As the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al Assad's regime enters its fifth month, the Syrian government has escalated its crackdown, with tanks besieging the restive city of Hama on July 31 and Syrian forces killing at least 200 people over the course of the ensuing four days, according to media reports. Political reform initiatives offered by the al Assad regime have failed to quell the unrest, and the government's heavy use of force in the face of mounting casualties has pressured international stakeholders to address the situation.
Thus far, no country has pushed for regime change in Syria given the political uncertainty it could bring. However, it is clear by this point that the al Assad government could fall or be significantly weakened as a result of the unrest, and outside powers are reconsidering their policies toward Syria accordingly in order to secure their interests. The most important player to watch in this is Saudi Arabia, for which the Syrian state has long been a major problem due to its alliance with Iran. With Iraq falling into the Iranian orbit after the U.S. invasion that toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein, the Saudis have been extremely concerned about the rise of a largely Shiite regional arc stretching from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Until the wave of popular unrest swept the Arab world, the Saudis were without any effective counters to the growing Iranian influence along their northern periphery. Now that Syria is in play, the Saudis have a potential option to turn back Iran's influence.
The Syria-Iran Alliance
An Iranian-aligned Syria has been the Islamic republic's foothold in the Arab world, serving as the physical channel through which Tehran has been able to develop Hezbollah into a major military force (more powerful than the Lebanese armed forces), which has eroded the position of Lebanon's Saudi-aligned Sunni Arab population, and thus Riyadh's influence there. Close ties between Tehran and Damascus have also allowed the Iranians to make serious inroads as the main defenders of the Palestinian cause because radical Palestinian groups Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are headquartered in the Syrian capital and much of their funding from Iran goes through Damascus. And in the case of Iraq, decades before the ouster of Saddam Hussein's regime, Syria sided with Iran against the rival Baathists in Iraq and has essentially looked the other way while the Islamic republic expanded its control over its western neighbor after the fall of the Iraqi Baathists.
Sunnis are the overwhelming majority in Syria, and a Sunni-led government replacing the incumbent Alawaite minority regime would seriously undermine Iran's ability to act in Lebanon by cutting it off from Hezbollah, which would allow Saudi Arabia to revive its influence in Lebanon. The Saudis would also be able to weaken Tehran's ability to exploit the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Furthermore, given the lengthy Syria-Iraq border, a pro-Saudi Syria could serve as an instrument to counter Iranian influence in Shiite-majority Iraq.
Iran is well aware of the possible consequences if the al Assad regime succumbs to the domestic unrest, which is why it is going out of its way to support it. There have been reports of Tehran using all its assets — the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security and its militant proxy, Hezbollah — to help Damascus put down the uprising. For Iran, Syria undergoing regime change would mean the Islamic republic loses the bulk of the regional sphere of influence it has spent the last 30 years building up.
The Iranians also know that a Sunni-dominated Syria would be closer to Turkey as well. Ankara's criticism of the al Assad regime for its violent crackdown against civilians has grown louder in recent weeks, and Turkey's overall regional ascendency means that Tehran's long-term competition with Ankara is only beginning. Turkish interests also converge with Saudi interests on Syria, and Iran may face a combined effort against it should the current regime fall.
Iran's Plans at Risk
Iran has long envisioned an arc of influence stretching across the northern corridor of the predominantly Arab Middle East. Tehran secured an early victory when it established close ties with Alawite Syria and leveraged it to cultivate Hezbollah into a major force in Lebanon in the 1980s. Baathist Iraq continued to be a major blocking force in the path of Iran for another 20 years. It was not until the U.S. move to oust the Baathist regime in 2003 that a major window of opportunity appeared for Iran to try to transform Iraq from a threat to a potential satellite — a process the Iranians were hoping to finalize after U.S. forces complete their withdrawal, scheduled for the end of 2011.
These plans were proceeding apace, with Iran's sphere of influence in the Arab world emerging as a continuous geography through Iraq to the Mediterranean, but the spring unrest across the Arab world spreading deep into Syria jeopardized this. After having finally placed Iraq in its orbit, Iran was staring at the potential loss of Syria. Considering what is at stake, Iran can ill afford to see the Syrian regime collapse — and with it its own geopolitical objectives — and Tehran can be expected to put massive resources toward ensuring that the regime survives in some form.
Saudi Arabia is still weighing its options, but it knows that this opportunity to turn back Iran's growing power in the heart of the Arab world may not come again soon. Should the Saudis decide to actively seek the fall of the Syrian regime, they too will throw a massive amount of resources at the goal, turning Syria into a key geopolitical and sectarian battleground.