Joyce Karam writes: On February 25, 1987, late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad sent his troops to the Fathallah barracks in West Beirut, where they killed twenty-seven members of Hezbollah in a move designed to show Syria’s upper hand over Iran in Lebanon. Almost three decades later, this modus operandi is completely reversed under Assad the son, as Syria sinks into a war of attrition and Tehran gains the upper hand in Damascus.
For Iran, Bashar al-Assad has been a valuable ally but not an indispensable one. His coming to power in 2000, followed by the Iraq war in 2003 and Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, freed Iran’s hand in the Levant. Hezbollah under Bashar al-Assad has received weaponry and political backing unthinkable in his father’s time, including long-range Scud missiles and a 2010 Damascus visit by the party’s chief Hassan Nasrallah. But while Tehran has worked since the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011 to prolong Assad’s hold on power, it has also planned from the very early stages of the conflict for the day after, should its ally fall or should the regime lose Damascus.
Even as Iran sits at the negotiating table in Vienna, its strategy overlooks the political debate and the successive failed processes. It is instead rooted in creating new realities and proxies on the ground in Syria, looking beyond Assad and preserving its core interests. These interests are defined today by three goals: (1) Ensuring arms shipments continue to Hezbollah; (2) Gaining a strategic foothold in Levant and against Israel; (3) Preventing a stable government opposed to Iran from fully ruling over Syria. [Continue reading…]