Reports of Iranian intervention in Syria have been steadily trickling out of the region for several days. Brigadier General Hussam Awak, formerly of Syrian Air Force Intelligence, has now defected to the Free Syrian Army and told the news site Arshaq Alawsat that Iranian soldiers and Hezbollah fighters are on the ground, fighting alongside Assad’s security forces.
Awak isn’t the only one claiming Iranian involvement in Syria. The Washington Post quoted US intelligence sources to the effect that “aid from Iran is increasing, and is increasingly focused on lethal assistance.”
The fact that both Iranian forces and Hezbollah are said to be fighting in Syria underscores the importance of the Assad regime to Tehran. A friendly Syria ensures that Iran can continue transferring weapons and advisers to their Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah. It also serves to facilitate the free movement of Lebanese fighters to Iran for training.
The borders Syria shares with Israel and Lebanon ensure that the Iranians are able to maintain a firm presence in the Middle East, proving a constant threat to Israel and a continued source of weapons to Hezbollah. If Iran lost Syria they would be losing their most valuable and, quite frankly, only solid ally. Another supposed proxy of the Islamic regime in Tehran, Hamas, has already abandoned Syria, ensuring that it will be that much harder for Iran to maintain ties with them as well as to provide training and logistical support to them, and ensuring a corresponding lack of control over when and how they launch attacks on Israel.
So far the rest of the world has refused to involve itself in the conflict, limiting itself only to harsh words. That may all be set to change, Senator John McCain called for US-led air strikes against the Assad regime on Monday:
The United States should lead an international effort to protect key population centers in Syria, especially in the north, through airstrikes on Assad’s forces. To be clear: This will require the United States to suppress enemy air defenses in at least part of the country.
In the wake of the perceived success of the European air strikes in Libya, it is a surprise that it has taken so long for the pressure to mount. Should the US military involve itself in Syria there is a very real possibility that they will end up in direct conflict with the Iranian forces stationed there and the snowball would begin to roll.
The pressure on the Iranian regime is building from two directions: geographically from Syria, and diplomatically from the Western world, through United Nations sanctions and the threat of attack from Israel and the US. And this without factoring in internal resistance to the regime that was ruthlessly suppressed in 2009 and that may flare up again at any momoent. In this highly combustible atmosphere, Iran may be realizing that its own stability hinges on Assad’s survival, and sensing that his fall could very well mark the beginning of their own demise. Alternatively this may present the West with some vital leverage that will convince Iran to forego their nuclear programme.
It has been made painfully clear to the Israeli public that the only concern on the minds of Israeli politicians is preventing the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons, but achieving this objective has more to do with ensuring a democracy emerges in Damascus than one might think. Losing Damascus would be tantamount to kicking one of the legs out from under Tehran. Cut off from the world and their proxies, the spectre of Iranian power would diminish significantly as would the threat of a barrage of rockets coming from Hezbollah.
By ensuring that Assad falls and working for a new, democratic Syria Israel would be attacking Syria, Iran and Hezbollah at the same time. Instead of alluding to the spectre of a nuclear Holocaust in his AIPAC speech Prime Minister Netanyahu should have been trying to convince President Obama that the best way to attack Iran and encourage the growth of a peaceful Middle East is through attacking Assad in Syria.