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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Bashar Assad, the Protests in Syria, and the Iranian Connection

Filed under: Jerusalem

Bashar Assad’s options have become very limited since his inability to put an end to the popular unrest that has stricken Syria since mid-March. The latest events show very clearly the widening cracks in his regime, as evidenced by the resignation of more than 200 members of the ruling Baath Party in the Daraa region in protest against the massive use of live ammunition and tanks against the demonstrators (a first since the establishment of the Assad regime almost five decades ago). Unconfirmed reports also point to defections of soldiers and officers from the 5th Division after they refused to open fire on demonstrators.

With the continuation of the protests and the inadequacy of the measures taken by the regime to quell the dissent, Assad’s sole response is the use of massive force against his own people. With the growing level of violence used by the regime, it becomes clear that Assad’s options are dwindling very fast. In fact, he has no other choice but the use of force. Any leniency might be interpreted by his opponents and also by his allies as a sign of weakness and, as such, precipitate his demise. At the same time, lip service has been paid to a semblance of reform with the dissolution of the old cabinet and the formation of a new one with new faces, as well as by the announcement of the end of the emergency laws that governed Syria for the last four decades.

The revolt in Syria is not only Bashar Assad’s nightmare, but is also the nightmare of his most interested ally: Iran. Indeed, since the beginning of the popular dissent, Iran has been very silent about the events in Syria.

Iran has benefited from the Arab revolts and regime changes in the Middle East. Lebanon’s government owes its life to the support of Iranian-backed Hizbullah. Egypt’s foreign minister has explicitly declared Egypt’s intention to normalize its relations with Tehran. Bahrain is still coping with an attempted takeover by Shiite opposition elements. Saudi Arabia has been experiencing Shiite protest, as has Yemen which is practically divided between north and south in a conflict mainly fueled by Shiite separatists.

Syria has been Tehran’s most precious ally since the Iranian Revolution. Syria has been a bridge which enabled Iran to build a very powerful influence over the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is present on the front line of confrontation with Israel on its northern border through its quisling in Lebanon – Hizbullah, and appears to be facing off against Israel along its southern border mainly through Hamas in Gaza. Any change of regime in Syria (and certainly a takeover by Sunnis there) could jeopardize Iran’s position regionally and represent a serious setback to Tehran’s ambitions to dominate the region. This concern is very vivid since the crowds that have demonstrated throughout Syria have been very vocal against Iran and Hizbullah and have chanted unflattering slogans calling on Iran to stop its intervention in Syria.

Such concerns have prompted Tehran to bolster Assad’s regime. As President Obama declared on April 22 (according to Reuters), “Instead of listening to their own people, President Assad is blaming outsiders while seeking Iranian assistance in repressing Syria’s citizens through the same brutal tactics that have been used by his Iranian allies.”

President Obama’s accusations were probably based on U.S. intelligence. According to the Wall Street Journal, based on unnamed officials in the Obama administration, Tehran has begun providing crowd control equipment to the Syrian authorities, and more deliveries are expected. Tehran has been sharing “lessons learned” from its own post-election crackdown on protesters who sought the ouster of Iranian President Ahmadinejad. According to same source, Iran has provided Damascus with technical assistance to monitor online communications from opposition groups seeking to organize protests, enabling the authorities to block e-mail, cell phones, text messaging, and Internet postings of activists.

Moreover, according to Israel Army Radio (as reported in the Jerusalem Post on March 27), Israel has raised concerns that Iranian and Hizbullah forces are participating in the suppression of demonstrations in Syria. The report states that local protesters have said that some of the security guards that are dispersing the protests have been speaking in Farsi (Persian), proving the collusion between Syria and Iran. Moreover, according to Yediot Ahronot (Alex Fishman, May 1), Iran has been using electronic intelligence bases in Syria to monitor events inside Israel and provide Syria with eavesdropping and early warning capabilities relating to the preparedness of the Israeli army. Now these bases are being used to monitor Syrian citizens and protests, and assist in the arrest of political opponents of the regime.

Mark Toner, the State Department spokesman, said on April 14, “We believe that there is credible information that Iran is assisting Syria” in quelling the protesters. Based on intercepted communications among Iranian officials, U.S. officials said Tehran is also seeking to aid Shiite groups in Bahrain and Yemen and destabilize U.S. allies in those countries, the Wall Street Journal reported.

Therefore, when the U.S. announced sanctions on April 29 against key personalities of the Syrian regime, it came as no surprise that commanders of the “Al-Quds” Division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps were also included in the list.

Are we witnessing the prelude to Bashar Assad’s fall? What is the impact of the demonstrations on the stability of the regime?

It is still too early to predict a change of regime in Syria. The cohesion of the regime’s main elements remains solid. The Alawites have managed to create in the last five decades a coalition of minorities in Syria whose interest is to survive the events: Christians, Druze, and even some Sunni elements are still siding with the regime. Its fall could probably mean their fall also. Most important is the army, with its top officers – Alawites and Christians (Assyrians) – showing  determination to quell by any means the protests against the regime. Leading the repression are Bashar Assad’s younger and very unstable brother Maher, Chief of the Special Forces and the Republican Guard; Ali Mamluk, director of Syria’s Intelligence Directorate; and Atif Najib, the ex-head of intelligence in Daraa province.

Unlike Egypt’s Mubarak, Tunisia’s Ben Ali, and Ali Salah of Yemen, Bashar Assad is still showing his strong resolve and an unshakable will to rule. Bashar is 44, almost half of Mubarak’s age.

Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.