the Iranian government to squelch dissent. Iran has been successful in cutting off Internet access to Facebook and Twitter which were especially useful to the protest organizers in Egypt. Further, Tehran worked quickly to arrest opposition leaders following the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions.
Syria’s domestic turmoil began following the downfall of Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak in February of this year. After Mubarak’s exit, small demonstrations began throughout Syria. The demonstrations were quickly dispersed by a larger number of police who converged on the demonstrators. However, the situation began to change in March following the arrest of several schoolchildren for defacing property with graffiti expressing outrage directed at the Assad regime. Following the protests in Dara over the arrest of these schoolchildren, the protest movement spread to other cities. By April, according to reports compiled by human rights groups, the death toll resulting from government crackdowns numbered in the hundreds.
On April 8th, after prayers in Dara, security forces opened fire on demonstrators. At the same time in Damascus and across Syria as many as 10,000 protesters gathered to denounce Bashar Al-Assad. Other incidents of unrest occured on April 11th when government forces and those loyal to Assad killed four protestors in the city of Banias.
Syria’s Assad has reason to be concerned about his ability to remain in power. Egypt’s Mubarak believed he was immune and Libya’s Qaddafi’s hold over his country is tenuous at best. Despite the current situation on the ground, Syria for many weeks appeared to be immune to the same level of unrest witnessed in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. As is often the case, heavy-handed tactics by Syrian security forces increased the level of opposition in many cities. Assad has been Syria’s president since 2000 following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad who had ruled Syria for three decades. The Assad family is a member of the Allawite sect. The Allawites are in the minority but control key positions in the military and government. Syria under Hafez had supported terrorist groups specifically opposed to the West and Israel. Despite some progress on the part of Assad to mend ties with the West, Syria has continued to offer support to the same groups that have enjoyed support from Iran, in particular, Hamas and Hezbollah.
Despite the ability of Assad’s father to rule Syria with absolute control, the country has not been immune to civil unrest in the past. In 1982, clashes between the government and the Muslim Brotherhood led to the government unleashing the army on the protestors and at least 10,000 were killed and the government destroyed the city of Hama. In the process, those not killed were jailed and many disappeared. The fact that the Assads come from the Allawite sect poses a unique problem for the government. Because the Allawites are Shiite and the majority of the country is Sunni, unless Assad is able to hold the old alliances together that his father built, the government will fall.
Hafez was able to hold onto power even during the unrest in 1982 because he had developed sect loyalties, co-opted Syrians and created a society based upon fear. If these efforts unravel under Bashar, his ability to remain in power will be greatly diminished. This fact also makes keeping the allegiances of the military and security forces essential if Bashar is to remain in power. Because the military and security forces are also from the minority Allawite sect they have reason to fear that if the government falls to the majority Sunnis they will suffer recriminations. However, if they feel that they will fare better if they abandon Bashar Al-Assad, they very well might do so in order to seek the best outcome.
Iran’s Ahmadinejad, sensing that the Iran-Syria relationship was threatened by Assad’s rapprochement with the West following the Obama administration’s decision to appoint an ambassador to Syria, flew to Damascus last year for meetings with Assad. “The Americans want to dominate the region but they feel Iran and Syria are preventing that…We tell them that instead of interfering in the region’s affairs to pack their things and leave. If the Zionist entity wants to repeats its past errors, its death will be inevitable,” Ahmadinejad said during a press conference with Assad.
In strategic terms, support from Tehran to Damascus is crucial if Iran is to stay relevant in the region. While this support does undermine the chances for a settlement of the Palestinian question and an end to hostilities towards Israel, Iran has never concerned itself with creating or maintaining stability in the wider Middle East region. The revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya pose threats to both Iran and Syria and contain a common theme: these revolutions were not initiated by the West or Israel and are being propelled by Arabs seeking more freedoms and a say in how their lives function.
If Iran and Syria are able to hold onto power their ability to do so hinges on their abilities to kill popular uprisings. Both Assad and Ahmadinejad are also in a optimal position. They both are aware that no matter how severely they crack down on their citizens, the West will not intervene as it did in Libya. The West would be well advised to tread carefully regarding Syria and Iran. The U.S. and other Western powers can ill-afford the resources necessary to intervene in either country. If Syria or Iran sense that domestic unrest is being encouraged by the West then in order to remain in control they may well become even more repressive.