As anti-government forces in Syria’s violent uprising have increased the pressure on President Bashar Assad to step down, Iran, his main Middle East supporter, also finds itself under siege, undermining a once-powerful partnership and longtime U.S. foe.
It is an unusual position for Iran, and its vulnerability in Syria has not been lost on the United States, which has been imposing stiff economic sanctions on both countries.
In the calculus of predicting the political outcomes of the Arab Spring upheavals, some U.S. officials and political analysts see the possible downfall of Assad as an event that could further undermine Iran as its economy reels under the sanctions imposed to get Tehran to suspend its nuclear program.
“It would completely change the dynamic in the region,” one Obama administration official said Tuesday.
The departure of Assad, the thinking goes, not only would threaten to sever Syria from Iran, which has long been a goal of the United States and its Arab allies, but also could deprive Iran of its main means of projecting power in the Middle East. If Assad were to fall, Tehran would lose its conduit for providing military, financial and logistical support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Both groups, which oppose Israel and are considered terrorist organizations by Washington, have vast arsenals of rockets and other weapons.
Moreover, the sanctions on Iran have severely impeded its ability to provide financial aid to Assad (let alone Hamas and Hezbollah), whose treasury has been depleted by the uprising and sanctions on Syria. Another senior administration official said Iran had nevertheless tried its best to prop up Assad, adding that “you would see Assad fall faster if they weren’t there.”
Syria is likewise important to Iran’s efforts to assert its influence over the region, particularly because it borders Lebanon, which provides access to Hezbollah, and Israel, which Iran has declared its enemy.
Ali Banuazizi, a political science professor at Boston College and a co-director of its Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies Program, said, “To put it bluntly, if Iran is a threat, then one way to weaken that threat would be to weaken Syria and to help the anti-Assad movement in Syria.”
The uprising in Syria, now in its 11th month, has caused extreme discomfort to Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist organization that has been based in Damascus, Syria, for years. Friday, Khaled Meshal, Hamas’ leader, left Damascus with no plans to return. Earlier in January, Ismail Haniya, Hamas’ prime minister in Gaza, visited Turkey, a former Assad ally that is now perhaps his most powerful regional critic.