August 24, 2011 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 729

As Syria Unrest Continues, Calls Emerge in Iran to Reexamine Attitude towards Assad

August 24, 2011 | By A. Savyon and Yossi Mansharof*
Syria, Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 729


Since the outbreak of the Syrian protests in March 2011, Damascus's strategic ally, Tehran, has been faithfully supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. As part of this policy, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared in June that Tehran would continue to stand by Damascus and that the Syrian regime could resolve the problems in the country by itself, without any foreign intervention.[1] Ahmadinejad's deputy, Mohamed-Reza Rahimi, added that Tehran would support its ally under any circumstances, and that no wedge could be driven between them.[2]

Tehran has also stuck to its position that the protests in Syria are the result of an American-Israeli plot to undermine the Assad regime and harm the resistance camp. This stands in stark contrast to its position on the other uprisings in the Middle East (i.e., those in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen, and Libya), which it describes as authentic popular anti-Western revolutions inspired by Iran's Islamic Revolution. For example, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said that the protests in Syria, unlike those in Egypt and Tunisia, stemmed from American-Israeli intervention.[3]

In mid-August, Iran's ambassador to Lebanon, Ghadanfar Roknabadi, said that Tehran was not concerned for the stability of Assad's regime and was confident of his ability to overcome the present crisis.[4] However, an Iranian diplomat told the website Kaleme that, anticipating Assad's possible fall, the staff members of the Iranian embassy in Damascus have sent their families home or to the region near the Lebanese border, from which they can be evacuated in a hurry. The diplomat added that figures close to the Iranian administration are laying low in Syria, fearing attack by Syrians in revenge for Iran's support of Assad's regime, and that some of these figures have already left the country or are preparing to leave.[5]

Concerned about the possible fall of the Syrian regime – which would be a deadly blow to the Tehran-Damascus axis and to Iran's status in Syria and Lebanon – Tehran is operating in three channels in order to help this regime:

A. Diplomatic action: Iran has warned Turkey, repeatedly and openly, to stop pressuring and criticizing the Syrian regime and to renew its cooperation with Tehran and Damascus. At the same time, Iran is attempting to recruit Arab and Russian support for Assad's regime. As part of this effort, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi presented Russia with a joint Iranian-Syrian initiative meant to free Assad from Western pressure,[6] and Majlis National Security Committee chairman Alaeddin
Boroujerdi, during a visit to Cairo, called on the Arab states to support Assad's regime.[7]

B. Military aid: Contrary to Iran's sweeping denials that it is providing military aid to Syria,[8] reports have it that Iran has been actively involved in suppressing the protests there. The Iranian online daily Mihan reported that, after the outbreak of the Syria protests, Iran reinforced the Syrian Brigade of its Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps,[9] which has been deployed in Syria for over two decades, with IRGC and Basij members who have experience in suppressing riots in Iran.[10] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat claimed that, in response to Turkish criticism, Iran is trying to conceal its active involvement in suppressing the Syrian riots. To this end, it plans to replace its Farsi-speaking soldiers in Syria with Arabic-speaking operatives, most of them from Ahvaz, whose Iranian identity is not so obvious.[11]

C. Economic assistance: According to the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Iran has pressured Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki into pledging Syria $10 billion.[12]

Calls in Iran for Assad to Institute Reforms

Despite the Iranian regime's censorship of coverage of the unrest in Syria by the country's media, in recent months several Iranian media outlets have published cautious articles on this topic. The articles called in a very general way for President Assad to institute certain reforms in order to prevent his regime from collapsing, reflecting Tehran's apprehensions regarding the damage such a collapse could inflict on Iran. For example, the conservative Iranian daily Quds called on Assad to hold free elections and to increase individual freedoms in order to assure the people's maximal participation in the regime – which would preserve his regime as well as the resistance front. The paper added that Assad had largely managed to restore stability to the country, but warned that the unrest could erupt again during Ramadan. The paper also assessed that quiet would soon return to Syria because of the overall popularity of the Assad family, and because of the reforms that Assad would be carrying out – even if these were very much overdue.[13]

At the same time, in light of the Assad regime's iron-fisted repression of its citizens and the continuation of the crisis, the media identified with the Iranian moderate-conservative camp have begun to back away from accusing the West of being behind the unrest in Syria, and are expressing doubts about justification for censorship of coverage of it.[14]

Calls to Renounce the Assad Regime

Moreover, calls have begun to emerge in Iran for the Iranian establishment to correctly assess the situation, and renounce Assad in order to salvage the Iran-Syria alliance and thus the Tehran-Damascus axis, as well as Iran's interests in Lebanon, i.e. Hizbullah, and its other national interests. These calls are based on the assessment that Assad is likely to be deposed, and reflect concern for the fate of Iran's strategic and political status, its national interests vis-à-vis Syria and Lebanon, and the ramifications of Assad's ouster for Iran's status in the region.[15]

Alongside these calls, which are coming mainly from circles who tend to be critical of the Iranian regime but consider themselves loyal to it, the Iranian regime is taking diplomatic action in an attempt to consolidate and lead a Muslim-Arab-Middle Eastern front that supports Assad but calls for him to institute reforms.

In this framework, Boroujerdi called at a Cairo press conference for the Arab countries to rally to Syria's aid and act to end the crisis there, in order to preserve its stability as "the mainstay of the Palestinian resistance" and thus to advance the interest of the Islamic world and prevent Syria from falling into the hands of the Americans. Boroujerdi called on Turkey to drop its threatening language towards Syria and expressed objections to calling the events in Syria a "massacre."[16] In addition, senior Iranian Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi addressed the Muslims and told them to fulfill their human and religious obligations and stop the American-Zionist plot in Syria, since this country is the forefront of the struggle against Israel and the barrier to Western imperialism.[17] Both Boroujerdi and Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi called on Assad to institute reforms.

Calls in Iran for Rethinking Iranian Support for Syria

The moderate conservative daily Ebtekar called on the regime to reconsider its continued unconditional support for Assad, warning that Iran could pay a price for hesitation, as it was already lagging behind Russia and Turkey in shifting its position vis-à-vis the protests in Syria. The moderate conservative website Asr-e Iran warned Assad that his violence against demonstrators was undermining his status and would lead to foreign intervention in the form of no-fly zones and security zones.

Ali Khoram, former Iranian ambassador to the UN and to China, stated that Iran must find a balance in its position towards the Syrian regime, and implied that Assad should step down in order to save his country and to prevent a military attack that would endanger Iran.

The Ayandenews website, which is identified with critics of Ahmadinejad, called on Hizbullah, and indirectly on Iran, to reconsider their absolute support for Assad and their opposition to the Syrian protesters.

The following are excerpts from the articles:

Former Iranian Ambassador to UN: The Syrian People Will Have Its Way; Assad Must Sacrifice Himself to Save His Country

In an August 10 editorial in the Arman daily, Ali Khoram, former Iranian ambassador to the UN and to China, wrote: "...According to reports in the international media, which Iran has not denied, [Iran] has said that it would do this and that [i.e. intervene in Syria's favor] if Syria were to be attacked...

"Saudi Arabia and Bahrain criticized Bashar Al-Assad and said that he must stop the clashes and arrive at understandings with the people. With this position, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, which customarily act much like [Assad] towards protests by their peoples, are preparing the ground for a scenario of Security Council[-sanctioned] military intervention in Syria, and Iranian support for Syria. Under such circumstances, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, and later the entire GCC, will act, in the framework of the conflict, against Syria and Iran.

"Thus, the Saudi and Bahraini statements reflect a political aspect more than a human rights aspect, and these countries seek to prepare public opinion for a possible scenario in which conflict breaks out in Syria, Iran supports it, and [Saudi Arabia and Bahrain] form a unified front against Iran.

"Iran must act prudently, so as to create a type of national reconciliation between Bashar Al-Assad and the Syrian people. It must act cautiously, because the actions of Syria's leaders are creating conditions identical [to those that gave rise to] military intervention in Libya. This is not only because Saudi Arabia and the GCC desire to see Iran [entangled] in such a crisis, but also because Israel would like Iran to become entangled in it. In general, all the countries that are interested in settling accounts with Iran will rejoice if it joins the fray; they will be able to strike at it in the name of the international community.

"Unfortunately, it appears that Assad is late in emerging from the crisis, because... over 2,000 have died in the protests [in Syria], and this is no small number. It should be said that once there was a path to a solution for Syria, but now it is too late, and therefore Assad must perform an act of self-sacrifice in order to restore quiet to the country and protect it, and in order to spare it the tragedy that Libya is experiencing.

Iran sees in Syria a partner and an ally... which is why it wants to preserve this stronghold. But everything has a limit. If the situation in Syria continues [as it is], Iran will have to consider its long-term needs. It will try to preserve its interests in Palestine and Lebanon by laying down new roads and creating a new [political] structure in Syria. The [reality] in the world is that the people usually win in the end, and that is what will happen in Syria. If Iran adjusts and calibrates its positions, it will be able to protect its interests, whatever changes occur in Syria. But if it [continues] to support the Syrian government and no-one else, and this government falls or remains crippled, [Syria] will not be able to protect any interests – neither its own nor Iran's..."[18]

Ebtekar: Iran Must Dissociate Itself from Assad's Oppressive Policy

An August 7, 2011 editorial in the moderate conservative daily Ebtekar warned: "...From day to day, the crisis in Syria deepens. We can no longer shut our eyes to the reality. The sun cannot be covered up with mud... What is our position regarding the events in Syria? If we continue to present the Syrian protestors as 'Western and Israeli elements,' as opposed to the Bahraini, Yemeni, and Egyptian protestors, and [if] our media [continue to] avoid covering the situation in Syria – then the policy of the government and the media will certainly be brought into question. We must not deceive ourselves. Most of the Iranian public follows world events through various [non-Iranian] channels, such as satellite [TV], the internet, etc... Therefore, we are obligated to redefine our position regarding the events in Syria.

"Iran must take its absolute national interests into account, because several [other] countries in the region are reassessing their positions. Turkey supported Qadhafi until the moment this support became a disgrace. [Similarly,] as the star of [Syria's] Ba'th Party faded, the Turks slowly increased their criticism [of Assad] in order to gain influence among the Syrian people and the Arabs.

"At the last moment, Russia, too, followed its usual custom and handed over its erstwhile friend [Syria] to its rival and superior [i.e., the U.S.]. After the Russians finish milking their friends, they quickly hand them over to the superior Western butcher, in order to share the meat. It would seem that their red line is [their own] national interests, which they will do anything to protect. In this climate, it would be wise for Iran to find a way to disassociate itself from [Assad's] policy of oppression..." [19]

Asr-e Iran: The Present Situation Is Likely to Lead to Foreign Intervention in Syria

On August 1, 2011, a writer on the moderate conservative website Asr-e Iran wrote: "...It is extremely important for the current regime in Damascus to remain [in power], and it is vital as far as Iran is concerned, because if Syria is separated from Iran, Tehran's maneuverability and bartering abilities in the regional arena will be severely compromised...

"It must be said that Bashar Al-Assad is not dealing with the protests the right way. Brutal repression will never be the right response to what is happening in some of Syria's cities. In cities like Hama and Dera, which are the main arenas of fighting, the Syrian army is using weapons such as tanks to suppress [the protestors], and it has so far massacred hundreds... Assad and his advisors must ask themselves how long the armed combat and violence can go on. Can they use more violence than Qadhafi has, and shell popular protests as he did? Did Qadhafi's violence convince people to return to their homes?...

"The protestors in Hama, Dera, Deir Al-Zour, Aleppo, Bukamal, Latakia, Jisr Al-Shughour, and elsewhere... are part of the Syrian people, and the regime must meet their demands. If the current situation continues, it may encourage the supra-regional forces [i.e. the world powers] to deepen their intervention in Syria and realize their dreams, such as establishing a security zone and a no-fly zone over the main areas of protest. The path to restoring stability in Syria does not pass through the barrels of rifles or along the treads of tanks, but through the reforms that were promised. They must be implemented quickly so that the demands of the people are met with a cultured and democratic response from the regime in Damascus.

"Assad must remember that there is an important difference between him and people like Yemen's President 'Ali 'Abdallah Saleh – namely, that the dictators of the Arab world are mainly backed by the West and the Arabs. Even if their peoples do not like them, they make do with this Western and Arab support. Thus, the West supports the Saudi king, and the Saudis unconditionally support Saleh in Yemen; and in Bahrain, [King Hamad bin 'Issa] Aal-Khalifa oppresses his people thanks to the support of his Arab friends [in] Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait. In Syria, this equation does not apply. On the contrary, the West and many of the Arab rulers who sit alongside Assad and laugh with him at [political] conferences are counting the minutes until he is ousted, and have secret ties with his opponents.

"Therefore, if Assad loves the legacy of his father and does not wish for his government to fall with a crash, he has no choice but to rely on the support of his people. It is a strategic error for a person to harm his main source of support. Nowhere in the world is violence the proper way to respond to protests; it will only lead to more violence in return..."[20]

An August 8 editorial on Asr-e Iran read: "By putting off the reforms and continuing the violence, Assad's regime is, in fact, preparing the ground for action against it. This is the most significant strategic error made by Bashar Al-Assad, who will face even tougher times and an uncertain end..." The website also noted that, as part of Russia's hardening of its position toward Syria, and despite its attempts to prevent the UN Security Council from imposing sanctions on this country, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had warned Assad that if the present situation continued, decisions would be taken against Syria. The website cautioned that Assad's regime would likely face intense international pressure, including military intervention, which might be detrimental to Iran's standing in the region.

Ayandenews: We Must Think of the Day after Assad's Downfall

The website Ayandenews, which is identified with critics of Ahmadinejad, posted an editorial titled "If Assad Falls, What Shall We Do with Syria?". It asked: "What plan have the Islamic resistance [i.e., Hizbullah] and Iran formulated for their continued relations with Syria, if Assad falls?" The editorial warned that Assad's fall would be a severe blow to Hizbullah, and could even spell the end of this organization. It advised Hizbullah, and indirectly Iran, to reconsider their unreserved support of Assad and their hostility to the Syrian opposition, saying: "Due to their national roots [as patriotic Syrians], the Syrian protesters are displeased with Israel's occupation of the Golan, and as members of the Sunni school [of Islam], they feel solidarity with the Palestinians. These are [facts] that the resistance front should take into account. In this situation, the Islamic resistance should reassess its strategy of sweeping support for Assad and opposition to the Syrian protesters, in order to afford themselves a way out of the severe crisis [that will form] vis-à-vis Israel should Assad fall."[xxi]

*Y. Mansharof is a research fellow at MEMRI; A. Savyon is Director of the Iranian Media Project at MEMRI


[1] Website of the Presidency (Iran), June 7, 2011.

[2] Fars (Iran), July 24, 2011. Further evidence of Iran's support for Syria is that Ahmadinejad's government chose the present time to submit a draft bill to set up a free trade zone with Syria (Press TV, Iran, June 18, 2011).

[3] Website of the Supreme Leader (Iran), June 30, 2011.

[4] Al-Watan (Syria), August 18, 2011.

[5] Kaleme (Iran), August 15, 2011.

[6] Al-Safir (Lebanon), August 17, 2011. Al-Hayat reported that the visit of Russian National Security Council Chairman Nikolai Patrushev to Tehran in mid August focused on the Syrian issue. Al-Hayat (London), August 16, 2011.

[7] Fars (Iran), August 10, 2011.

[8] See for example Boroujerdi's statement in Cairo that no Iranian weapons have been sent to Syria. Fars (Iran), August 10, 2011.

[9] The Brigade is headed by Mohamed Reza Zahedi, formerly the commander of Iran's ground forces.

[10], July 16, 2011.

[11] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 4, 2011.

[12] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), August 2, 2011.

[13] Quds (Iran), August 3, 2011

[14] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 3752, "Iranian Website Criticizes Iran's Refusal to Cover Protests in Syria," April 8, 2011, Iranian Website Criticizes Iran's Refusal to Cover Protests in Syria.

[15] In response to these claims, Iranian Ayatollah Jafar Sobhani, who supports the regime, said that some Iranian dailies need to retract the erroneous analyses they published about the riots in Syria, adding that any change in Syria will be to the detriment of Islam and to the advantage of Israel., August 21, 2011.

[16] Fars (Iran), August 10, 2011

[17] Rasanews (Iran), August 14, 2011.

[18] Arman (Iran), August 10, 2011.

[19] Ebtekar (Iran), August 7, 2011.

[20] Asr-e Iran (Iran), August 1, 2011.

[21] Ayandenews (Iran), August 7, 2011. On August 2, 2011, following Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri's declaration of support for the Syrian protesters, Ayandenews warned that Syria could turn into another Afghanistan. It explained that, if the Assad regime falls, the Syrian government may be seized by political groups inspired by Al-Qaeda and Salafi Islam, and then America, which has thus far been supporting these groups, will have to launch a war against them as it did in Afghanistan.

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