The Plan B of Tehran, the strongest supporter of the Syrian regime, is to fragment the war-torn country and create an Alawite state in order to maintain its influence over the country after the fall of the regime, according to Murhaf Jouejati, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
“Syria is a major stake for Iran. Syria is Iran's door to Mediterranean and Arab politics. The fall of the regime would be a tremendous strategic loss for Tehran,” Jouejati, who is a prominent opponent of the regime, said in an exclusive interview with Today's Zaman.
According to Jouejati, Iran's Plan B would involve dividing the country and creating an Alawite state to continue its sectarian policies in Syria through Hezbollah, the Shiite group in Lebanon. “I think no one in the region will want this to happen,” said Jouejati.
Iranian politics have been quite influential in Syria and Lebanon, especially through Hezbollah. The downfall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime is expected to inflict a deadly blow to the Syria-Iran-Hezbollah axis. Hezbollah and Iran have so far strongly supported the Assad regime politically.
“In the Syrian crisis, Iran will not take a step back,” said Jouejati.
Despite the growing international pressure over its stance in the crisis, Iran continues to stand by its ally, the Syrian regime.
Syria has always been of critical importance to Tehran as a transit route to reach out to Hezbollah in order to maintain a stalemate with Israel.
“We were not talking about the fragmentation of the country before. However, the debate on the fragmentation of Syria is more serious than ever because the crisis in the country has become more sectarianized. We, Syrians, are against the division of the country which could lead to the establishment of an Alawite state,” said Jouejati.
According to Jouejati, the Assad regime is playing upon the fears of the Alawite community, which is concerned about their future in the post-Assad era.
“We do see that the Alawite minority is feeling guilty due to their association with the regime, but they should not be. This is what the regime wants,” said Jouejati.
Assad and his family belong to the Alawite sect, which is an offshoot of Shiite Islam. Alawites in Syria compose nearly 15 percent of the total population.
In the first meeting of its kind, Alawites who support the uprising against Assad came together last week in Cairo, where they called for the overthrow of the regime and the maintenance of the territorial integrity of Syria. The meeting sought to distance the Alawite community from wholesale association with the regime's attempts to crush the two-year uprising.
“The meeting in Cairo is of great importance. Alawites want the world to know that the crisis in Syria has no sectarian point, but rather it is a national uprising and that they are part of this uprising against their Alawite president. So, the uprising is not because Assad is Alawite but because he is a dictator who views Syria as his family farm,” said Jouejati, adding that the Assad family abused Syria for decades.
Syria last area of influence for Russians in Middle East
Russia, a faithful ally of the Syrian regime, as well as a permanent member of the UN Security Council (UNSC), has systematically vetoed any resolution which might pave the way for Assad's departure.
“Russians do not want the change of regime in Syria coming from outside pressure, particularly from the US and its allies. But their argument is flawed. It is the people of Syria that want the change of regime, not just US allies,” said Jouejati.
Moscow has been at loggerheads with the West and Arab states that have called on Assad to quit and says Assad's exit from power must not be a precondition for a political solution.
Russia is a long-time arms supplier to Damascus and maintains a naval facility in Syria.
“In addition to all the material interest that Russia has invested in Syria over the decades of their relationship, there is the general principle, which is that Syria is their last area of influence in the Middle East. Giving up Syria will not be very easy for the Russians,” said Jouejati.
Failure of interim gov't in Syria to be major victory for Assad
The Syrian opposition recently elected a prime minister to head a transitional government that would operate in opposition-controlled areas of Syria.
According to Jouejati, the failure of the government due to the fragmented nature of the opposition and the weak support of the international community would be a major victory for Assad.
“There are many factions within the opposition. It has received very limited support so far from the international community,” said Jouejati.
Jouejati said that there is a debate whether there should be a interim government or not, adding that it remains unclear how this government will operate in Syria and how it will be protected while the war in Syria is ongoing. “Who is going to provide direct funds to it? There are many questions about the establishment the government," said Jouejati.