Syria Update. “Iranian Support of the Assad Government in Syria.” July 21, 2013. By Sherifa Zuhur, Institute of Middle Eastern, Islamic and Strategic Studies.
By now, even those less familiar with Syria know that the dominant sect are Alawis including President Bashar al-Assad’s family, but they are outnumbered by Sunni Muslims. Iran is predominantly Twelver Shi`a, and Syria has a tiny Twelver Shi`a population. None other than the charismatic leader of Lebanese Shi`a, Imam Musa Sadr issued a fatwa declaring the Alawis to be Muslims in order to shore up Bashar’s father’s (Hafez) religious legitimacy, but Sunni Muslims, particularly of the salafi strain consider the Alawis suspect, and under the secular Ba`th, the persecution of Sunni anti-government groups and opposition in general heightened these tensions. http://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2013/jun/03/part-i-iran-syria-religious-ties
There is no “natural” religious reason for Iran to support Syria, as with its support of the Twelver Shi`i Hizbullah in Lebanon, rather the alliance was fostered by Hafez al-Assad as a way of countering the strength of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Iranians travel to Damascus to visit the shrine of Sayyida Zeinab in Damascus and the shrine of the head of Hussein bin `Ali located at the Ummayad Mosque and the Iranian-funded mosque of Sayyida Ruqayya were always tightly shepherded by Iranian minders.
At least 150 IRGC (a conservative estimate) were in Syria and have also been involved in conducting special weapons tests.
Iran admitted that “advisors” were present. http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-09-16/iran-revolutionary-guard-has-advisers-in-syria-lebanon.html
Deaths of Iranians and also a kidnapping of 48 “pilgrims” with IRGC ID cards showed their presence. http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/02/14/us-syria-crisis-iran-idUSBRE91D0EY20130214
Assad’s government swapped 2,100 opposition prisoners for the 48 “pilgrims.”
Earlier, a claim was made that an additional 1500 IRGC were sent to Syria
In June it was reported that 4,000 more IRGC would be sent to Syria. Although this was based on an possibly unreliable report by Robert Fisk, who banks on Assad, where there is smoke there may be fire …
On June 18th, Iran denied this plan to send more IRG, however, this too is unreliable as we know they are already present.
Iran’s support is related to Hizbullah’s – both groups are training special militias loyal to Assad. But even with their help, the tide may be turning against Assad. I agree here with Andrew Terrill that the opposition remain armed – while he does not say this, I conclude that pacification of the bulk of the country appears impossible for Assad. http://www.thestar.com.my/News/World/2013/07/21/Insight–By-relying-on-Iran-Syrias-Assad-risks-irrelevance.aspx
Iran and Russia may also be sending Syria’s Assad cash as his funds have been plummeting. Russia is definitely doing so. The level of Iran’s support is unclear but one source estimates that the country has given $ 5.8 billion to Assad. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/07/15/iran-syria-aid_n_899840.html
Iran continues to send arms, and Iraqi authorities state they are unable to prevent the movement of these arms through their air space (they have grounded a # of suspected flights). http://www.rferl.org/content/iraq-iran-arms-syria-homs/25045094.html
Sanctions on the Iranian government for support to the IRGC have been ineffective: http://www.policymic.com/articles/29761/syria-civil-war-iran-tensions-ramp-up-by-sending-arms-to-assad-regime
Hizbullah is dependent on Assad’s government for the passage of Iranian arms – this has been ongoing for years. http://www.jpost.com/Defense/In-Depth-How-Iranian-weapons-go-through-Syria-to-Hezbollah-314313
Iran is allegedly involved in plans to relocate Syrians to the advantage of the Assad government. Consider the possibility of the fall of the Assad government or that it lingers on relinquishing control of some areas of Syria. This would likely leave a mini-state controlled by Alawis in Latakia, and given the resettlement of Alawites in certain areas of Homs province, greater Damascus (and possible in the Golan), some sort of contiguous entity in the center of the country. This would connect from Homs (not far from Hermel and the Shi`i dominant northern Biqa` valley) into Lebanon, where Iran has been buying up property and plans to grant Iran has been accused of paying the Syrian Real Estate Bank, $2 billion to purchase land in southern Homs province where many Sunni property owners have been driven out (and into refugee status in Lebanon or Jordan). The Syrian regime has been destroying property records in Homs, as well, according to Walid Jumblatt, the Lebanese Druze leader (who opposes Assad) where it has carried out a siege over the last year.
Iran also plans to give Syrian nationality to 750,000 Shi`a Muslims throughout the Middle East (but the article does not specify how one country grants the nationality of another). http://www.dailystar.com.lb/Opinion/Columnist/2013/Jul-18/224071-is-iran-altering-syrias-sectarian-map.ashx#axzz2ZieLNGXS
It seems that Iran’s new President Rouhani is committed as deeply to Syria (which one official called Iran’s 35th province) as was Ahmadinejad. http://abcnews.go.com/International/wireStory/iran-president-backs-syrias-assad-hezbollah-19677492
Western nations have not come through as promised for Syria’s opposition. The U.S., France and the UK’s primary concern with Iran is to curb and control its nuclear program. Perhaps they should be more concerned about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s international activities and the precedent they set. At any rate, what else can the West negotiate with to convince Iran to cease its support of Assad, than some type of softening of sanctions?
And as this is not likely, what other sorts of leverage might there be?
Former President Morsi of Egypt worked to create a regional meeting bloc – Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Egypt, but that forum did not effect any progress on the issue of Syria. Under Egypt’s new government headed by Adli Mansour which Turkey’s Erdogan has insulted and refused to recognize, it appears there is some consensus with Saudi Arabia which along with Qatar, has supplied some weapons to the opposition. However, the new Egyptian government wishes to back away from the explicit support of jihadism by Egyptians for the Syrian opposition expressed by Morsi at a Syria conference attended by a spectrum of Islamists, including radicals on June 15, 2013. http://english.ahram.org.eg/NewsContent/1/64/74123/Egypt/Politics-/Morsis-Syria-stance-influenced-by-US-Egyptian-oppo.aspx
One may conclude that any regional or Arab League driven effort to lean on Iran to diminish support for Syria is unlikely.