A Strategy for the U.S. to Counter Iranian Influence in Syria

Atef al-Souri – FIKRA FORUM – June 6, 2013

As the situation in Syria develops further into a proxy battle between regional players, with Iran at the center, the Middle East faces a critical moment. It is hardly a secret that Iran has ambitions of extending their full influence toward the Mediterranean Sea, imposing themselves as a dominant actor in the region.

From an Iranian policy perspective, it is from this position that Hezbollah’s military intervention in Syria can be understood, as it is not aimed at protecting the current Syrian regime, rather it is intended to secure its place in shaping Syria’s future, establishing another negotiable card for Iran’s nuclear program.

In March 2012, during the early stages of the Syrian conflict, Bashar al-Assad called for discussions on Syrian reform, bringing together the Syrian opposition at that time. Vice President Farooq al-Sharaa represented Assad at the meeting, and Assad intended to reconvene the opposition for another round of discussions until those plans were cancelled and the military option was established after pressure from Iran. Assad agreed to the new policy, hoping to quickly squash the opposition without giving them any concessions.

Iranians, aware that a new Syrian leadership would not likely have as friendly relations as the current regime, could remove themselves from direct involvement in Syria in order to secure good, or at least acceptable, relations with the conflict’s winner. However, Iran has apparently opted for the opposite path. The moment is now ripe for Iran’s attempt to achieve its true regional goals – direct control of Syria and Lebanon. In this scenario, Iran’s strategy is quite clear. They have intervened militarily in order secure their place in a new Syria, stoking sectarian massacres so that the Alawite community will see Iran as their protector even if Assad falls or is killed. If Assad should stay, Iran will supply Assad with everything necessary to sustain his weak and fragile regime, indebting Assad to Iran and essentially converting Syria into another Iranian governorate, like Iraq.

Assad is fully aware of Iran’s intentions and strategy. Left with few other options, Assad welcomed Iranian involvement, encouraging Syria’s conversion into a political card in Iran’s hand as the last means for his regime’s survival. Similar to the situation in Iraq, Iran will work to prevent any political concessions in order to maintain a state on instability and therefore its grip on power.

After its involvements in Iraq and Syria, Iran will attempt to extend its rule to Lebanon, using its favorite ally, Hassan Nasrallah, who has been planting the seeds by publicly criticizing the Lebanese government and army of not being able to protect the Lebanese people.

Acknowledging Iran’s interests in Syria, Russia pressured the United States to include Iran in the upcoming Geneva conference, an idea that was rejected by Saudi Arabia during their meeting in Amman with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. Considering this background of regional interests and intentions, the United States must take a number of steps prior to the dialogue if they want to succeed in countering Iranian influence.

First, as there is an accurate index of Syrians on the ground and their level of involvement in the opposition, the U.S. must ensure that the opposition contains and reflects all sectors of Syrian society within the representative opposition body.

Second, the military wing of the opposition led by General Salim Idris should be expanded to reflect all of the military groups on the ground, including the various Islamic groups.

Third, there must be accurate recorded knowledge of the representation of extremist groups within the military opposition, including the number of members, the types of equipment used, and the geographic distribution.

Fourth, the U.S. should continue to help the Syrian opposition create an umbrella organization that brings all political and military wings under one body in order to adopt a uniform strategy and policy at the negotiating table. This would allow both the Syrian people and the international community to view the opposition as a legitimate alternative to the current regime.

Fifth, the U.S. must leverage the Alawite communities, for they can play a positive role by applying pressure on Assad to accept a political solution. This will only come if they feel that Assad is incapable of protecting them in the long run. Therefore, the West should provide significant military aid to the Syrian opposition, weakening Assad’s stance. The military opposition should strategize to attack Assad’s strongest military divisions such as the Presidential guard (fourth division) and the military front in Tartous. Attacking such a backbone of the regime would send a strong signal to the regime and its allies.

The core of the Syrian problem rests with the people struggling against a brutal regime; therefore, acting quickly in a productive and constructive manner will not only help to frame the Syrian issue within its true challenges, but will also help minimize Iran’s growing influence in Syria and the region. In addition, this will have a positive impact on Lebanon, downsizing Hezbollah’s power, and will diminish the vitality of Iran’s relationship with Iraqi Prime Minister Maliki, all to the benefit of U.S. interests in the region.