Vali Nasr writes: Syria’s uprising offered the possibility of a strategic defeat of Iran. In this scenario, Iran would be weakened by the collapse of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, its single Arab ally and a vital link to Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. Isolated, Iran would become more vulnerable to international pressure to limit its nuclear program. And as Iran’s regional influence faded, those of its rivals — U.S. allies Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — would expand.
Instead, events in Syria are spinning in Iran’s favor. Assad’s regime is winning ground, the war has made Iran more comfortable in its nuclear pursuits, and Iran’s gains have embarrassed U.S. allies that support the Syrian uprising. What’s more, Iran has strengthened its relationship with Russia, which may prove to be the most important strategic consequence of the Syrian conflict, should the U.S. continue to sit it out.
Part of the U.S. calculation in declining to intervene has been the assumption that Assad would inevitably fall. The U.S., apparently, did not consider the implications of leaving the door open to a comeback by Assad. Reinforced by Hezbollah fighters and armed with Iranian and Russian weapons, the Syrian army broke through rebel lines in the central city of al-Qusair last week. The symbolic victory has dashed hopes for a quick end to the regime or a diplomatic resolution to the fighting.
Syria is now a proxy war, the outcome of which will determine the regional pecking order. In the Mideast, aura of power decides strategic advantage. Hezbollah’s prowess in Syria is a blow to Saudi Arabia, which has supported Hezbollah’s political opponents in Lebanon. The Syrian army’s gains are a setback to the Saudis, Qataris and Turks, all of whom have backed the rebels with money and weapons.
The U.S. has withheld lethal aid, not to mention military action. The Obama administration has eschewed intervention in Syria as a slippery slope to full-scale war, a costly repeat of the Iraq fiasco. In making this case, however, the administration sends a strong signal that it also would not go to war against Iran, despite President Barack Obama’s statement that no option is off the table when it comes to stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. When U.S. officials say their options for intervention are constrained by Syria’s air defense systems, they are also saying they fear Iran’s. [Continue reading…]