Op-Ed: Iran Cannot Afford to Lose Syria
In mid-April, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah paid a secret visit to Tehran where he met with the top Iranian officials headed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the commander of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, Gen. Qasem Suleimani, who is in charge of Iranian policy in Lebanon and Syria. The visit was clandestine and no details were divulged on an official level – except for the exclusive posting on Hizbullah’s official website of a photograph of Khamenei with Nasrallah beside him in the former’s private library, with a picture of Ayatollah Khomeini above them.1
Suleimani’s involvement in the meeting with Nasrallah was significant. He has been the spearhead of Iranian military activism in the Middle East. In January 2012, he declared that the Islamic Republic controlled “one way or another” Iraq and South Lebanon.2 He now appeared to be prepared to extend Iran’s control to all of Syria.
A media source normally hostile to Iran and Hizbullah, but which nonetheless contains accurate information, reported that Iran has formulated an operational plan for assisting Syria. The plan has been named for Gen. Suleimani. It includes three elements: 1) the establishment of a popular sectarian army made up of Shiites and Alawites, to be backed by forces from Iran, Iraq, Hizbullah, and symbolic contingents from the Persian Gulf. 2) This force will reach 150,000 fighters. 3) The plan will give preference to importing forces from Iran, Iraq, and, only afterwards, other Shiite elements. This regional force will be integrated with the Syrian army. Suleimani, himself, visited Syria in late February-early March to prepare the implementation of this plan.3
In the past, senior Iranian officers, like Major General Yahya Rahim-Safavi, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards who is an adviser to Khamenei, have said that Lebanon and Syria gave Iran “strategic depth.”4 Now it appears that Tehran is taking this a step further, preparing for a “Plan B” in the event Assad falls.
Nasrallah rarely makes such trips. The last time he went on a visit outside Lebanon was in February 2010 when he met in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Nasrallah has taken great care not to appear in public since the Second Lebanon War in 2006, and even more so since the assassination of the head of Hizbullah’s military wing, Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus in February 2008. Even in Iran itself Nasrallah maintained total secrecy for fear of becoming an assassination target there. After the visit, he gave a speech in Lebanon on April 30, but did not say anything about his visit to Iran. He did remark that Syria “has real friends” that wouldn’t let it fall, implying that, if necessary, he would redouble his efforts to defend Iranian interests, which has always been one of the missions of Hizbullah.
It appears that Hizbullah’s ongoing involvement in Syria, and the extent of this involvement, formed the main issue on the agenda during Nasrallah’s visit to Tehran. The more time passes, the more Iran appears to regard Syria as a lynchpin of its Middle Eastern policy, in general, and of leading the jihad and the Islamic resistance to Israel, in particular. Hizbullah’s inclusion in the armed struggle in Syria is intended first and foremost to serve the Iranian strategy, which has been setting new goals apart from military assistance to the Syrian regime. Iran already seems to be looking beyond the regime’s survivability and preparing for a reality where it will have to operate in Syria even if Assad falls. Even before recent events in Syria, observers in the Arab world have been warning for years about growing evidence of “Iranian expansionism.”5
An important expression of Syria’s centrality in Iranian strategy was voiced by Mehdi Taaib, who heads Khamenei’s think tank. He recently stated that “Syria is the 35th district of Iran and it has greater strategic importance for Iran than Khuzestan [an Arab-populated district inside Iran]. By preserving Syria we will be able to get back Khuzestan, but if we lose Syria we will not even be able to keep Tehran.”6 Significantly, Taaib was drawing a comparison between Syria and a district that is under full Iranian sovereignty. What was also clear from his remarks was that Iran cannot afford to lose Syria.
Syria as a Shiite State
All in all, then, Iran will have to step up its military involvement in Syria. Khamenei’s representative in Lebanon will have to take part in building the new strategy in Syria, acting in tandem with Iran against the Sunni Islamic groups that threaten Iran’s interests in Syria.
Tehran has had political ambitions with respect to Syria for years and has indeed invested huge resources in making Syria a Shiite state. The process began during the rule of Hafez Assad when a far-reaching network was created of educational, cultural, and religious institutions throughout Syria; it was further expanded during Bashar’s reign. The aim was to promote the Shiization of all regions of the Syrian state. The Syrian regime let Iranian missionaries work freely to strengthen the Shiite faith in Damascus and the cities of the Alawite coast, as well as the smaller towns and villages.7 A field study by the European Union in the first half of 2006 found that the largest percentage of religious conversions to Shiism occurred in areas with an Alawite majority.8
In both urban and rural parts of Syria, Sunnis and others who adopted the Shiite faith received privileges and preferential treatment in the disbursement of Iranian aid money. The heads of the tribes in the Raqqa area were invited by the Iranian ambassador in Damascus to visit Iran cost-free, and the Iranians doled out funds to the poor and financial loans to merchants who were never required to pay them back..9 The dimensions of the Iranian investment in Raqqa, which included elegant public buildings, mosques, and Husayniyys (a Shiite religious institute), were recently revealed by Sunni rebels who took over the remote town and destroyed, plundered, and removed all signs of the Iranian and Shiite presence there.10
As of 2009 there were over 500 Husayniyys in Syria undergoing Iranian renovation work. In Damascus itself the Iranians invested huge sums to control the Shiite holy places including the tomb of Sayyida Zaynab, the shrine of Sayyida Ruqayya, and the shrine of Sayyida Sukayna. These sites attract Iranian tourism, which grew from 27,000 visitors in 1978 to 200,000 in 2003.
Iran also operates a cultural center in Damascus that it considers one of its most important and successful. This center publishes works in Arabic, holds biweekly cultural events, and conducts seminars and conferences aimed at enhancing the Iranian cultural influence in the country. The Iranian cultural center is also responsible for the propagation and study of the Persian language in Syrian universities, including providing teachers of Persian.11
Iran’s Sponsorship of Shiite Forces in Syria
At present, bloody battles are being waged over the centers of Iranian influence in Syria, most of all the mausoleum of Sayyida Zaynab – sister of the Imam Husayn – who in 680 carried his severed head to Damascus after the massacre at Karbala. In Iranian historiography, the great victory over the Sunnis is marked in Damascus in the form of a Shiite renaissance in the capital of the hated Umayyad Empire. The Sunnis, however, are now threatening these Iranian achievements. Hizbullah has been recruited to the cause, with hundreds of its fighters coming to Syria from Lebanon. These fighters try to downplay their Hizbullah affiliation and instead identify themselves as the Abu El Fadl Alabbas Brigade, named after the half-brother of the Imam Husayn.
Iran is also recruiting Shiite forces in Iraq for the warfare in Syria. These are organized in a sister framework of Lebanese Hizbullah. Known as the League of the Righteous People and Kateeb Hizbullah, its mission is to defend the Shiite centers in Damascus.12 Hizbullah fighters are also operating in other areas, some of them beyond the Lebanese border in the Shiite villages in Syrian territory on the way to Homs, thereby creating a sort of territorial continuity for ongoing Alawite control under Iranian influence. This continuity is strategically important to Iran since it links Lebanon and Damascus to the Alawite coast.13 Iran aims to have a network of militias in place inside Syria to protect its vital interests, regardless of what happens to Assad.14
The war in Syria persists with no decisive outcome on the horizon. Hizbullah’s battle losses are growing. Subhi Tufayli, the first head of Hizbullah who was dismissed from its leadership by Iran at the start of the 1990s, has been one of the prominent critics of Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria. Tufayli claimed that 138 Hizbullah fighters had been killed there along with scores of wounded who were brought to hospitals in Lebanon.15 Ceremonies for burial of the dead are frequently held clandestinely, sometimes at night, so as to avoid anger and resentment. These casualties, however, did not disappear from sight, and the families have raised harsh questions about such unnecessary sacrifice that is not in the sacred framework of jihad against Israel, which is Hizbullah’s raison d’être.
Tufayli, for his part, asserted that Hizbullah fighters who are killed in battle in Syria “are not martyrs” and “will go to hell.” Syria, he remarked, “is not Karbala” and the Hizbullah men in Syria “are not fighters of the Imam [Husayn]. The oppressed and innocent Syrian people is Karbala and the members of the Syrian people are the children of Husayn and Zaynab.” Tufayli went on to say that he “lauds the fathers and mothers who prevent their children from going to Syria and says to them that God’s blessing is with them.” Tufayli further pointed out that, legally speaking, no fatwa has been issued that permits Hizbullah’s participation in the war in Syria. He said he had appealed to the supreme religious authority – the sources of emulation (Maraji Taqlid) in Najaf and in Lebanon – not to issue such a fatwa.16
In the Lebanese Shiite community, Tufayli is not alone in leveling severe criticism at Hizbullah’s role as an arm of Iran in Syria. Voices within Hizbullah itself are increasingly casting doubt on the wisdom of involving the movement on Bashar Assad’s side. Others refuse to go and fight in Syria, and there have already been desertions from Hizbullah’s ranks. So far, though, it does not appear that all this is deterring Hizbullah from persisting. At the end of the day, Hizbullah is not a Lebanese national movement but a creation of Iran and subject to its exclusive authority. Nasrallah was summoned to Tehran so as to encourage him and order him to continue as a faithful and obedient soldier of Velayt-e Faqih (literally: the Rule of the Jurisprudent, referring to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei).
It is likely that Tehran will make every effort to recruit additional Shiite elements from Iraq, the Persian Gulf, and even from Pakistan. For the Islamic Republic, this is a war of survival against a radical Sunni uprising that views Iran and the Shiites as infidels to be annihilated. This is the real war being waged today, and it is within Islam. From Iran’s standpoint, if the extreme Sunnis of the al-Qaeda persuasion are not defeated in Syria, they will assert themselves in Iraq and threaten to take over the Persian Gulf, posing a real danger to Iran’s regional hegemony. Khamenei does not intend to give in. Hizbullah’s readiness to fight shoulder-to-shoulder with Iran against the radical Sunnis could shatter the delicate internal order upon which the Lebanese state is based and bring about a Hizbullah take-over of Lebanon in its entirety.