Why Iran Eyes a Syrian Civil War


Revolutions are unpredictable, but so are post-revolution periods – something that will be evident if and when the Bashar al-Assad regime falls in Syria.

It is, of course, possible that when the regime falls, the fighting will end and a single body will manage the country’s affairs until elections take place. But it’s also possible that there will be chaos or even civil war. If this happens, expect fighting between the minority ruling Alawites and the majority Sunni population to ensue.

Should there be a smooth transition to democracy, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is likely to try to establish relations with the new Syrian government – indeed he may even try to do so before Assad falls, in order to protect Iran’s interests in Syria. And Khamenei may succeed, depending on whether the new authorities in Damascus are interested in relations with Tehran.

But what if there is instead a civil war? After all, as prominent Middle East analyst Vali Nasr noted in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, in the Arab world, ‘when dictatorships crack, budding democracies are more than likely to be greeted by violence and paralysis.’

Clearly, chaos in Syria could have region-wide implications, and Iranian government officials have already started to warn the international community about the possibility of such a scenario unfolding. It’s unclear how Iran would respond if this does transpire, but one thing seems certain – Iran is extremely unlikely to play the part of spectator. In fact, the opposite may very well end up being true, with Iran likely to back the Alawites by providing them with material and economic support. 

The Alawites are a subset of the Shiite sect of Islam, and Iran, the biggest Shiite country in the world, whose supreme leader sees himself as God’s representative to all Shiites, would support them. But religious proximity isn’t the only reason Iran would support the Alawites. To Iran’s leaders, alliances are there to serve the regime’s interests, meaning that if supporting fellow Shiites serves Iran’s interests then Tehran will do so. But by the same token, if assisting Shiites undermines the regime's interests, Tehran isn’t afraid to steer clear – one only has to look at the relative indifference Iran shows to the many hundreds of Shiites killed each year in Pakistan by Sunni extremists simply because it isn’t in Iran’s interests to fall out with the Pakistani government.

So if not just for religious reasons, why would Tehran back the Alawites in the chaos of a civil war? Because it would help Tehran undermine Israel’s security and Saudi Arabia's interests.

Civil war in Syria would be a nightmare for Israel, worse even than the Muslim Brotherhood taking over in Damascus. After all, should the Brotherhood come to power, Israel would at least have someone to hold to account for attacks launched from Syrian territory. But the anarchy of civil war would leave Israel with no one to turn to, and no single authority to threaten reprisals against. If this happens, expect Iran to encourage its allies to attack Israel in an attempt to undermine its security further.

But a civil war could be welcomed in Tehran for another reason – because it would also undermine Saudi interests. Saudi Arabia and Iran have for years been engaged in their own Cold War, especially since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. They’ve competed for power and influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain – and now Syria. According to David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post,  the Saudis have been ‘pumping money to Sunni fighters in Syria.’ Meanwhile, Iran has been backing the Alawite dominated government of Assad. In the case of civil war in Syria, Iran would use the opportunity to undermine Sunni groups as a means of limiting Saudi influence in Syria. Iran has already lost Bahrain to the Saudis – it’s determined not to lose Syria as well.

Fighting a proxy war in Syria on behalf of the Alawites wouldn’t be without risks for Iran. For a start, it could place Iran’s relations with Hamas under severe strain as an overwhelming majority of Palestinians in Syria, as well as the Hamas movement itself, are Sunni.

But it could also impact Iran’s relationship with Hizbollah as Iran would most probably require their assistance in backing the Alawites in the event of civil war. Securing Hizbollah’s backing could affect that group’s standing in the Islamic world, as its popularity in the region has until now come from its portrayal of itself as an Islamic resistance force. Helping to put down Sunnis in Syria would risk undermining this image.

And of course fighting a proxy war in Syria could also impact Iran’s relationship with Turkey, itself a Sunni country whose priority is stability in Syria.

Still, such costs are unlikely to dissuade Iran from taking part, should the opportunity present itself. In Tehran’s cost/benefit analysis, the chance to undermine Israel and Saudi Arabia in one go is likely to outweigh the potential dangers. With Syrian demonstrators burning Iranians flags, Tehran may find that a rapprochement with the Sunni opposition may prove to be too cumbersome, or even impossible. A civil war might suit it better, as would the ensuing grief for Israel and Saudi Arabia.

December 30, 2011 at 03:04

“If it gets rid of the Iranian bomb, then some blow back is worth it.”
Blow back can mean terrorism. so that would read…. If it gets rid of the Iranian bomb, then some terrorism is worth it. This is insane or I am missing something ?

October 19, 2011 at 09:11

Wrooooong Analysis, it is based on hate feelings towards Iran as the writer is Iranian who fled his country, so, please MR.writer tell me, how much they paid you?

September 19, 2011 at 23:19

The undeniable fact the Syrian government and the Syrian armed forces are fighting against the US-Zionist terrorists and mercenaries who are using US-Israeli weapons to overthrow the legitimate Syrian government and undermine Syria so that the Israeli regime of terror could terrorize Lebanon with impunity.

Saad Al-Haffar
September 12, 2011 at 05:22

I think the situation in Syria has reached the “Point of no Return”. There is so much blood shed, where civilians will soon take to “hand to hand”. None of the military bunkers have been penetrated yet as the public continues to advocate peacefull demonstration. However, the public’s patience is wearing thin and will soon translate into organised street warfair utilizing sticks and pitchforks if that is all that is available. There will not be any U.S. intervention here as Syria has been a great supporter and protector of the state of Isreal, and president Obama needs the jewish vote for next elections.

Mark Thomason
September 4, 2011 at 04:17

You describe a pattern in which the entire region of the world could be reorganized to favor Israel. Essentially, you would surround Israel with a cordon of small and pliable states, not unlike the Eastern European solutions between the wars and then in the Cold War. You describe this as reaching out as far as the distant borders of Turkey, Iran, and Russia, all for the benefit of Israel’s security.

If reorganization of the region, creation and destruction of nations, is to be on the agenda, it is far simpler to simply eliminate Israel. The US would never think that, but do you really think the rest of the region and much of the rest of the world would not see Occam’s Razor in all this?

You put in question the legitimacy and right to exist as a nation of everyone else, and your own will not remain inviolate. This is foolish and dangerous thinking.

But you are right, if the whole area could be so reorganized, Israel would be safer. And it seems that those with the power to control US foreign policy and military adventures were for a time and may be again willing to take this on. I cannot see it as a route to actual success, and I see the very acknowledgment of these possibilities as the worst nightmare of the Israeli state.

September 3, 2011 at 19:24

No civil war would not serve Iran Well. Syria as it is in the Iranian camp already. Alawites, the ruling tribe are Shiite, the majority population is Sunni. the Shiia would likely lose any civil war they have the numbers. Iran stands to gain nothing

September 3, 2011 at 11:52

I think the current upheaval is a G-d given opportunity for Israel to influence the change of the map and the substance of the ME. Israel needs the break down of Syria ( and Iraq and Lebanon in the shorter term) and in the longer term – the creation of the independent Kurdistan (comprising all the Kurdish lands from Iraq, Iran, Syria ), independent Coptic state and, finally, a larger Aizerbaijan. The dynamics of these processes is impossible to predict. Things that today seem impossible could become possible – like Alawites, cut off from Iran by a hostile union of Syrian and Iraqi sunni tribes, might seek some understanding with Israel. Ditto for Hezbollah. The whole format of the Israeli – Arab conflict might change. Every single side of it. If Syria breaks down, who the Golan Heights should be returned to ? No one. It will remain a part of Israel.

Not only could it be good for Israel. It will be simply fair from historical perspective. Allawites are demonized these days. But they suffered for centuries from sunni dominations/persecution. They grabbed the power when they could. And they hold on to it because they know what’s coming their way if they loose it. In the islamic society there is no civilized discourse between sunnis and shiates of different colors and flavors. Not to mention the non-muslims.

September 2, 2011 at 23:56

How I see this, one outcome Iran does not want is violent Salafist takeover of Libya. That would remove one of their few allies into Saudi column and put Hesbollah into bind. I am not sure how Israel feel about bordering with Saudi Caliphate but West is not keen on that solution. It would create great number of refugees; first on chopping block would be Allawites, then, secular refugees from Iraq. Finally Christians or Druse never flourished under strict Sharia law either. In essence, if there is civil war, Lebanon might be easily pulled in and some parts of Syria would wish to join Lebanon. But even in case of civil war I do not expect many large scale attacks on Israel (unless Israel goes on “take sledgehammer to crack an egg” type of retaliations on small attacks. Because, weapons and people would be badly needed in “Sunni vs. The Rest” showdown.

Democratic transition is very different game. As Iran pays lip service to democracy, it could tolerate it much better then Saudi Arabia. Of course, we are talking of Middle Eastern variety of democracy, not North European one. In case that moderately Islamic government emerges in Syria, Iran would be fine with that unless that government would have excessive anti-Shiite bias. As democracy would preserve liberals and leftists it is much preferred option for Europe too. However, Saudi Arabia does not want democracy anywhere near it’s border. With 100 000+ royal relatives with some privileges, how you can introduce democracy there? Also, Israel would not like much government with democratic legitimacy still requesting return of Golan.

September 2, 2011 at 23:03

There is always someone to blame you just have to look hard enough and in the right places. It is not all good for Iran, for a start Hizbullah would be fighting on two fronts for the second time in the war on terror, this time in a civil war, the Alwaite will need support, to fight Kurds, Sunni’s.

So that thins out the Lebanon AO, they are fighting on two fronts. Chaos brings targeted killings, look at Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and in the future Afghanistan. So in some form foreign governments will be using drones and special forces, al-Qaida would be there so they will be there. And who knows who they put that sight one from their little monitor. Petraeus knows all those Sunni tribes on the Iraq/Syrian border, from the Sons of Iraq, Sunni awakening. Israel will have someone hostile on it border, it already has, but they can go in, not like Egypt. If it gets rid of the Iranian bomb, then some blow back is worth it.

Iran will lose a well armed ally to civil war, and ally that is vital to its strategic confidence, deterrent to allow them to proceed with a nuclear weapon. It opens them up to a strike from either the US or Israel. If it is true civil war with no real government in place, then it opens up the Syrian flank, access to the Syria/Lebanon border to the IDF, without fighting an army. They can do what they did in Gaza in Lebanon.

If Iran wanted the Arab Spring then they would be behind it, maybe they are. Iran had most to gain from the period of calm being extended.

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