Iran’s Plan B in post-Assad Syria to exploit conflicts between rival groups

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (L) and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad pose as al-Assad wears the grand national order of the Islamic Republic of Iran, during an official ceremony on October 2, 2010 in Tehran. (PHOTO reuters, MORTEZA NIKOUBAZL)

August 05, 2012, Sunday/ 12:10:00

Iran has proved the staunchest ally of Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria, never changing its discourse.

Even now, when many international circles are discussing a post-Assad period based on the expectations that the regime’s days are numbered, Iran could somehow be preparing a Plan B behind the scenes in order to maintain its influence over the country. This Plan B would most probably involve exploiting rivalries between different political and ethnic or religious groups, fostering and accelerating a prospective civil war in the country in the post-Assad period, political analysts have claimed.

Bayram Sinkaya, an expert on Iranian politics and a lecturer in the department of international relations at Yıldırım Beyazıt University in Ankara, told Sunday’s Zaman that Iran could more easily maintain its influence in a destabilized region where central authority has been weakened. In Syria, Sinkaya states, “where it is hard to claim that stability would be sustained in the short-term after any ouster of the Assad regime,” rival parties would certainly seek Iranian support, and Iran would certainly not “turn them down.”

Moreover, Sinkaya notes that the coming to power of a Western-affiliated government in the future would not deter the Iranian regime from supporting the remnants of the Baathist Assad regime in Syria. Although debate has started regarding a post-Assad transitional period in Syria, the opposition remains fragmented, despite the efforts of the international community to unite them. Thus far, efforts to integrate Kurdish opposition groups into the ranks of the Syrian National Council (SNC) have failed. Even the SNC’s election of Abdelbaset Sieda, a Kurdish politician, as its leader has not breached the gap between Kurdish groups and the SNC.

Meanwhile, the control of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) -- a Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) offshoot -- in northern Syria, from which Assad’s forces have completely withdrawn to fight back the opposition in Damascus and Aleppo, has led to squabbles and even armed clashes with the other main Kurdish political group, the Kurdish National Council (KNC), and other Syrian rebel factions. In recent weeks, Sieda has harshly rejected the idea of any autonomous or independent Kurdish state in northern Syria.

Disputes over the leadership in the transitional process seem set to create another point of tension between opposition groups. Last week, Haitham Al Maleh, a lawyer and human rights activist, said that he had been tasked with forming a government-in-exile based in Cairo by a new political coalition led by Salafists. The statement has been denied by the SNC and the Free Syrian Army (FSA), who say Salafis are not representative of the majority of the Syrian opposition.

Iran’s proxy wars in destabilized regions are a well-known fact. In an effort to deepen the rifts in societies of many countries, including Afghanistan, Somalia and Lebanon, Iran provides financial and arms support to the Taliban, an Islamist militant group based in Pakistan, and has also been linked to the al-Qaeda militant organization, responsible for destabilizing operations in countries like Somalia, Yemen and Iraq. The country is also the major supporter of Hezbollah, the Shiite militia group and a political party based in Lebanon through which Iran exerts strong influence over the country.

In remarks to Sunday’s Zaman, Susan Maloney, a research fellow at the Brookings Institution specializing in Iran, has stated that Assad’s ouster would mean the loss of a critical ally for the Iranian regime. However, she says, the repercussions of a post-Assad period of instability “would be more of a problem for the West than it would be for Iran.” Agreeing with Sinkaya, Maloney stated that Iranians are also preparing themselves for a post-Assad period, “but not one that is a stable or peaceful” period, countering the aspirations of other regional countries, including Turkey.

As the Assad regime loses military control in most of the country, Iran does not seem to want to change its policy, continuing to openly support the Syrian status quo. Receiving Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim in Tehran on Sunday, Iranian leaders reiterated their support for the regime. During an appearance before the press with his Syrian counterpart last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salihi claimed that Assad’s ousting from Syria is “a plot by the Zionist regime.”

“Syria was the front guard of Iranian defense policy. Its influence on Syria and on Hezbollah via Syria created deterrence for the West to the oppression of the Syrian regime. Iran will lack this deterrent [to the West] in the event of Assad’s stepping down, and international pressures upon itself would increase,” Sinkaya maintained, discussing the reasoning behind Iran’s uninterrupted support of the Assad regime.

Sinkaya also claimed that authoritarian tendencies within Iran would increase in the coming period due to intensified security concerns resulting from such a heavy blow to its defense strategy.

Following the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the Iranian regime has forged strong ties with the Assad regime, and Syria has always been of critical importance to the Islamic republic as a transit route to reach out to Hezbollah, Iran’s arm in Lebanon, to maintain a stalemate with Israel.

Shiraz Maher, a senior research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) at Kings College London, has also said to Sunday’s Zaman that, “What the Iranian regime is doing is harboring ill-will through its support of Assad.” Maher has claimed that Iran’s future relations with Syria will suffer, just as Russia’s relations with the country will suffer, “when opposition groups are eventually successful in toppling Assad.”

Maloney has further asserted that Iran is using the Syrian crisis “as a way to keep the international community focused elsewhere, rather than on what to do with Iran,” and “to distract [the international community] from any prospect of a military strike against the nuclear problem in Iran.”

The West, including Israel, has repeatedly threatened Tehran with military action to force it to halt its nuclear energy program, which is feared to be directed towards the acquisition of military nuclear capability.

Iran has dismissed the allegation and threats of military intervention, vowing a crushing response to any attack on its soil.

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