MESOP : THE MULLAH IMPERIALISM – Iran’s Syrian Province / By John Saleh (FIKRA FORUM)

4 April 2015 – For the past four years, Syrians have witnessed Iran expand its presence in their country. At this point, the political and military decisions as well as the strategy adopted by Bashar al-Assad’s regime are determined by the Iranians. Last month, the Lebanese newspaper al-Nahar published an article, penned by Ahmad Ayyash, revealing that Assad’s regime had dispatched an economic expert, Abdullah al-Dardari, to Iran to secure a $6 billion loan. He returned to Syria with a guarantee for only $1 billion, along with a letter stating that Iran is no longer capable of funding the regime, which owes it more than $20 billion, and that Iran seeks debt repayment assurances in return for continued funding. According to the article, Assad’s regime offered Iran the entire area of Sayyida Zaynab, with thousands of hectares around Damascus, in addition to several real estate assets inside the capital and in multiple provinces.

This is only one aspect of Iran’s involvement in Syria. The Iranians also trigger sectarian conflicts within minority communities. A number of unconfirmed press reports stated that a new platoon was recently established in the predominantly Druze town of al-Suwayda, named “Labbayka ya Salman” (“At your service, Salman”) after Salman the Persian, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad held in high esteem among the Druze. Sources in the town note that the platoon was established the other week when violent clashes erupted in al-Suwayda between Jabhat al-Nusra and the National Defense Force, which is loyal to the Syrian regime.

In reality, it is not Assad who rules Syria today, but the Iranians. Iran’s penetration into Syria, its dominance over political and security decisions, its dispatch of Iraqi Shiite militias and Hezbollah to fight the armed opposition, and its control over the regime’s fate and survival do no stem from a will to protect Assad. Rather, Iran sees Syria as one of its strategic provinces, alongside Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen. Syria is geopolitically significant for Tehran for several reasons. First, it borders and poses a threat to Israel. Second, it serves as a political and military channel for Iranian generals and members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to wreak havoc in Lebanon via Hezbollah. And third, it serves to check and potentially undermine Turkey, which shares a long border with Syria, through the Turkish Alawites who oppose President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and back the Assad regime. According to some media reports, Iran has even set up a military base in the Jabal al-Akrad region to keep an eye on Turkey and its troops.

Iranian officials have benefited from the Syrian crisis, yet they seem willing to abandon Assad and enter into a marriage of convenience with the United States. Tehran is aware that Assad is incompetent and likely understands that any political solution to the civil war would require his removal. It has used the conflict to communicate and forge mutually beneficial partnerships with the United States. As a consequence, unfortunately, Washington remains silent on Iran’s hegemonic aspirations.

John Saleh is a Syrian journalist based in Washington, D.C.