Monday, August 22, 2016

Iran Bleeding in the Syrian Quagmire - Hassan Dai

by Hassan Dai

--the costs of the Syrian quagmire could eventually force the Iranian regime to change course in Syria and the region altogether. 

On August 7, 2016, after days of fierce and bloody battle, Syrian rebels broke through the siege on opposition-held areas of Aleppo. Having backed Syrian president Bashar Assad financially and militarily, the significance of the defeat dawned on the Iranian regime and struck home how deeply it is bogged down in the Syrian quagmire.

It is necessary to remember Tehran's decision for a military surge in Syria in early 2015.  Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his allies in the Revolutionary Guards, who were perceived as the main losers of the nuclear deal, believed that a military victory in Syria could compensate for their nuclear defeat, weaken the rival "moderate" factions, strengthen the Iranian hegemonic position in the region, and keep the main contour of Iranian regional policy intact.

In April 2015, Qassem Soleimani, chief commander of the Iran Quds Force, traveled to Moscow and met with Vladimir Putin to coordinate Russian military intervention in Syria.  During the summer of 2015, the Quds Force mobilized its proxy militias in Iraq, Lebanese Hezb'allah, and Afghani units, sending thousands of additional fighters to Syria.  The capture of Aleppo was considered the top prize, with Hezb'allah's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, calling Aleppo the "grand strategic battle."

Simultaneously, the Iranian regime launched a large-scale public campaign inside Iran to justify intervention in Syria and reinvigorate the regime's base.  The campaign that continues to this day includes religious ceremonies, conferences, speeches, and various television programs defending the regime's policy and honoring the martyrs.  In May 2016, a film festival was organized in Tehran featuring documentaries about the "defendants of the holy shrines," a term used by the regime to refer to the fighters deployed to Syria.  The supreme leader has received the families of "martyrs" several times, with the meetings being broadcast on national TV.  A series of documentaries featuring the wives of the martyrs is aired on TV in which they describe their relationship with their husbands and how their husbands sacrificed all worldly pleasures and their families in order to fulfill their Islamic duties by enlisting to fight in Syria.  The regime aims to demonstrate that the martyrs are venerated and respected by Iranians and that the regime takes care of their families.  The campaign further attempts to create an ideological and emotional connection between the public and the Revolutionary Guards killed in Syria.

In May 2016, the supreme leader received some of the families of the Afghanis killed in Syria belonging to "Fatemiyoun," the Afghani division of Quds Force.  On June 28, a rally was organized to honor the martyrs of the "Zeinabiyoun" brigade, which consists of Pakistani Shi'ites recruited and organized by the Quds Force to fight in Syria.

The internal divisions

The staunchest critic of the supreme leader and Revolutionary Guards' increasing military involvement in Syria has been Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, the head of the Iranian Expediency Council.  During a speech on August 30, 2013, Rafsanjani denounced Bashar Assad's war crimes, stating that he has used chemical weapons against his own people.  Then, during a meeting with a group of Iraqi dignitaries and officials, he again denounced the Assad atrocities that would empower radical Sunni groups and threaten Iranian and Iraqi security.

More recently, in an interview with the Iranian Aftab News published on May 30, 2016, Rafsanjani warned of Iran's untenable involvement in several countries in the region and stated: "Now the Arab and Muslim countries in the region are confronting us, and this is a serious challenge that should be addressed.  To safeguard our interests, we are currently stuck in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and Afghanistan.  Such involvement is difficult to sustain and cannot be abandoned easily, either.  We are facing a difficult situation in the region, and we should resolve it by adopting wise policies."

More broadly, the so-called moderate and reformist factions are voicing their concerns that Iran's current policies in the region and military involvements are real obstacles to the government's efforts in improving diplomatic and economic relations with the West and convincing foreign companies and financial institutions to deal with and invest in Iran's depleted economy.  These factions demand a change in Iranian foreign policy.

The Iranian supreme leader has repeatedly criticized these factions for being na├»ve and not understanding the Iranian regime's interests.  During a speech on August 1, 2016, he praised Iran's influence and position in the region and declared: "In the present time, the Americans are asking us to go and speak to them about regional matters.  Well, this experience [nuclear deal] tells us that this is a deadly poison for us."

The supreme leader has repeatedly declared that a failure in Syria and a withdrawal from the region will result in the downfall of Iranian regional policies altogether, a scenario that could weaken the regime's position inside Iran and threaten its survival.  His vision was well illustrated in a major speech that he gave in the city of Mashhad on March 20, 2016, posted on his English website.

The road ahead

A large number of Iranian analysts see many similarities between the supreme leader's current position on Syrian and regional issues and his stance on the nuclear issue prior to 2012-2013, when economic sanctions helped cripple the Iranian economy.  Ultimately, he was forced to change course and engage in serious negotiations with the U.S. to dramatically curb the nuclear program in return for lifting the sanctions.  These analysts rightly believe that the costs of the Syrian quagmire could eventually force the Iranian regime to change course in Syria and the region altogether.  

In addition to the human and financial cost of military presence across the Middle East, Iranian policies have been fueling sectarian tensions.  Furthermore, in the absence of an active U.S. role, Israeli and Arab governments who feel threatened by Iran's hegemonic drive are forcefully confronting Tehran.  These growing hostilities against Iran are costly and will inevitably lead to a situation described by Rafsanjani as "untenable."  Moreover, the Iranian economy is in shambles, with Iranian regional policies preventing the integration of economy into the global market in order to relieve economic hardships inside Iran and reduce social and political tensions.

The supreme leader's only hope of overcoming these challenges is a decisive military victory in Syria, but the battle of Aleppo demonstrated that the civil war will continue, with the Syrian quagmire continuing to weaken the Iranian regime.  Thus, the clock is ticking for Iran until the day that it can no longer continue its ongoing involvement.  The failure will have a devastating impact on the regime, not only regionally, but also inside the country, which is the prospect that the supreme leader has been repeatedly warning about.

Hassan Dai is an investigative journalist and political analyst specializing in Iranian regime activities in the Middle East and pro-Iran activities in the West.  He is the editor of Iranian American Forum.


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