Nov 17, 2011 | 03:34 GMT

6 mins read

Syria's Place in Iran's Shiite Arc

It can be difficult to separate the important from unimportant on any given day. Reflections mean to do exactly that — by thinking about what happened today, we can consider what might happen tomorrow.
Around 2:30 a.m. local time Wednesday, gunfire and explosions were heard in the Damascus suburbs. Syrian activists claimed that the Free Syrian Army — a group of mostly Sunni army defectors whose leadership is based in Turkey — fired machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades at an air force intelligence complex and at several army checkpoints north of the capital. That story, which rapidly made its way to major media outlets, suggested that Syria’s political struggle has entered a new phase, one in which the opposition is showing the first signs of waging a coordinated insurgency against the regime. A STRATFOR source offered a different version of what happened, claiming that the attacks were not coordinated by Free Syrian Army, but were instead carried out by a group of some 20 soldiers who defected and immediately launched attacks within the military compound. Neither story has been independently verified. If the al Assad regime fell and Syria returned to Sunni power, it would embolden Turkey and Saudi Arabia and greatly complicate Iran’s ability to arm and fund its militant proxies in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. As questions continued to circulate over the level of dissent Syria may be facing within the army and about the opposition's capabilities, foreign ministers from the Arab states and Turkey met in the Moroccan capital to take measures aimed at sustaining diplomatic pressure on the regime of Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The group confirmed Syria’s suspension from the Arab League and issued a three-day ultimatum to the al Assad regime to allow a group of 30-50 Arab advisers into the country to ensure that Syria complies with an Arab League plan or else faces economic sanctions. The Arab League plan, which calls for the Syrian government to suspend attacks on protesters, withdraw armor from the streets and release political prisoners, has so far failed to elicit a response from Damascus. The Arab League’s move to boot Syria from the group has also prompted attacks in Damascus — likely sponsored by the government — by pro-regime protesters against diplomatic missions belonging to the growing list of countries who have placed Syria on their blacklist. The attacks on embassies may be intended to demonstrate that the regime does not lack ardent supporters, but are having the adverse effect of increasing Syria’s diplomatic isolation at a time when the Arab League, along with Turkey, is demonstrating unusual unity and resolve in trying to cripple the Syrian regime. This growing regional consensus against Syria is a product of the current geopolitical environment. The United States is nearing its year-end withdrawal of forces from Iraq, where a power vacuum is being left for Iran to fill. Tehran intends to use this historic opportunity to try and reshape the politics of the region and solidify an arc of Shiite influence extending from Persia to the Levant. The vast majority of players in this region — Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States included — do not want to see this happen, and are searching for ways to restore the Sunni-Shiite balance of power that fell with Saddam Hussein in 2003. Iraq, at the heart of the Arab world, is the most obvious place to start, but the United States has learned over the years that trying to compete with Iran in Iraq is no easy task. Iran has demonstrated through its well-arrayed network of Shiite assets that it will continue to hold the upper hand in Baghdad for some time to come. In Eastern Arabia, Iran saw an opportunity to exploit Shiite unrest in Bahrain, prompting Saudi Arabia to react quickly out of fear of protests spreading to the Saudi kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province. The Saudis so far appear to have a good handle on the Bahraini situation, but remain on alert for further attempts by Iran to exploit Shiite dissent in the region. The next place to look in trying to break Iran’s Shiite arc is the Levant, where the Alawite regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon have long provided Iran a strong foothold with which to threaten Israel. Iran still has considerable influence in this region, but the political crisis in Syria threatens to severely limit Iran’s reach into the Mediterranean basin. If the al Assad regime fell and Syria returned to Sunni power, it would embolden Turkey and Saudi Arabia and greatly complicate Iran’s ability to arm and fund its militant proxies in Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. If Iran can’t be beaten in Iraq, Syria offers the next best solution in the eyes of most of Iran’s adversaries. But the al Assad regime cannot easily be toppled. The Alawite regime knows what’s at stake if power slips to the Sunni majority. This can explain why the vast majority of Syria’s Alawites and Christian and Druze minorities have so far stayed on the side of the regime in the hopes of the protests dying out. Unless the patronage networks that the Syrian government has built over the past 40-plus years begin to fragment and — more importantly — the Alawite-dominated military begins to crack — al Assad will find a way to maintain power. This is why the gunfight claimed by Syrian activists must be examined more closely. A group of low-ranking Sunni defectors attempting an attack on a hard military target is certainly noteworthy, but is nowhere near as significant as a major breach within the Alawite-dominated air force intelligence. Either way, Syrian activists have an interest in disseminating a story that they hope will encourage more defections and lead to more serious cracks within the army, in order to create the conditions for a military coup. But shaping perceptions is only half the battle for Syria’s fledgling armed opposition. Unless groups like the Free Syrian Army find a sanctuary within effective operating range of the main areas of resistance in central and southern Syria, sustaining an insurgency against the Alawite-dominated security force will prove difficult.

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