The U.N. reported last week that at least 2,900 people have been killed in the Syrian uprising since it began in March. While part of the international community has been focusing on the tremendous loss of life that the Syrian people have suffered, political analysts in the Arab world have also been examining the implications of the Syrian revolt for the balance of power in the Middle East, especially the future of Iranian influence in Syria and Lebanon.
For example, in mid-September, a long article in the Lebanese daily as-Safir considered this very question by asking what will happen to Hezbollah. Four scenarios are considered: First, the Syrian regime remains in power without having to make any concessions to the West regarding its relations with “the resistance” — namely Hezbollah and Iran. In the second scenario, the Syrian regime has to give up its past foreign policy of support for Hezbollah and Iran in order to gain Western support.
According to a third scenario, the Assad regime falls and is replaced by a pro-Western regime that cuts Syria off from Hezbollah and Iran. The author, who is Lebanese and clearly is sympathetic to Hezbollah, still believed in September that the first scenario is the most likely of the five.
But what if the analysis in as-Safir is wrong, and Iran is about to lose its strategic window to the Arab world and the eastern Mediterranean? If the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood becomes the dominant force in a post-Assad Syria, then Iran may face a significant setback, as well. True, the Muslim Brotherhood supported Hezbollah’s war against Israel in 2006, and therefore looked warmly upon Shiite Iran. But now it has a Sunni Muslim alternative — Erdogan’s Turkey.
In fact, Turkey has been hosting meetings of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood and systematically building its influence with the Syrian opposition, in general. Moreover, during their revolt, the Syrian people saw how the Assad regime relied on Iranian personnel and on Hezbollah to battle the demonstrators; there is a broad revulsion among Syrians of all political perspectives about maintaining Syrian-Iranian alliance in the future.
If the Iranians lose their Syrian bridgehead to the Arab world, do they have an alternative? There is a view that the Iranians are considering making Jordan a new center of influence in the Arab world. In the past, this would have been unthinkable, since the Jordanian population has historically been Sunni Muslim, except for a small Christian minority. In contrast, in Syria, the Alawi elite came to be recognized as Shiites back in the 1970’s.
However, the demography of Jordan has begun to change as a result of the 2003 Iraq War. Nearly one million Iraqi refugees have entered Jordan in the last eight years including several hundred thousand Iraqi Shiites. Most Iraqi Shiites are loyal to their own religious leaders, like Ayatollah Sistani, and not to those of Iran. But Tehran can be expected to seek to exploit this population and make it a target for its propaganda and influence.
The Iranians often invest in Shiite shrines as a means of building positions of influence, especially those connected to the family of Ali, Muhammad’s son-in law, who is regarded by Shiites as his rightful successor and as the first imam. In Damascus, the shrine of Ali’s daughter, Zaynab, is a center for Shiite pilgrimage. These shrines are not only religious centers. According to U.S. court documents it was at the shrine of Zaynab where the head of Saudi Hezbollah, who came from the Saudi Shiite town of Qatif, recruited operatives for the Khobar Towers attack in 1996. Nineteen U.S. servicemen and 372 other people were wounded in the attack.
In Jordan, there is an Iranian-funded shrine for Ali’s brother, Jafar, near Karak, about 150 kilometers south of Amman. Thousands of Iraqis and Iranian visit Shiite shrines that are in Jordan. They also revere and visit the tombs of the companions of Muhammad, who led Islam’s earliest battles against the Byzantines. There have been reports that Iraqi Shiites have been purchasing properties near some of these shrines In 2006, the radical Iraqi Shiite leader, Muqtada al-Sadr, came to visit the Shiite shrines of Jordan.
Iran’s Jordanian option does not yet have a military arm. Hezbollah does not have a presence in Jordan, though it has been active in neighboring Iraq, training the Shiite militias. Should Iraq become an Iranian satellite after the U.S. withdraws, the idea that Iran would be able to use Hezbollah from Iraq should not be ruled out. In the meantime, the Iranians have a strategic alliance with Hamas. And even if Turkey becomes the dominant external ally of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Iran will not let go of its branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas. Hamas in Jordan could become an important instrument for Iran for creating a military presence, in the future, which the Jordanian security forces will oppose, but face political constraints challenging completely.
In December 2004, King Abdullah of Jordan was the first Sunni Arab leader to publicly warn the West about “a Shiite crescent’ emerging after the Iraq War, which Iran would exploit to spread its influence across the Arab world. With the whole Middle East in flux today, Israel will have to very carefully monitor these developments, especially if Iran seeks to move the focal point of its military influence from Israel’s northern border to its eastern front.
The changing situation provides yet another reason why Israel must not be pushed into sacrificing vital security assets, like the Jordan Valley, which has been the front line of its defense for decades and will be critical in the future against the uncertainty it faces to its east in the years ahead.