Story highlights

Ayatollahs wont break with Bashar al-Assad

 

 

It was revealed this week that the Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has approved military cooperation with the United States (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-29079052) against the Islamic State (formerly know as the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant – ISIL). This came after reports of another beheading by the IS, this time of a captured Lebanese soldier. The galvanization of the anti-IS camp is almost surreal. Iran is now coordinating with its long-time foe to hit IS targets, while Bashar Al-Assad welcomes the extension of US air strikes to Syria (http://washington.cbslocal.com/2014/08/25/syria-we-would-welcome-us-airstrikes-against-isis-only-if-they-notify-us/) and Saudi Arabia watches worryingly the gathering storm and builds up fences on its long border with Iraq (http://www.haaretz.com/news/middle-east/1.614446), hoping to stop the movement of IS fighters and recruits.

 

It was revealed this week that Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has approved military cooperation with the United States against the Islamic State group (formerly known as the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant). This followed reports of another beheading by the group, this time of a captured Lebanese soldier.

The galvanisation of the anti-Islamic State camp is almost surreal. Iran is now coordinating with its long-time foe to hit Islamic State targets, while Bashar al-Assad welcomes the extension of US air strikes to Syria and Saudi Arabia eyes with concern the gathering storm and builds fences along its long border with Iraq, hoping to stop the movement of Islamic State fighters and recruits.

The arrival of the Islamic State group on the scene has altered regional dynamics on many levels. One interesting aspect is the consolidation of the Iran-Syria bloc, which looked shaky this time last year. That is because President Hassan Rouhani thought he could advance his own agenda by throwing Assad to the wolves.

Syria as distraction

Rouhani came to office last August with a popular mandate to free Iran from international sanctions, imposed as a result of its nuclear programme. Syria was a distraction and the sooner it moved out of the spotlight the better for Rouhani.

The problem was that Rouhani did not have a free hand on Syria. Iran had signed a security pact with Syria in 2006 and was deeply committed to protecting Assad. The most vocal supporters of the Assad regime were in the central command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The problem was that Rouhani did not have a free hand on Syria. Iran had signed a security pact with Syria in 2006 and was deeply committed to protecting Assad. The most vocal supporters of the Assad regime were in the central command of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).


The official Iranian line has consistently blamed external powers for supporting terrorist groups in their bid to destabilise Syria. The United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, among others, were alleged to be working behind the scenes to arm and fund the anti-Assad rebellion.

This made Iran's defence of Bashar al-Assad a matter of course. Iran could not allow the linchpin of the so-called "axis of resistance" fall apart.

Rouhani's overall agenda to improve relations with the West meant that his government had to modify Iran's position in relation to Syria. An early indication was offered two days after assuming office.

Rouhani suggested that only a political solution that would involve the Syrian government and its opponents could save Syria. He was careful to note that foreign sponsored terrorists could spoil the process, but did not call all anti-Assad rebels terrorists.

This was a markedly different perspective than the dominant view and put Rouhani's government at odds with the IRGC central command. News of the chemical attack in Ghouta, near Damascus, that same month gave Rouhani further impetus to distance Iran from the Assad regime. In a tweet, Rouhani asked the international community to mobilise against any further attacks.

Syria without Assad?

Rouhani's government was obviously prepared to consider Syria without Assad, especially if that meant that nuclear talks would move forward more smoothly. Last November's interim agreement with the P5+1, which gave Iran limited sanctions relief, seemed to vindicate the new approach. Even the Supreme Leader was impressed, as noted in a letter of congratulations that was published in the conservative daily Jumhuri-ye Eslami. Keeping the Supreme Leader on his side was critical for Rouhani's ability to keep the IRGC hawks at bay. Khamenei's endorsement of Rouhani's policy as "heroic flexibility" was clearly aimed at cooling down his critics who accused the Rouhani government of making Iran look weak.

Yet Rouhani's diplomatic gains were not irreversible. Rouhani suffered a major blow in the Geneva II process. Early in Rouhani's presidency, the United Nations and major powers had started talking to Foreign Minister Javad Zarif and other officials about a compromise solution for Syria. It was expected that Iran would take part in the January 2014 meeting, dubbed Geneva II, to pacify the Syrian government and facilitate the formation of an interim government, effectively to ease Assad out of office. But faced with an uproar from the opposition delegation, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon withdrew Iran's invitation at the 11th hour. This was the diplomatic equivalent of a slap in the face. Rouhani did not recover from this embarrassment.

The IRGC took advantage of the diplomatic setback to deploy more Quds special forces to Syria in January/February 2014. The Syria portfolio was slipping out of Rouhani's hand. That is what Foreign Minister Zarif admitted to US Secretary of State John Kerry in February 2014.

Islamic State factor

It should not be a surprise that the IRGC was unprepared to give up years of investment in Assad and Hezbollah. The IRGC comeback was aided by Rouhani's failure to make an impression with his diplomatic agenda, and much more poignantly by the rise of the Islamic State group, which changed the political landscape. The group's extreme anti-Shia ideology ruled out any possibility of a compromise. The fall of Assad would be seen as tantamount to the supremacy of the Islamic State group. Assad was standing between Syria and takfiris - Muslims who label other Muslims as kafir (infidel). The June 2014 presidential election, however flawed, gave the leadership in Iran the pretext to argue that Assad was a legitimate leader.

Rouhani had tried a new course in relation to Syria. But the rapid rise of the Islamic State group has effectively bound the Ayatollahs and the Assad regime together, this time with Washington's reluctant acknowledgment. As long as the alternative to Assad is the Islamic State, the Iranian leadership and effectively the international community will stick with Assad.

Shahram Akbarzadeh is Research Professor and ARC Future Fellow at the Centre for Citizenship and Globalisation, Deakin University, Australia.

Source: Al Jazeera