Have Iran and its proxies decided they can afford to drop the Assad regime?

Ties that bind Assad to Hezbollah are infinitely stronger than Damascus-Tehran link.

2015/05/15 Issue: 5 Page: 14

The Arab Weekly
Stephen Starr

Beirut - The Syrian government has been under such pressure in recent weeks that President Bashar Assad has been forced to say that while his forces are losing battles across the country, they will not lose the war.

His tone was unremarkable. But having talked up his regime’s victories and capabilities countless times since the outbreak of revolt in March 2011, what bucked the trend during his May 6th pro­nouncement was the fact that he said his military was facing losses. “It is the nature of battles there will be advances and retreats, vic­tories and losses, ups and downs,” he said.

Only speculation can render how these comments sit with Iran, the Assad government’s most impor­tant international backer. That Iran admitted a general from its Revolutionary Guard was killed by an Israeli air strike in January near the Golan Heights — just kilome­tres from Israel, no less — may be a sign that the trade and exports that would presumably accompany the hoped-for lifting of international sanctions at home is more impor­tant than supporting the clearly faltering Syrian regime.

Iran is reportedly spending $35 billion a year on support for Assad, and with oil prices down, that level of support may be unsustainable.

Looking to Assad’s other chief supporter, commentators have noted that Hezbollah leader Has­san Nasrallah’s speech on May 5th was more conciliatory and less jingoistic than previous public pronouncements.

But the ties that bind Assad to Hezbollah are infinitely stronger than the Damascus-Tehran link; if Iran is Assad’s commanding officer, Hezbollah is his bunking partner. When Nasrallah said, “This is not the battle of the Syrian people alone,” it resonates deeply with the public in Lebanon and Syria whose familial ties cross borders and go back generations.

The bigger question is: Is this the final throes of one of the Arab world’s most enduring dynasties? A Saudi Arabian newspaper report in April suggested Alawite families are being urged by intelligence agencies to leave Damascus for the coast, an Assad stronghold. An Italian news agency reported that Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces were withdrawing from several battlefields in Syria.

An important bellwether to help answer this is the rate the Syrian pound holds against world curren­cies. The pound dropped to 323 against the US dollar in late April having held steady at around 220 only weeks before. Though the pound has recovered some of the recent losses, there is deep worry on the Damascus street.

Perhaps the most important con­clusion to be drawn from the loss of Idlib, Jisr al-Shughour and Bosra is that after four years of tumult and division, an opposition fight­ing force capable of defeating both jihadist and regime forces, tolera­ble to many Syrians and borderline palatable for Western governments and their allies, is coming together.

Furthermore, the fact that Tur­key and Iran are, and have been for years, tight on trade and energy relations suggests room for nego­tiation on the fate of the Syrian regime, if the time comes that Iran decides to pull its forces.

But try telling any of this to sup­porters of the Syrian government, civilians who are today better armed than at any time in decades and who remain convinced that Iran and Hezbollah will continue to support the Assad clan in war or peace, as was the case before the 2011 uprising.

As a result, though we are witnessing the end of the Assads’ Syria as it existed since 1970, it’s unlikely we are seeing the end of the Assad regime itself.

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist who lived in Syria from 2007 to 2012. He is the author of Revolt in Syria: Eye-Witness to the Uprising (Oxford University Press: 2012).

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