Syria and Iran


Ayatollah ‘Ali Khamanei


To the extent that the general American public worries about Iran, it’s mostly concerned with the Iranian regime’s apparent nuclear ambitions.  And these are legitimately worrisome.  An ambitious nuclear-armed Iran would menace and intimidate—and blackmail—its neighbors in the region and would be far more assertive than it currently is.  (Consider how North Korea’s nuclear arsenal has made that ludicrous but threatening state difficult for the United States and Asian regional powers to handle, despite its sub-pathetic economy.)


As Jordan’s King Abdullah warned several years ago, Iran plainly seeks to extend an arc of Shi‘ite influence, if not domination, across much of the Middle East, from Iran itself across majority-Shi‘ite Iraq to multi-religious Lebanon, where the Shi‘ite political party cum private army Hezbollah functions as a blatantly obvious Iranian proxy.  Syria is an important part of this arc, the piece that potentially completes it.  The late and unlamented Hafiz al-Assad established a regime, now led by his son, based on his own fellow Alawites, members of a small Shi‘ite sect—a minority within Syria—rather different from the “Twelver” form of Shi‘ism that controls Iran, claims the majority of Iraqis, and founded Hezbollah.  Different but, in many ways, ideologically congenial.  And now, since Iran has been aggressively backing the Assad regime, friendly, dependent, and indebted.  Syria has alternately threatened and controlled Lebanon for decades, and Syrian reliance upon Iran will cement Iranian hegemony over Beirut and the rest of Lebanon.


The Iranian strategy is plainly working.


Pro-Assad forces have been scoring significant victories of late, and the rebels there have clearly lost their momentum.  On Thursday, Mr. Assad, obviously feeling much more confident and bellicose, delivered a speech ridiculing the rebels and threatening Israel.  It would have been nice had competent people been managing our foreign policy at the State Department and in the White House over the past two or three years, but the American electorate chose otherwise, and the condition of the rebels may now be beyond our help in any event—particularly because Sunni radicals loosely (but sometimes officially) linked to al-Qa‘ida have come increasingly to the fore among them, leaving more moderate forces in their shadow and leaving the West with few if any palatable options for support.


The Golan Heights


Mr. Assad has effectively provided Iran a means by which it can transport weapons all the way over to Hezbollah, on the northern border of Israel and on the Mediterranean cost.  And he’s suggested that he may now open up military operations, or at least the option of “private” military actions, against Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights, which Israel took from Syria nearly fifty years ago, during the Six Day War of 1967.  (Syria’s failure to engage Israel in that crucial area has long been a major point of criticism by Islamist critics against the Assad regime.)


In other encouraging news:  Immediately after Mr. Obama’s Secretary of State, John Kerry, ended his recent visit to Russia, Moscow announced its sale of several advanced weapons systems to Syria—systems that will make Israeli reconnaissance flights over Syria (and Israeli interference with Iranian arms shipments and the movement of possible chemical and biological weapons) much more dangerous and difficult.  This move demonstrates rather clearly the degree of respect that Vladimir Putin has for current American leadership, and it menaces Israel in a way that could, conceivably, draw the United States into a future regional war there.


And don’t be deceived by the upcoming Iranian presidential election.  It’s pure theater.  Any candidate who might actually have moderated Iranian regional ambitions and foreign policy aggressiveness has already been vetted and removed from the electoral process by the Islamic regime’s very public dismissal of most of those who sought the office.  And, in any case, real power within Iran doesn’t rest with the president.  It never rested with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, despite American fascination with him.  It rests, instead, with the Ayatollah Khamanei, who cannot be voted out by the people, and who will remain.  The chief function of the Iranian presidency is to take the blame, both domestically and internationally, for Khamanei’s decisions.


Posted from Deer Creek Park, Provo Canyon, Utah

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  • Ryan

    Are there, or have there ever been, enough pro-liberty Syrians (as we, Americans, would understand liberty) for Western powers to even have a horse in the race there?

    In my admittedly limited observation, it seems that the war in Syria is yet another in a long line of clashes between Shi’ites and Sunnis, and that whoever wins, freedoms of speech and religion lose.

    Perhaps our services are best rendered providing humanitarian aid to those Syrians seeking to escape.

    • DanielPeterson

      There are a few Syrians who favor free speech and liberty — I’ve met some of them — but I think we were never in danger of having a Jeffersonian democracy break out in Syria. Alas. The best we could have hoped for was an authoritarian state that would be less supportive of terrorism, less aligned with Iran and Russia, less hostile to Israel, and more open to America. But that would have been progress. Now, though, it seems to be beyond our reach.

  • Lucy Mcgee

    Thanks for this insightful writing, Dr. Peterson.