As bloody riots threaten Bashar Assad’s regime and the minority Alawite rule, the silence of Iran and Hizbullah, Syria’s closest allies, is striking.
Iran is following developments in Syria with concern, and through its silence is supporting Syria’s massive use of force, which it had earlier criticized in other countries such as Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Bahrain.
Iran’s main concern is losing its most important strategic ally in the Middle East. This alliance gives Iran free rein in Lebanon, thus allowing Hizbullah to flourish, and helps fan the flames of jihadi zeal against Israel within Palestinian organizations.
The Iranian influence in Syria has grown significantly since Assad replaced his father. In recent years, Assad has permitted Iran to invest enormous sums toward the creation of a new Shiite community within Syria to act as a counterbalance to the Sunni majority. These investments include the building of new Shiite mosques in Damascus and the surrounding cities, the establishment of educational and cultural institutions to enable Iranian clergy to spread Shiite beliefs, and Persian-language classes in cultural centers across the country. Syria has become a favorite destination of Iranian tourists who visit holy places in Damascus (such as the Shrine of Sayidda Zaynab) and other cities, as well as a transit station for Iranian “Jihad tourism” to Hizbullah battle sites, including those in southern Lebanon. Thus it is no surprise that cries of “no to Iran” and “no to Hizbullah” have become common slogans among the rebels fighting against Assad’s regime.
Hizbullah leader Nasrallah, who issued a furious attack against Arab leaders who were massacring their people and offered assistance to Bahrain’s Shiite citizens in their rebellion against the Sunni authorities, drew his inspiration from Tehran in keeping quiet, as well. Al-Manar, Hizbullah’s official television channel, which broadcasts continuous coverage of the “Arab Spring,” hardly reports on the developments in Syria. The reasons for this are obvious. In contrast with his father, Hafez Assad, who refused to meet with Nasrallah and regarded him as simply one of many Lebanese leaders, Bashar Assad turned Nasrallah into a revered hero who fought Israel with military and strategic success. Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 and Hizbullah’s “divine victory” in 2006 transformed Nasrallah into a modern-day Saladin in Assad’s eyes, and he has warmly embraced him. Even the mysterious assassination of Hizbullah Chief of Staff Imad Mughniyeh in the center of Damascus did not harm the special relationship between the two. Nasrallah has never publicly blamed Assad for Mughniyeh’s inadequate protection.
Astonishingly, as events appear today, Nasrallah has been encouraged by American policy towards Assad, who enjoys public American support for his continued leadership. It seems that even Nasrallah is not willing to voice his support of Assad in such a public way as has the U.S. Secretary of State.
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Dr. Shimon Shapira is a senior research associate at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.