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Syria-Iran Relations

Tag Archives | Syria-Iran Relations

Grasping the Syrian Quagmire

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Syrian rebels with the FSA during a lull in fighting Aleppo, Syria. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

One of the most significant and enduring consequences of the Arab Spring has been the bloody uprising in Syria.

Syrian rebels with the FSA during a lull in fighting Aleppo, Syria. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

For almost a year cities across the Levant have been defying the iron grip of the Assad regime and challenging the police state of the Ba’ath party. Of all the countries engulfed by the revolutionary fever encompassing the Arab World, Syria, a country of 23 million, epitomizes the toughest case. It comprises many religious sects including Sunni (79%), Alawite (off-shoot of Shiite Islam, 9%), Christians (9%), and Druze (3%). Ethnically, nine percent of its population are Kurds who sympathize with their brethren in Iraq, Iran, and Turkey, and dream of one day establishing a Kurdish state.

The Assad family, which belongs to the Alawite minority sect, has been ruling Syria for over 41 years, relying on its brutal 13 security apparatuses, Para-military groups and thugs (called Shabbiha) and a large army of over a quarter-million. Most senior positions in these terrifying institutions have been controlled by the minority Alawite sect to ensure regime loyalty. Similar to Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, every aspect of Syrian politics and public institutions has been dominated by the totalitarian-style of the Ba’ath party since 1963. But unlike Tunisia or Egypt, where the public enjoyed a relatively vibrant civil society, Syria suffers from the total absence of any democratic institutions, civic organizations, or independent media.

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Saudi Arabia and Qatar Ratchet Up Pressure on Assad

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attending the Friends of Syria group in Paris with other foreign ministers to plot a path forward

Running counter to the wishes of the United States and other western nations, Saudi Arabia and Qatar recently announced that they are taking steps to arm the Free Syria Army (FSA).

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton attending the Friends of Syria group in Paris with other foreign ministers to plot a path forward

Despite the significance of this step, it is unlikely to shift the civil war in favor of the rebels. The FSA, armed with light weapons, suffered a number of strategic setbacks. Their tactical retreat from the Baba Amr neighborhood in Homs paints a picture of a rebel group that lacks the operational capacity to challenge the Assad regime directly. Even with more equipment and firepower supplied by the international community, without a no fly-zone, similar to Libya, the FSA is likely to face more strategic losses.

“The Free Syria Army don’t (sic) have heavy weaponry, and without them, I’m not sure they can survive,” said the FSA’s Mulham Jundi. Still, despite the reservations that the Obama administration has for arming the rebels, the United States is keeping its options open. While meeting with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt in the Oval Office last month, Obama reiterated the position of his administration: the international community must continue to send Assad the message that he must step down from power, and the United States, with allied support, must use every available tool to “prevent the slaughter of innocents” in Syria.

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Now is not the Time for Intervention in Syria

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President Barack Obama in the White House press briefing room

As pressure mounts on foreign powers to consider intervening militarily in Syria, analogies are being drawn between what NATO accomplished in Libya and whether something comparable may be possible in Syria.

President Barack Obama in the White House press briefing room

Military intervention would perhaps make the West feel better — knowing that it attempted to do something concrete to end the bloodshed — but it is unlikely to be successful for several reasons. An air and sea campaign against Syria would likely prove more difficult than in Libya. The Syrian military — which numbers more than 500,000 men (including reservists) — is more formidable than Gadhafi’s forces and would prove more challenging to impact by air. Syria possesses more than 10,000 armored fighting vehicles, 4,000 surface-to-air missile launchers, and a formidable array of anti-aircraft systems.

Moreover, unlikely in Syria, the opposition Free Syria Army (FSA) has not established territorial control over any discernable part of the country, which makes it very difficult to defend the FSA’s positions. Any military campaign would likely result in numerous instances of mistaken identity and civilian casualties. We have to ask ourselves just what would a military campaign be supporting at this time?

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Damascus finds support in Tehran

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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.

Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arriving for an official dinner in Damascus. Source: SANA

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.

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