America and Iran Square Off Over Syria

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America and Iran Square Off Over Syria

Washington has seen all roads in Damascus as leading through Tehran. Why time and compromise could lead to a deal that saves lives.

Viewed from Washington, the crisis in Syria has always had very little to do with Syria – and a lot to with Iran. Almost from the beginning, the United States has seen the eruption of the Syrian revolt as an opportunity to deal a severe blow to Tehran, depriving it of its chief regional ally and isolating its Lebanese partner, Hezbollah. For that reason, rather than seek a diplomatic solution that would try to bring both the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the opposition to the table, since last August President Obama has demanded that Assad step down. That had the intended effect of galvanizing the Syrian opposition, which – in response to a wantonly brutal crackdown by Syrian security forces – has increasingly become a militarized force engaged in outright civil war.

Although it paid lip service to the failed UN-Arab League sponsored mission of Kofi Annan to secure a diplomatic solution and a peaceful transfer of power in Damascus, in fact the United States is orchestrating a Western coalition in concert with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar in support of the armed rebellion in Syria. At the Pentagon, the State Department and the CIA, there are already regime-change preparations underway. Over the weekend, while visiting NATO member Turkey to meet with Syrian opposition leaders and Ahmet Davutoglu, the Turkish foreign minister, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explicitly declared that Washington is in the “operational” phase. “We have been closely coordinating over the course of this conflict, but now we need to get into the real details of such operational planning,” she said adding, “Our intelligence services, our military have very important responsibilities and roles to play, so we are going to be setting up a working group to do exactly that.”

There’s no doubt that, in Tehran, the Syrian crisis is seen as a dire threat. Yet, although the United States and its allies, including Israel, charge that Iran is heavily involved in providing military and intelligence support to Assad, in fact there is not much that Iran can do to prevent Assad’s collapse, if indeed that’s where things are headed, and many of the charges that Iran is playing a critical role in propping up Assad may be exaggerated. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, Alon Ben-Meir, a prominent analyst, warned – without evidence – that Iran might intervene directly in Syria, using military force. In tandem, the U.S. State and Treasury departments this week accused Hezbollah of “actively providing support to the Assad regime as it carries out its bloody campaign against the Syrian people.”

But if Iran is engaged in any offensive vis-à-vis Syria, it is a diplomatic one.

Needless to say, it may be too late for a peaceful solution in Syria, even if Iran were to be involved. (Last month, when there were suggestions from Kofi Annan and others that Iran take part in talks on Syria, the idea was bluntly rebuffed by the United States.) But, precisely because it may have no other real options, Iran is engaged in a vigorous diplomatic effort in connection with the conflict in Syria.

In an August 8 piece in the Washington Post, Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi of Iran once again reiterated Iran’s support for a six-point peace plan proposed by Annan, whose core, he said, was to, “Ensure an immediate cease-fire to stop the bloodshed, dispatch humanitarian aid to the Syrian people and prepare the ground for dialogue to solve the crisis.” He added, “I once again declare Iran’s support for political reform in Syria that will allow the Syrian people to decide their destiny. This includes ensuring that they have the right to participate in the upcoming free and fair presidential election under international supervision.”

As part of Iran’s diplomatic efforts, Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran’s national security council and a close adviser to Ali Khamenei, the Supreme Leader, flew to Damascus for talks with Assad. On the surface, at least, Jalili’s rhetoric was tough. “Iran will never allow the axis of resistance — of which Syria is an essential pillar — to break.” According to CNN, he added: “What is taking place in Syria is not an internal issue but rather a conflict between the resistance axis on one hand and the enemies of this axis in the region and the world on the other hand, with the goal being to strike Syria’s resistant role.”

Salehi, for his part, flew to Turkey to meet with that country’s foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, who received him coolly. Salehi’s trip came despite the fact that Iran has accused Turkey, along with Saudi Arabia and Qatar, of fomenting the Syrian revolt, and Iran appealed openly to Turkey and Qatar for help in freeing a group of Iranians seized and held by Syrian rebels.

Then, on August 9, Iran convened a conference in Tehran aimed at encouraging continued diplomacy on Syria. None of the members of the coalition supporting the Syrian rebellion were invited, but the conference was attended by ambassadors from 29 countries, including Russia, China, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Cuba, Iraq, and Venezuela. And while the Tehran conference was not seen as a serious effort – it was “mostly for show,” Wayne White, a former senior U.S. intelligence officer on the Middle East, told The Diplomat – that same day it was reported that a respected Algerian diplomat and former foreign minister, Lakhdar Brahimi, is expected to be named as Annan’s successor on Syria.

Brahimi would be certain to have the support of Iran and Russia, another strong backer of Assad, in a renewed diplomatic push. By the same token, the United States would most likely be skeptical of Brahimi, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may already be working behind the scenes to derail the Arab League’s support for Brahimi’s appointment.

Without diplomacy, however, and barring an all-out, NATO-led intervention, a bloody battle to the end will likely unfold. And, although Iran may be hedging its support for Syria behind the scenes, Tehran is apparently counting on the possibility that Assad will prevail through sheer force.

Losing Assad as an ally would be catastrophic for Iran, says Wayne White, the former deputy director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research’s Office of Analysis for the Near East and South Asia. “They’d be considerably more isolated than they already are,” said White, in an interview. “For Iran, Damascus International Airport is hugely important. Without it, the air bridge to Lebanon would be gone, and they’d have enormous difficulty resupplying Hezbollah. Lebanese ports are not friendly, even if Iran could get cargo to those ports.” White says that the U.S. National Military Command Center (NMIC) tracks every cargo vessel on the high seas, coordinating with satellite images of those ships being loaded at Iranian ports such as Bandar Abbas. As a result, he says, either the United States or Israel could halt the resupply of Hezbollah at sea.

Meanwhile, as it escalates its military and intelligence role in Syria, the United States has spent the past year and a half since the Syrian revolt began stepping up its encirclement of Iran in the Persian Gulf. It is expanding naval bases in Qatar, Bahrain and Dubai and, according to the Wall Street Journal, “The Pentagon is building a missile-defense radar station at a secret site in Qatar and organizing its biggest-ever mine sweeping exercises in the Persian Gulf, as preparations accelerate for a possible flare-up with Iran, according to U.S. officials.”

Ultimately, Iran’s best option is to make preparations for Assad’s collapse while continuing talks with the P5+1 over its nuclear program into next year. By next summer, there’s a strong chance that the talks between Iran and the so-called P5+1 world powers might have a chance to succeed. If President Obama is reelected, he’ll have greater political freedom to make necessary concessions to Iran that would allow Tehran to maintain a limited uranium enrichment program. For Iran’s part, once its own presidential elections are over next June, perhaps the new Iranian government, too, would have more flexibility to strike a deal with the government it calls “the Great Satan.”