Why Iran Won't Give Up Syria
02 August 2015
By Jackson Diehl
With the Iran nuclear deal in hand, President Obama appears ready to focus
more of his attention on stemming the wars, mass atrocities and humanitarian
catastrophes that have spread across the Middle East during his presidency.
He has articulated several big goals he wants to reach before the next
president takes office: to put the United States and its allies "on track to
defeat" the Islamic State; to "have jump-started a process to resolve the
civil war in Syria"; and to defend Israel and other U.S. allies from
aggression mounted by Iran and its proxies.
Here's the problem: The last two of those goals are, as the president
conceives them, directly in conflict with each other.
At his post-deal news conference last month, Obama conceded that Iran might
use some of the billions it will soon receive to supply the Lebanese
Hezbollah militia with fresh weapons, and he vowed to do his best to stop it.
"It is in the national security interest of the United States to prevent Iran
from sending weapons to Hezbollah," he said.
At the same time, Obama described the solution to the Syrian war as requiring
an "agreement among the major powers that are interested in Syria." He added,
"Iran is one of those players, and I think that it's important for them to be
part of that conversation."
That remark signaled a reverse of Obama's previous policy of excluding Iran
from Syrian peace talks. At U.S. insistence, Tehran was left out of the two
conferences held in Geneva in 2012 and 2014. More important, conceding an
Iranian say on Syria contradicted Obama's goal of stopping its support for
Hezbollah. That's because Iran's deep and so far unwavering support for the
regime of Bashar al-Assad is driven almost entirely by its use of Syria as a
land bridge to the Shiite militia.
Hezbollah "is Iran's aircraft carrier in the eastern Mediterranean," says
Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria. The militia deploys tens of
thousands of missiles in southern Lebanon aimed at Israel, and it ensures
that no government in Lebanon can be formed without Tehran's consent.
Thousands of its fighters are keeping the Assad regime standing in Damascus —
not because of any love for Assad's Alawite sect but to preserve this link to
Lacking reliable sea access to Lebanon, Iran needs control over the Damascus
airport and the border between Syria and Lebanon to ensure Hezbollah's
resupply. That's why, as it loses ground to rebels in the north and south,
the Assad regime's army — itself now largely an Iranian proxy — has begun to
concentrate on defending a narrow strip of territory between Damascus and the
Ford and other experts on Syria say Iran's Supreme Leader Khamenei will never
accept a settlement of the Syrian war that strands Hezbollah. To do so would
be to surrender Iran's regional ambitions, including its ability to threaten
Israel. "Iran's overall policy . . . is focused rigidly (in Syria) on
Hezbollah," former State Department adviser Frederic Hof, now with the
Atlantic Council, wrote me.
So how to agree with Khamenei on Syria's future? "What are we supposed to
do?" asks Hof. "Help find an alternative to [Assad] who would work with Iran
to keep rockets and missiles pointed at Tel Aviv?"
To be sure, Obama's description of the prospects for diplomacy on Syria start
not with Iran but with Russia, the regime's other principal backer. U.S.
officials say the president has had promising conversations with Vladi¬mir
Putin on Syria in recent weeks. It's at least possible to imagine the form a
joint U.S.-Russian settlement formula might take: Assad would be removed,
allowing the non-jihadist opposition to join with a new government in war
against the Islamic State.
The problem, as Hof points out, is that Russia lacks the leverage to bring
about a change in the Syrian leadership. The Assad regime is propped up
almost entirely at this point by money, weapons and fighters supplied by
Iran. And Tehran, says Ford, "is not ready to give up on Assad." From the
Iranian point of view, there is no reason to abandon the regime unless it
proves unable to hold Damascus and the border zone. In the rest of the
country, Shiite Iran is content — even happy — to watch the Sunni Islamic
State and Sunni Syrian rebel forces fight to the death.
The bottom line is that a serious effort to end Syria's war will require
Obama to choose between challenging Iran's Syrian land bridge to Hezbollah
through more vigorous support for anti-Assad forces, or accepting a
settlement that tacitly sanctions a continued Iranian proxy army on Israel's
border. Considering his investment in the nuclear deal, it wouldn't be
surprising if he shrinks from both options — and hands a Syrian nightmare to