May 16, 2013

Iran - time to intervene in Syria?

The Syrian civil war has raged on for over two years - over 70,000 Syrians have been killed. Most of the world is merely watching events unfold, while a few nations are supporting the opposition with low levels of arms and money. Western nations are debating the possibility of imposing a no-fly zone over the country, wondering if their national interests require involvement in yet another country in the troublesome Middle East.

Each country is doing its own calculations on what happens if Bashar al-Asad remains in power or not. For one country, however, the stakes are abundantly clear. The removal of the regime will be a serious foreign policy setback for the Islamic Republic of Iran. Syria is the key to their access to Lebanon, home of a sizable population of Shi'a Muslims and, more importantly, their proxy paramilitary force, Hizballah. Hizballah was created by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) Syria/Lebanon contingent in 1982 - that contingent formed the basis for the now-infamous Qods Force, the IRGC's special operations and "dirty tricks" unit.

Hizballah is part of Iran's greater strategy to isolate and confront Israel, which it regards as its primary enemy in the region and second only to the United States worldwide. Access to - and many would argue, control over - Hizballah allows Iran to open a northern front against Israel, or conduct a low-level war against the Jewish state with virtually no overt Iranian involvement. The ability of Hizballah to tie up huge amounts of Israeli military resources was demonstrated in the Israel-Hizballah war of 2006.

Iran's ability to maintain Hizballah as an effective organization - it provides virtually all of its weaponry, training and funding - is dependent on access to Syrian territory. Virtually all of Hizballah's weapons are delivered by Iranian aircraft - Iranian air force cargo aircraft or state-owned charters. The primary entry point for these supply flights is Damascus International Airport, about half an hour from the Lebanese border and Hizballah's strongholds in the Biqa' Valley.

As far as Syria itself, having an alliance with Damascus allows the Iranians to put additional pressure on Israel. Not only does Israel have to concern itself with Hizballah on its northern border with Lebanon, it also must be prepared to defend itself from the national armed forces of Syria.

Although the Syrian armed forces have recently gained the upper hand against the combined opposition of the Free Syrian Army and the more troublesome Islamist group Jabhat al-Nusrah, it is mostly through control of the sky that allows the regime to make gains against the opposition. Imposition of a no-fly zone - which is a distinct possibility as talks between Western powers begin in earnest - might tip the balance towards the overthrow of the al-Asad regime.

Iran may intervene militarily to prevent that from happening, and we may be seeing the next steps of that intervention. There have been IRGC troops in Syria for some time, but this week, the Iranian leadership announced that it was dispatching 10,000 IRGC fighters and basiji (volunteer augmentees) to Syria. The ostensible reason for the deployment was to defend two shrines in the Damascus area holy to Shi'a Muslims, and to defend the Golan Heights. The last excuse is interesting, since the Israelis have occupied the Golan Heights since 1967.

The two holy sites are the shrines of Sayidat Zaynab (left) and Sayidat Zukaynah (right). The shrine of Sayidat Zaynab is located just south of Damascus in the city of the same name (33°26'39"N 36°20'27"E) - it is the tomb of Zaynab, daughter of 'Ali (the first imam, son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muhammad) and Muhammad's daughter Fatimah, making her Muhammad's granddaughter, a woman revered among the Shi'a.

The shrine of Sayidat Zukaynah is located just a few miles southwest of Damascus in the suburb of Daraya (33°27'32"N 36°14'26"E) - a heavily contested area near an important air base (al-Mazzah). Zukaynah was the daughter of Husayn bin 'Ali (grandson of Muhammad), and thus the great granddaughter of the Prophet - she died in a Yazdi prison at age four.

There also is no need for Iranian IRGC or Basijis to guard either of the shrines. The Sayidat Zaynab shrine is in a heavily Shi'a area with plenty of Iranian guards already present, and the Zukayna shrine is in an area that the regime must hold; it has devoted a lot of resources to defend the entire area, not just the area of the shrine. It is a minor shrine - I lived close to this area and had never heard of it.

Defense of the Golan Heights? On the surface, one could make the case that since the Syrian regime has withdrawn much of its military force that was in the area between Damascus and the Golan Heights to bolster the defense of the capital, it is highly unlikely that Israel would move into southern Syria. Why interfere when one of your enemies is imploding on its own?

It appears to me this is just what the Iranians believe is a non-threatening means of deploying 10,000 troops to Syria. Once there, they can be used as needed to bolster one of Tehran's few allies. It might be the first step in a much larger intervention in the country, because if Bashar al-ASad falls, Hizballah will likely die on the vine.