WaPo on Iran in Syria: The Lens Reflects a Mirror

by Farideh Farhi

This Washington Post article about Iran and Hezbollah building networks in Syria in the event of Bashar al-Assad’s fall is certainly eye-catching. It’s also suggestive of Iranian shrewdness in trying to make the best out of every situation they face in the region.

Assad’s turmoil was supposed to have been a dream come true for those who consider Iran as the source of all troubles in the Middle East. If Syria could be peeled away, a weakened Islamic Republic would either implode or be feeble enough to give in to Western demands. Now, a couple of years into the Syrian tragedy — fueled by the urges of all sides that hope to turn the democratic aspirations of a population into a proxy war — we are informed by US officials that Iran has a long-term plan to protect its interests in Syria in the event of Assad’s departure and the country’s fracturing into ethnic and sectarian enclaves.

How can we confirm this? According to a “senior Obama administration official”, the evidence can be found in the words of the Iranians themselves, of course! Citing “Iranian claims that Tehran was backing as many as 50,000 militiamen in Syria,” the official said. “It’s a big operation… The immediate intention seems to be to support the Syrian regime. But it’s important for Iran to have a force in Syria that’s reliable and can be counted on.” To boot, a senior Arab official agrees that Iran’s strategy has two tracks, “one is to support Assad to the hilt, the other is to set the stage for major mischief when it collapses.”

I am naturally intrigued. An Iranian official has “claimed” that Tehran was building a force of as many as 50,000 militiamen in Syria, and this hasn’t made headlines in Iran (or in the always-on-the-lookout BBC Persian, Radio Farda and Voice of America Persian, for that matter!). So I began searching (one can also use Google in Persian) and I couldn’t find the statement anywhere. Not that there isn’t any reference to Jaysh al-Sha’bi. There are indeed a few references to Jaysh al-Sha’bi as a popular militia, as well as the claim that since its creation, it has been able to engage in pushback against the rebel forces.

One person, identified as a “political expert for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the province of Semnan,” goes as far as to suggest that perhaps Assad has decided to use the “model” of the Iranian popular militia — the Basij — in Syria. He ends the interview that Mehr News conducted with him this past August by stating that the Islamic Republic should relay its experiences with the Basij — which, he says, was the most useful instrument for fighting the war against Iraq in the early 1980s — so that the Syrian government can “liberate itself from the trap set for it by superpowers.” The Basij model, he argues, does not work everywhere, but can be tried in order to draw from popular energy.

Another “expert on political issues” tells the Iran Student News Agency (ISNA), during an interview at a book fair of all places, that the Basij indeed serves as a “model” for Jaysh al- Sha’bi.

Then there are the direct words of the commander of the IRGC from a September press conference. In response to a question regarding Iran’s involvement in Syria, he explicitly states first that Hezbollah’s decision-making process and relations with Syria are independent of Iran: “if they decide to help Syria or not, depends on them,” he says. And second, that Tehran assesses that Damascus does not need external support for its security since its “50,000-strong popular forces known as Jaysh al Sha’bi… is active” on the side of the Syrian military.

Apparently the mixing of these various statements is good enough for the Treasury Department to release a statement noting that “Iran’s Revolutionary Guard commander” has said that Jaysh al Sha’bi was “modeled after Iran’s own Basij,” which it described as “a paramilitary force subordinate to the IRGC that has been heavily involved in the violent crackdowns and serious human rights abuses occurring in Iran since the June 2009 contested presidential election.”

This is all the evidence that’s mustered to delineate Iran’s effort to build its Syrian militia networks. The rest of the article is speculative analysis regarding what might happen in Syria if Assad falls. After all, Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick want us to know: “Iran has a history of profiting from chaos, even without control of the government ostensibly in power. Hezbollah arose out of the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s (sic), when Iran was able to exploit the grievances of that country’s Shiite population, a pattern it also followed in Iraq during the chaos that followed the U.S. invasion.”

Setting aside the glaring error of attributing the rise of Hezbollah to the 1970s Lebanese civil war and not even mentioning the 1982 Israeli invasion and occupation of Lebanon (the Iranian revolution did not even occur until 1979!), and the fact that Jaysh al-Sha’bi’s roots go back to pre-uprising Syria, there is a problem with the formulation of Iran as an all-knowing and all-conniving power — and the only one at that — in the region. To be sure, it’s not very hard to imagine that Tehran is trying hard not to “lose Syria”, particularly given the way that the Syrian tragedy and fall of Assad has been framed by a host of regional and extra-regional powers as a “loss” for Iran. It’s also not difficult to imagine that, given Iran’s longstanding presence in Syria, its relationships may extend beyond Assad, providing Iran with the opportunity to salvage something even if Assad falls. Whether Tehran can actually pull any of this off is another question that’s certainly not answered by the flimsy evidence and stretched speculation that we’re provided with.

What is most bothersome about reports like these — which highlight Iran’s shrewdness and sinister designs in benefitting from every situation that the US finds unable to address or control — is the full regurgitation of the US government position. Not to mention the failure to challenge the core paradox that exists in the elevation of the Iranian threat while consistent policies deal with Iran as mostly a nuisance, open to pressure, and certainly not worthy of treating with adequate respect for its leverage in the region.

In their book, The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, Michael R. Gordon and Bernard E. Trainor provide a perfect example of how this paradox works out in practice. They point out that General David H. Petraeus rejected overtures of cooperation in Iraq from Iran’s lead man in the country, General Qasem Soleimani, and saw him as “a truly evil figure.” But according to the authors, Soleimani’s wickedness did not prevent Petraeus from having back-channel interactions with him through intermediaries. Indeed, apparently Petraeus became convinced that being able to send messages to Soleimani was useful, but that meeting with the Iranian general, even secretly, would have elevated the Iranian’s stature and reinforced his notion that he was entitled to have a say over Iraq’s future.

Iran’s power is then a useful reference when trying to explain away the failures of US policies. Syria’s imbroglio can be blamed exclusively on Iran’s clever and devious hands and not  the premature and unreflective policies that under-estimated the staying power and will of the Assad regime to dish out violence in order to survive. At the same time, Iran’s alleged extended reach does not make it a sufficiently entitled or significant player in the region. The contradiction that exists at the core of US policy towards Iran is exposed when Iran’s presumably formidable power and options in the region are highlighted for political purposes while the premise that it can be pressured into submitting to something willed by extra-regional players continues to reign supreme.

Farideh Farhi

Farideh Farhi is an Independent Scholar and Affiliate Graduate Faculty at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. She has taught comparative politics at the University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Hawai'i, University of Tehran, and Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. Her publications include States and Urban-Based Revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua , Power and Change in Iran: Politics of Contention and Conciliation (co-edited with Dan Brumberg), and numerous articles and book chapters on comparative analyses of revolutions and Iranian politics. She has been a recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace and the Rockefeller Foundation and Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. She has also worked as a consultant for the World Bank and the International Crisis Group.