July 21, 2011
Number 07/11 #06
This Update looks at policy options, as well as the potential benefits and costs, for Western governments seeking to pressure Syria’s Assad regime as the protests in Syria continue to spread and the death toll continues to mount.
The opening entry is an editorial from the New York Times, which urges that while a military invention is out of the question, Western nations “can bring a lot more pressure to bear” on the Assad regime. The paper notes that “awe” is the only possible response to the courage of Syrian protesters. It goes on to castigate US and European leaders for sending mixed message and various lifelines to the regime, urges the consumers of Syrian oil to stop buying it, and calls the Arab League’s recent intervention on behalf of Assad a “disgrace”. For the paper’s full argument, CLICK HERE. Some additional criticism of the US Administration’s handling of the Syrian crisis comes from American foreign policy analysts Danielle Pletka and Elliot Abrams.
Next up, Washington Institute scholar and former journalist based in Syria Andrew Tabler explores in more detail the option of boycotting or embargoing Syrian petroleum exports as a means to pressure the regime. Tabler notes that the Syrian economy is already being severely affected by the unrest, oil sales account for around one third of all state revenues, and the regime will have only limited and problematic options for making up any deficits and shortfalls. He goes on to detail a number of ways that the Syrian energy sector can be targeted that will likely greatly increase pressure on the regime, yet avoid severe negative impacts on the welfare of the population at large. For Tabler’s important and knowledgeable discussion of the options in full, CLICK HERE.
Finally, Israeli strategic analyst Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall discusses the details of Iran’s ongoing support for the Syrian regime. Col. Segall notes that Iran is going all out to keep the Assads in power, supplying personnel from the “Iranian IRGC’s Al-Quds Force, advisers from Iran’s domestic Law Enforcement Services, as well as Hizbullah men” to suppress the protests, plus equipment, intelligence and logistics for Syrian security forces. Segall argues that the US Obama Administration now has a “golden opportunity” to make major inroads toward reshaping the Middle East in a strategically positive way given the importance of the Syrian regime to the Iranian-led “resistance” axis – if it can find ways to overcome Iran’s desperate efforts to keep the Assads in power. For this very important look at the Syrian unrest in a larger strategic context, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Daniel Pipes on one policy the US and other states can adopt to pressure the regime in Teheran. Meanwhile, Iranian author and former political prisoner Maziar Bahari recalls the torture of his family.
- American strategic analyst Thanassis Cambanisoffers some thoughts on how the fall of the Assads could seriously imperil Hezbollah as well.
- A new poll of Palestinians showing that while, happily, most are not in favour of violence at the moment, less happily, a large majority reject a final two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- An enlightening interview with a leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Meanwhile, it reportedly appears that the Egyptian elections schedule for September have apparently been postponed until at least November.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s new daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- Signs that the Syrian unrest is turning sectarian – with all the explosive potential that entails.
- Two new videos explaining the UN’s anti-Israel biases and the legal and political history and status of the West Bank.
- A post on the relationship between the New Antisemitism, Entebbe and Mein Kampf, as discussed by two noted academics.
- A post on the “with a whimper” end to the latest whole Gaza flotilla saga, plus the bizarre case of a Gaza flotilla to Syria.
- Israeli Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh explains why the PA is opting for going to the UN, rather than seeking negotiations.
- New Zealand’s bizarre Mossad paranoia.
Along with our all-new website and blog, AIJAC has joined the social media revolution and can now be found on Twitter. Check out http://twitter.com/#!/AIJAC_Update or simply follow @AIJAC_Update to have the latest in news, opinion and analysis on matters of interest to the Australian Jewish community added directly to your Twitter feed.
New York Times, July 18, 2011
We are in awe at the courage of the Syrian people and disgusted by the brutality of President Bashar al-Assad and his henchmen. Mr. Assad has lost all legitimacy. The question now is what can the international community do to support the opposition and its demands for freedom?
The Syrian people are not giving up. Last weekend’s protests were the biggest in four months of demonstrations. The regime isn’t giving up either: Thirty-two people died at the hands of the security forces, raising the total number of deaths since March to perhaps as high as 1,600.
A foreign military intervention is out of the question. It is a far more complex case than Libya, and there is no international support for it. But the United States, Europe and others can bring a lot more pressure to bear.
The opposition is beginning to organize. Some 350 Syrians met in Istanbul to form a council and plan for when Mr. Assad is gone. The American and French ambassadors did the right thing last week when they defied the government and visited Hama to provide moral support to the protesters. After government loyalists then attacked the American and French Embassies, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that Mr. Assad had “lost legitimacy.”
That message was quickly diluted. In Turkey over the weekend, Mrs. Clinton expressed hope that the Syrian opposition “can provide a pathway, hopefully in peaceful cooperation with the government, to a better future.” European ministers sent Mr. Assad another implicit lifeline on Monday, urging him to implement promised reforms.
Washington and Europe have talked for weeks about expanding existing sanctions that include travel bans and asset freezes for certain regime members. They need to act. Germany, Italy, France and the Netherlands — the top consumers of Syrian oil — should stop buying it. The exports are small enough that a suspension would have little effect on world prices but a big impact on Damascus.
Turkey, once one of Syria’s closest allies, is now a vocal critic. It needs to impose its own sanctions. The Arab League is a disgrace. Its new leader, Nabil Elaraby, visited Mr. Assad in Damascus last week and later complained about “foreign interference” in Syrian affairs. Russia has been blocking the United Nations Security Council from condemning the repression and imposing sanctions.
Such cynicism should be no surprise. But so long as Washington and Europe send mixed messages, Moscow and the Arab League will feel no pressure to change — and Mr. Assad will believe he can hang on.
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By Andrew J. Tabler
ForeignPolicy.com, July 19, 2011
By targeting Syria’s energy sector, the United States can hit President Bashar al-Assad where it really hurts — his pocketbook.
Four months into Syria’s uprising, the violence wracking the country is bad and getting worse. The restive city of Homs witnessed sectarian clashes over the weekend that reportedly left dozens dead, while forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad converged on the eastern town of Abu Kamal. As the Assad regime’s iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove approach to the uprising continues to fail, all eyes are focused on the Aug. 1 start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, when the minority Alawite regime’s killing of predominately Sunni protesters could transform the uprising into a sectarian bloodbath.
This bloodshed, which is tragic in its own right, is also causing the sputtering Syrian economy to grind to a halt. Such a development would be particularly dangerous for Assad, as it could cause the business elite in the commercial hubs of Damascus and Aleppo to finally break ties with the regime and join ranks with the opposition. Iran, Assad’s staunch ally, is no doubt aware of the threat; Tehran is reportedly mulling a $5.8 billion aid package to Syria, as well as providing a daily supply of 290,000 barrels of oil for the next month. Fortunately, cash-strapped Iran does not have the resources to indefinitely bail out Assad if the United States organizes a Western effort to hit Syria in its Achilles’ heel — namely, its energy revenues.
The longer the Assad regime teeters, the more violent and bloody Syria is likely to become. The Syrian people, the United States, and the international community, therefore, share a common interest in having as short a transition as possible. To help end the bloodshed and bring about a quicker demise of the Assad regime, Washington should now be more ruthless with the Assad regime as well.
Syria produces around 390,000 barrels per day (BPD), down from a high of 600,000 BDP in 1996, and about 6 billion cubic meters of gas annually. Of that, Syria exports around 148,000 BDP of heavy and sour “Souedie” crude, with revenues accruing directly to the state; all gas is used domestically. According to the International Monetary Fund and U.S. government estimates, oil sales account for around one-third of state revenue, with the remainder increasingly made up through corporate and public-sector employee taxes.
But the protests have hit the Syrian economy and currency hard, a fact that is expected to substantially decrease tax receipts. Damascus, therefore, is likely to become increasingly reliant on oil revenue. This in turn would constrain the regime’s ability to fund the security services and the army (the primary bodies responsible for the brutal crackdown), maintain market subsidies (e.g., for diesel fuel and gasoline), and pay off vital regime patronage networks.
Declining revenue will also force the regime to resort to more deficit spending. It could borrow against the $17 billion in reserves at the Central Bank of Syria, but this would essentially be printing money, causing inflation that would undermine the Syrian pound and confidence in the banking system. The regime could borrow more from state-owned and private-sector banks, where the Damascene and Aleppine business elite put their savings. But as the protests continue to grow and the cost of doing business with the Assad regime dramatically increases, Syrian merchants and businessmen are likely to pull their deposits. Either scenario would undermine the regime’s economic lifeline and help spur elite defections — a key element to developing a new political order.
Beyond the targeted sanctions on Syrian officials already imposed by President Barack Obama’s administration, Washington has tools for leveraging Syrian energy and depriving the Assad regime of critical foreign exchange earnings. Here are six ways to up the pressure:
1. Pressure purchasers of Syrian crude: The Obama administration could prod the chief buyers of Syrian oil — companies in Germany, Italy, France, and the Netherlands — to stop purchasing the regime’s oil. Syrian oil is sold on the spot market and via long-term contracts at a price around $10 less than the Brent crude benchmark. These contracts could be abrogated if the European Union were to slap sanctions on the sale of Syrian oil in Europe. Given Europe’s strong stance on human rights and the bloody trajectory of the crackdown thus far, support for this measure is likely to increase.
Some in Europe, however, are reportedly concerned that cutting off oil shipments could constitute a kind of collective punishment akin to U.N. oil sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. While the comparison is a bit problematic — the Iraq sanctions stemmed from a U.N. Security Council resolution, which is not yet in the cards for Syria — it’s important to note that oil revenues in Iraq constituted a much higher percentage of foreign exchange and budgetary revenue.’ While Syrians still depend on the public sector for employment and subsidies, many if not most Syrians increasingly have taken full- or part-time work in the private sector to make ends meet. In other words, sanctioning Syrian oil would affect the regime’s finances far more than its people.
Yes, the Syrian regime could ship its heavy crude to China and India, which have refineries tuned to process Syria’s heavy and sour crude. But doing so would increase shipping costs considerably, especially as Syria’s oil terminals cannot handle the large tankers that make long-haul shipments much more profitable.
2. Pressure foreign oil companies in Syria to divest: The Obama administration, together with the European Union, could pressure multinational energy companies involved in Syrian energy — namely, Royal Dutch Shell, Total, Croatia’s INA Nafta, and Petro-Canada — to divest their operations. Most importantly, it should ask Britain to halt the operations of Gulfsands Petroleum, the onetime Houston-based firm that moved to Britain in 2008 to avoid U.S. sanctions on Rami Makhlouf, Assad’s cousin and Gulfsands’s Syrian business partner.
The advantage of this approach is that it gets Western multinationals and technology, which is most efficient in boosting the flagging production of Syrian Souedie crude and carrying out new exploration, out of the country. But it would take these companies time to divest, and their operations would almost surely be taken over by non-Western companies operating in Syria, including India’s Oil and Natural Gas Corp., the China National Petroleum Corp., and Russia’s Tatneft.
3. Interrupt oil-tanker payment mechanisms: The state-owned Commercial Bank of Syria (CBS), Syria’s largest bank by far in terms of assets, largely handles Syrian oil sales. Washington sanctioned CBS in 2004 for insufficient anti-money-laundering procedures, forcing the bank to close its correspondent accounts in the United States. Many European banks closed their correspondent accounts with CBS as well to protect themselves against possible U.S. sanctions violations, but a number of other European banks have not. If the Obama administration pressed the European Union to sanction CBS — or just persuaded individual European banks directly to stop doing business with it — Washington could effectively close off the way the regime turns oil into cash. Similar measures could target the tanker shipments’ finance and insurance mechanisms.
The advantage of this approach is that it could be rolled out relatively fast. The downside is that it could push Syrian payments underground via banks in Dubai and Lebanon. Such transactions would likely be funneled through Syria’s new private-sector banks, many of which have formed joint ventures with Lebanon’s banking giants.
4. Sanction tankers hauling Syrian oil: In the past, the United States has targeted shipping vessels as part of tightening sanctions on its adversaries, including through the Helms-Burton Act on Cuba, as well as the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act. Washington, together with the European Union, could issue a decision by which any ship hauling Syrian oil would be banned from any future business in the United States or the European Union. The advantage of this move is that it would leverage these shipping companies’ U.S. and EU business against the value of their trade with Syria. It also would increase the regime’s cost of shipping oil, which decreases profit margins. This move would make it more difficult for Syrian crude to reach Western and global markets. Shipping lines that don’t currently do business with the United States or the European Union could step in to haul the oil, but less competition would likely drive up the regime’s shipping costs.
5. Pressure Middle Eastern countries to hold back oil and petrodollar bailouts: Syria often turns to regional allies for crude oil, refined products, or charity when it’s in a bind, most notably Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Iran. In the years leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, for example, Syria bucked U.N. sanctions on Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to the tune of 200,000 BPD, which it received at a heavily discounted price (paid into accounts of Uday and Qusay Hussein with the Commercial Bank of Syria). In the 1990s, Saudi Arabia also invested petrodollars in Syria to help bail out the regime, efforts that in recent years have been taken over by Iran and Qatar.
In the face of the regime’s increasingly brutal crackdown, the United States should persuade Baghdad, Riyadh, and Doha to withhold support for Assad. It should also pressure Egypt and Jordan to cut gas supplies through the Arab Gas Pipeline, which terminates in Syria. The advantage of these moves is that it would narrow the regime’s bailout options. The downside, of course, is that it could push Assad further into the arms of Tehran, over which Washington has little leverage and with which Syria already has a strong relationship.
6. Target imported refined gasoline and diesel products: Syria became a net importer of oil four years ago — years ahead of industry estimates. Its two state-owned refineries cannot process Syria’s domestic heavy crude into enough diesel fuel and gasoline to satisfy rapidly increasing domestic demand. Thus, diesel is Syria’s Achilles’ heel: Everything from irrigation pumps to home furnaces to trucks burn diesel, which is heavily subsidized by the state. Meanwhile, Syria’s upper and middle classes rely much more on gasoline to fuel their automobiles. Take away these refined fuel imports and the people will get angry.
Yes, targeting either fuel is a blunt instrument and generally considered a “nuclear option.” It’s a tactic that should only be used at a critical moment, especially in response to a massacre. If used too soon, it could end up targeting the Syrian population as a whole, thus playing into the regime’s line of blaming the uprising on a U.S. “foreign interference,” which it did two weeks ago in response to Ambassador Robert Ford’s overnight visit to Hama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s words about Assad last week.
Thus far, some European allies have expressed “sanctions fatigue” as a result of Washington’s earlier effort to impose measures on Iran to change its behavior — a process that thus far has had mixed results. Over the last few months, the United States and the European Union have sanctioned a number of regime officials and affiliates responsible for the crackdown. Although these measures are useful, they will not go far enough to address the regime’s finances as a whole.
To overcome European reticence, the United States could start with pinpointed measures to mitigate the impact of sanctions on the Syrian people, widening their scope in tandem as necessary or as the regime’s crackdown unfolds. And it needn’t be set in stone: Washington and Brussels should adopt measures that can be easily undone in the event that the Assad regime collapses, allowing a quick reward for a transitional government in Damascus.
Although energy revenues don’t play as large a role in the Syrian economy as they did a decade ago, oil is still a determining factor in the politics of the Middle East. No matter what policy Washington and its allies choose, targeting Syrian energy would cut off a vital lifeline for Assad and help spur the transition to a more humane government for the Syrian people.
Andrew Tabler is the Next Generation fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of the forthcoming book In the Lion’s Den: An Eyewitness Account of Washington’s Battle with Syria.
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Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael Segall
Jerusalem Issue Briefs
Vol. 11, No. 9
20 July 2011
- Since the beginning of the protest wave against Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, Iran has backed Damascus and assisted it in both the security and propaganda aspects of its violent repression of the protests. Tehran charges that Syria is the victim of an attempt by the West, led by the United States, to overthrow the Assad regime, under cover of the “Arab Spring.”
- At the same time, Iran sees the “Arab Spring” or, as it calls it, the “Islamic awakening” as a golden opportunity to export Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution to the changing Arab world.
- Yet with the turmoil in Syria, Iran now finds itself confronting a real possibility of losing one of its most important allies. The fall of the Assad regime would likely undermine the resistance camp and break the continuity of the “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.
- Reports have emerged about elements of the Iranian IRGC’s Al-Quds Force (responsible for subversion and special operations outside of Iran), advisers from Iran’s domestic Law Enforcement Services, as well as Hizbullah men working throughout Syria to help Assad repress the popular protests. Iran also apparently provided Syria with advanced eavesdropping equipment which enables the identification of activists who converse by phone or use social networks on the Internet.
- Damascus occupies a pivotal point between the old Middle Eastern order and the new order that Iran is seeking to shape in keeping with its worldview. Syria’s special status in opposing a Pax Americana (a minority position among the Arab states) and having good relations with the two past superpowers of the Middle East – (Ottoman) Turkey and (Persian) Iran – is what gives it a key role in the region and perhaps explains (in part) the West’s reluctance to take a clear position, instead preferring a wait-and-see attitude toward the ongoing violent repression in Syria.
- The departure of Assad, the last of the brave Arab leaders who defy the West, and coming on the heels of Saddam Hussein’s downfall, would likely herald the end of the era of Arab nationalism and facilitate the formation of a new Arab and/or Islamic identity. In the shadow of the growing assertiveness of (Shiite) Iran and (Sunni) Turkey, both of which seek a great-power role, the Arab world finds itself divided and lacking any guiding paradigm as the old order falls apart.
Since the beginning of the protest wave against Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria, the Iranian regime has backed Damascus and assisted it in both the security and propaganda aspects of its violent repression of the protests. In contrast to its position on what it calls “the Muslim awakening in the Middle East and North Africa that draws inspiration from the Islamic Revolution” in Iran, Tehran does not view the Syrian protest and its violent repression as part of this phenomenon. It sees instead a desperate attempt by the West, led by the United States, to act under the pretext of this protest to overthrow the Assad regime, which constitutes part of the “resistance camp” against Western hegemony in the region.
Having gained experience from the violent (and so far successful) repression of the Iranian protest wave following the controversial elections of 2009, Iran is sending advisers from its domestic security body, the Law Enforcement Services (LEF), and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRCG) to help its ally and important member of the resistance camp stay afloat.
The Resistance Camp under Challenge
Despite their ongoing close ties, which are rooted in Syria’s backing of Iran in the Iran-Iraq War, Iran sees Syria as the weak link of the resistance camp. Iran is the leader of this camp, which also includes Hizbullah, which recently completed its takeover of Lebanon, and the Damascus-based Palestinian terror organizations (such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad). In Tehran’s view, the resistance camp is meant to constitute a “fighting alternative” to the Western agenda in the region with its partners, the moderate Arab states (the “moderate camp”). Iran seeks to weaken the West’s presence, influence, and power in the region, and to undermine the process of political accommodation in the region, particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere.
Concurrent with the upheaval experienced by Damascus are powerful domestic processes in Iran connected to generational shifts and the redefinition of the Islamic Revolution in more nationalistic terms. This is the context of the fierce internal power struggle between President Ahmadinejad and his supporters, and Supreme Leader Khamenei and the old religious establishment, with each side trying to overcome the other and diminish its powers.
At the same time, Iran sees the protest wave in North Africa and the Middle East as containing the potential for a more Islamic Middle East, necessitating renewed efforts to export the revolution beyond the borders of Iran. Iran sees the “Arab Spring” or, as it calls it, the “Islamic awakening” as a golden opportunity to export the Islamic Revolution of the Khomeini school to the changing Arab world and remake it in the image of that revolution. Yet with the turmoil in Syria, Iran now finds itself confronting a real possibility of losing one of its most important allies. The fall of the Assad regime would likely undermine the resistance camp and break the continuity of the “Shiite crescent” stretching from Iran through Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Thus, Iran is showing a profound determination to preserve Assad’s rule.
Assistance to Libya, the Taliban, and the Extremist Shiites in Iraq
Iran also fears possible intervention by NATO in Syrian territory (including via Turkey). It has harshly criticized the NATO forces’ activity in Libya “against a civilian population,” and in Iraq and Afghanistan as well. Tehran also provides weapons to elements that are fighting the alliance. Lately there have been several disclosures of weapons transfers to the Taliban in Afghanistan and to the extremist Shiites in Iraq, who threaten the stability of the political process and have killed many American soldiers and Sunni civilians.1
It was reported in Le Monde in July that the Al-Quds Force of the IRGC, which is responsible for subversion and special operations outside of Iran, is supplying weapons to Gaddafi’s forces in Libya so he can strike the “American-French-British axis of evil,” according to a direct order by Khamenei and against the opinion of Ahmadinejad.2
The Export of Surveillance and Security Equipment for Violent Repression
A short time after the disturbances in Syria began and with the mounting flow of Syrian refugees into Turkey, reports began to emerge about Iranian elements (“bearded and speaking substandard Arabic”) of the Al-Quds Force under the command of Qassem Suleimani, as well as Hizbullah men, working throughout Syria to repress the popular protest. An Iranian exile website wrote that the repression in Syria is being carried out by a Syrian contingent of the IRGC that has been operating in Syria, and has been responsible over time for military, intelligence, and logistical assistance to Hizbullah in Lebanon. With the outbreak of protest in Syria, the IRGC dispatched special emissaries, commanders of the Basij (volunteer forces of the IRGC that also repressed the uprising in Iran), to Damascus to help Assad.3
The Syrian security organizations, despite their ongoing, clandestine activities against opposition groups over the years, have avoided any hands-on attempts at repression of the wide-scale protests, which erupted simultaneously at several locales. Instead, here, too, they turned to Tehran, which was quite natural in light of the longstanding security cooperation between them. Moreover, a study by the International Crisis Group, which offers an in-depth analysis of the roots, characteristics, and trends of the protest (“the regime’s downfall is almost certain”), quotes a Syrian security official’s assertion that over time Iran has spread networks throughout the Syrian security organizations: “Iran has a big say in what is going on here more generally. They have made serious inroads with this president, unlike his father.”4
The Internet site of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria reported that the bodies of five Hizbullah activists were conveyed to Baalbek from Syria after they were shot by the Syrian army while firing at Syrian protesters.5 The opposition has posted numerous videos on the Internet where it claims that Hizbullah operatives took part in firing at the Syrian population,6 mocking Nasrallah’s statements that “Hizbullah is not involved in the events.”7 Videos also show protesters burning Hizbullah and Iranian flags and shouting “Allah Akbar,” “The people want the regime to fall,” and “No Iran and no Hizbullah.”8 Posters and books of Nasrallah were also set alight.9
Beyond the active involvement of Iranian elements in the repression, it was reported that Iran also provided Syria with logistical equipment, sniper rifles of its own make, and advanced Nokia Siemens Networks (NSN)10 devices for disrupting Internet activity, which allow the identification of activists who converse by phone or use the social networks on the Internet. Iran has accumulated great experience in the use of such equipment for monitoring sensitive events (religious and national holidays, student days, various remembrance days), the mapping and detention of activists, the infiltration of social networks, the blocking of sites, and the dismantling of cellular networks. Recently, after an in-depth inquiry using open sources, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined that Iran had not been sold equipment for “monitoring, filtering, and disrupting information and communications flows.” It also stated, among other things, that while NSN had in the past sold Iran technology for its cellular telephone network, “Iran’s need to obtain monitoring and filtering technology from outside sources may be lessening as it develops indigenous censorship and surveillance capabilities, possibly in response to sanctions against Western companies selling it sensitive technology.”11 If so, and given the longstanding security cooperation in sensitive security areas, it was easier for Iran to transfer such systems to Syria (which could also use them for surveillance of Israel).
After the repression of the protest in Iran, some Iranians boycotted NSN and even sued it for selling listening and monitoring equipment to the Iranian government, which led to the arrest of many Iranians who used cellular phones and social networks. The company admitted that in 2008 it had sold Iran a monitoring system called the Lawful Interception Management System (LIMS).12 Nobel Prize winner and human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, who is subject along with her family to persecution by the Iranian authorities, accused NSN of funneling equipment, technology, and software for monitoring cellular phones and SMS messages to the repressive Iranian regime, which used these for the surveillance and detention of demonstrators.13 Some Tehran residents have vandalized Nokia advertisements and splashed them with green paint – the color of the reform movement in Iran.14
Reformist elements in Iran have criticized Iranian aid to the Syrian president. The reformist religious figure Ayatollah Dastgheib condemned the outsourcing of “the national wealth of Iran to Syria and wasting it on the repression of the Syrian people, instead of providing this aid to the Iranian people themselves.”15
Pointing the Finger at Iran
As information accumulated on involvement by Iran and/or elements under its sponsorship in repressing the Syria protest, the European Union on June 23 imposed sanctions against the leadership of the IRGC and certain Syrian security elements. The Council of the European Union charged that IRGC commander Mohammad Ali Jafari, Al-Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani, and IRGC deputy commander for intelligence Hussein Taeb “were involved in providing equipment and support to help the Syria regime suppress protests in Syria.”16
On June 29, the U.S. Treasury Department named Ismail Ahmadi Moghadam and Ahmad-Reza Radan, chief and deputy chief, respectively, of the LEF, pursuant to Executive Order 13572 of April 2011 on “Blocking Property of Certain Persons with Respect to Human Rights Abuses in Syria.”17 “In April 2011, Radan traveled to Damascus, where he met with Syrian security services and provided expertise to aid in the Syrian government’s crackdown on the Syrian people. The LEF has provided material support to the Syrian General Intelligence Directorate and dispatched personnel to Damascus in April to assist the Syrian government in suppressing the Syrian people.”18 In September 2010, the U.S. listed Radan in the annex to Executive Order 13553, which targets those responsible for or complicit in serious human rights abuses in Iran since the June 2009 disputed presidential elections. In June 2011, the U.S. designated the LEF and Moghadam pursuant to this executive order.19
Along with military, technical, and intelligence assistance, Iran has sided with Syria on the political-propaganda level and supported its policy and responses to growing Western pressure. A French newspaper, Les Echos, quoted the Center for Strategic Research, which is under Khamenei’s authority, as saying Iran had transferred emergency equipment to Syria totaling about $6 billion.20 Essentially, Iran is fully committed to helping Syria. The most senior Iranian echelon, including the supreme leader and the president, has backed the Syrian president’s legitimacy and handling of the crisis. Iran also harshly criticized “the hypocritical involvement of the West, particularly the United States, in Syria’s internal affairs,” while repeatedly emphasizing that the disturbances in Syria, which “were instigated by the West,” were fundamentally different from the “Islamic awakening” throughout the Middle East and North Africa and were aimed at weakening the resistance camp. The Iranian press, too, was harnessed to the propaganda effort, and its headlines trumpeted support for Assad while praising his “wisdom” and “brave and clever” speeches, which were highly reminiscent of Ahmadinejad’s speeches after the elections, with their disdain toward the opposition and blaming mainly foreign elements for the protests and for attempting to stir up sedition.
Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stated:
The events in Syria are fundamentally different in nature from those occurring in the other countries of the Middle East. By trying to simulate in Syria the events that occurred in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya, the Americans are trying to create problems for Syria, a country that is on the path of resistance….The Islamic awakening in the regional countries is anti-Zionist and anti-American in nature….America and Israel are clearly involved in the events in Syria….The movement of the people of Bahrain is similar to the movement of the people of Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen, and there is no sense in distinguishing between these similar movements.21
Ahmad Musavi, Iran’s ambassador to Syria, praised the Iranian media in general and Iran’s Mehr news agency in particular for giving
appropriate and accurate media coverage to the events occurring in the region….The news agencies that are connected to world imperialism and Zionism are distorting the reality of the revolutions in the region. The slaughter and repression of civilians in Bahrain, and the slaughter of the Syrian police and security people, gets no coverage in the Western media or in the regional media that are controlled by the West. Instead, mendacious films are disseminated in the world concerning the developments in Syria.22
Other Iranian officials and media also emphasized these claims.23
On July 10 the IRGC published an announcement condemning the visit of U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford to the city of Hama, claiming that, in light of the sensitive situation in Syria and the attempt by different groups in the country to launch a national dialogue, this visit constituted gross interference in Syria’s internal affairs. The IRGC accused the United States of taking a misleading and hypocritical position in a desperate attempt to rehabilitate its status in the region, which had eroded thanks to its protracted involvement and hegemonic policy. The IRGC called the U.S. ambassador’s visit to Hama a “dangerous step” intended to “normalize” foreign involvement in the internal affairs of other countries and compromise the national sovereignty of governments.24
Iran also tried to get Russia to help calm the winds in Syria. At the end of June, Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov met with the Iranian ambassador in Russia to discuss the situation in Syria, at the ambassador’s request. The Iranian ambassador also met with Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Borodavkin.25 The Russian Foreign Ministry announced that the two sides called to stabilize the situation there as quickly as possible.26
Restructuring Relations in the Fragile Turkey-Iran-Syria Triangle
Turkey’s evolving critical attitude toward the events in Syria has fostered Turkish-Iranian tensions. Iran, for its part, is critical of Turkey’s position and its disapproval of Assad’s conduct, and several Iranian editorials and opinion articles have called on Turkey to “return to the resistance camp” in the region.27 This criticism has again brought to the surface the longstanding rivalry between Iran and Turkey, and particularly Tehran’s fear of Turkey’s membership in NATO and the alliance’s large bases in Turkey. Recently Iran’s Majlis (Parliament) Research Center stated that NATO’s defense shield in Turkey should be viewed as a threat to Iran.28
Some of the articles, including in the newspaper Kayhan, which reflects the view of Khamenei, have also implicitly threatened Turkey that if it does not change its new anti-Syrian stance, it is likely to find itself encountering both domestic and foreign criticism and challenges from various religious and ethnic groups that seek good relations with Iran, Syria, and Iraq, and facing a decline in its regional status. It has also been written in the Iranian press that, given the Arab peoples’ bitter memory of the Ottoman period, Turkey cannot play an independent role in the Islamic world and must cooperate with Iran rather than adopt the positions of the West.29 At the time of the Turkish foreign minister’s mid-July visit to Iran that focused on the crisis in Syria, the IRGC’s weekly newspaper harshly criticized Turkey for “standing with the United States.” The paper warned that if Turkey, which thinks Assad’s fall would promote its regional aspirations, should continue on the course of escalation, Iran would be forced to choose between Turkey and Syria and “undoubtedly the strategic interests and ideology of Iran will lead to the choice of Syria.”30 In a similar spirit, a commentary carried by the semiofficial Fars news agency, which is identified with Ahmadinejad, accused the Turkish government under the headline: “Did the Turkish People Expect Their Government to Implement the Policy of the United States and Israel?”31
The Iranian Khabar-online site wrote that the expansion of Turkey’s influence in the Middle East was carried out in full agreement with (Sunni) Saudi Arabia, and that the media clash between Prime Minister Erdogan and President Shimon Peres, which made Erdogan the “Rambo” of the Middle East, along with the flotilla to Gaza, were aimed at enabling Turkey to augment its influence in the Arab world. These events gave Turkey an opportunity to intervene in the revolutions in the Arab countries, including the one in Syria, to the discomfiture of Iran.32
The ongoing protest in Syria has indeed recalibrated the delicate triangle of relations, which had not yet fully developed in any case, between Ankara, Damascus, and Tehran and proves, again, that the movement of the Middle Eastern tectonic plates under the impact of the protest wave has not yet ended.
The Iranian assistance to Syria also accords with the emergence of the Sunni-Shiite divide, as represented mainly by Saudi Arabia and Iran. These two are waging a kind of Cold War across the Middle East (with Iran also supporting the Shiite rebels in Yemen and Bahrain). Thus, just as Saudi Arabia aided the Bahraini kingdom, where a Sunni minority rules over a Shiite majority, Iran has assisted its Alawite-Shiite ally Syria.
Hizbullah, whose situation and stances constitute a sort of mirror image of its patron, Iran, has sided – as dictated by Iran – with the repressive Syrian regime. As a result, it is forfeiting much of the esteem it had built up among the Syrian population (and elsewhere in the Arab world) by fighting Israel. Nasrallah has sided with the protesters and against the regime in (Shiite-majority) Bahrain, Libya, and Egypt.
Unlike developments in Tunisia and Egypt, the events in Syria are likely to have far-reaching repercussions on the reshaping of the Middle East. The regime stands at a strategic crossroad regarding almost all the core issues of the Middle East and is also part of a broader struggle which constitutes another element of the Sunni-Shiite Cold War. Damascus also plays a direct (and negative) influence on the peace process and provides a safe haven to all the rejectionist Palestinian terror organizations (Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, PFLP-GC) that oppose the Palestinian Authority and the peace process. Moreover, Syria is a fundamental member-state of the resistance camp, which is led by Iran and is central to the division between the anti-American axis and the moderate Arab camp. Finally, in general, Damascus has maintained a unique status in the Arab world as the last of the Baath regimes, and in having enjoyed good relations with Turkey and Iran, the two powerful, non-Arab, former-empire actors in the region that are striving to regain their old status.
Damascus also occupies a pivotal point between the old Middle Eastern order and the new order that Iran is seeking to shape in keeping with its worldview. Syria’s special status in opposing a Pax Americana (a minority position among the Arab states) and having good relations with the two past superpowers of the Middle East – (Ottoman) Turkey and (Persian) Iran – is what gives it a key role in the region and perhaps explains (in part) the West’s reluctance to take a clear position, instead preferring a wait-and-see attitude toward the ongoing violent repression in Syria.
The departure of Assad, the last of the brave Arab leaders who defy the West, and coming on the heels of Saddam Hussein’s downfall, would likely herald the end of the era of Arab nationalism and facilitate the formation of a new Arab and/or Islamic identity. In the shadow of the growing assertiveness of (Shiite) Iran and (Sunni) Turkey, both of which seek a great-power role, the Arab world finds itself divided and lacking any guiding paradigm as the old order falls apart.
The repression of the protest in Syria has cut into the unity of the resistance camp, which has seen a central political component – Syria – undermined. This camp has recently absorbed a number of shocks (along with some achievements that may turn out to be temporary, such as Hizbullah’s taking control of the Lebanese government). Senior figures in Hizbullah have been implicated for the Hariri assassination. Hamas has been harmed by Assad’s attempt to exploit the Palestinians via the Nakba and Naksa events as a means to divert attention from Syrian domestic repression. And secular Palestinian organizations such as the PFLP-GC that are sheltered in Damascus have found themselves on the defensive as residents of the Palestinian refugee camps have protested the use of their relatives and friends as Nakba and Naksa tools.
With Syria being the main conduit for missiles and rockets to Hizbullah in Lebanon, Assad’s fall might be expected to particularly impact on continued logistical support to the movement. However, the IRGC’s aerospace commander, Amir Ali Hagizadeh, who was its main spokesman during live-fire exercises for ground-to-ground missiles, rocket artillery, and surface-to-sea missiles in July,33 said Iran has devoted much effort and planning to ensure that, once hostilities broke out, it would be able to supply Hizbullah with all the missiles it needed without relying on other countries.34
At present it appears that Iran is mobilizing all the means at its disposal to protect its strategic ally Syria. At the same time, it is probably already examining ways to retain its influence over a post-Assad Syria, and it may come to view Iraq, after U.S. forces withdraw, as a fitting alternative for its ongoing subversive activity in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.
During a July visit to Iraq by U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, he again emphasized his great concern over the growing Iranian involvement in arming the extremist Shiite militias with EFPs, explosively formed penetrators. In a similar vein, Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iran was directly involved in assistance to terror groups that are causing the deaths of American soldiers.35 The increased Iranian aid to the Shiite insurgents in Iraq could be aimed at signaling to the United States the likely price of the loss of Syria. It should be emphasized that in the past, too, Iran boosted assistance to the Iraqi insurgents in line with political developments in the region.
Iran may still have more cards to play when it comes to helping Syria. It tried to heat up the Israeli-Syrian border twice – on Nakba Day on May 15 and again on Naksa Day on June 5 – in a bid to divert attention from the Syrian domestic arena. Recently, Lebanon, whose government is under Hizbullah influence, has been raising the issue of the maritime oil and gas fields claimed by Israel, perhaps in an attempt to foment a regional crisis that would, again, divert attention from the repression in Syria.
A Second (and Last) Opportunity for Obama
The U.S. president again faces an opportunity to intervene and influence the reshaping of the Middle East. This could involve removing or at least greatly weakening the heart of the “Axis of Evil” – Iran – which leads the camp of those opposing U.S. policy in the region and seeking to undermine the moderate Arab states (and the Palestinian Authority).
The U.S. administration, which already squandered one opportunity to influence the reshaping of the Middle East when it failed to support the protesters in Iran, is again showing hesitancy precisely when it has another golden opportunity to overturn a main domino of the resistance camp, which would negatively affect Iran and Hizbullah. Obama’s statement that Assad is “losing legitimacy in the eyes of his people” represents another step on the way to changing the U.S. position toward the Syrian regime.36
Jackson Diehl, writing in the Washington Post on June 20, concludes: “The damage to U.S. interests from a UN resolution on Palestine would pale compared to the consequences of an Iranian-backed victory by Assad in Syria or the failure of NATO in Libya.”37
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4. “Popular Protest in North Africa and the Middle East, VII: The Syrian Regime’s Slow-Motion Suicide,” Middle East/North Africa Report No. 109, July 13, 2011.
10. Ha’aretz, June 22, 2011.
23. Iran’s former ambassador to China, Dr. Javad Mansouri, said:
Several Western states are trying to ride the popular protest wave and exploit it as a cover for settling old accounts in certain places. Specifically, this is the case in Syria, where the role of the external stimuli is much greater than the role of the popular protests against the government. In other words, unlike other countries of the region, the popular nature of the uprising in Syria is overshadowed by external players that have been seeking to topple the Syrian government for a long time…. The situation in Syria is quite different than the situation in other countries of the region because the United States and Israel are directly interfering in the current crisis, but in other countries, the role of the people has been more important from the very beginning.
The IRGC’s bulletin wrote:
Imperialism was surprised and, fearing the Islamic awakening in the region, tried to contain it. After the fall of the regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, the West understood that it had to manipulate the events so they would serve its own interests. Thus Syria became the natural candidate for this activity. First they infiltrated money and satellite media into Syria, then they engaged in incitement and agitation. They armed Syrian groups and stirred up armed clashes between the citizens….The Zionist regime, which had experienced failures against Hizbullah and Hamas and blamed Iran and Syria for these failures because of their support for these organizations, wanted to create a crisis so as to weaken the resistance camp in the region and pressure Bashar Assad to carry out significant reforms in Syria and, among other things, sever his ties with Iran, end the assistance to Hizbullah, and expel the Palestinian organizations. Indeed, an international front was established to promote the plot against Syria, a front that was composed of the United States, world Zionism, the March 14 movement, “the mercenary forces of the King of Jordan,” the Gulf Cooperation Council [GCC], and the Saudi Bandar bin Sultan. Iran’s posture toward the events in Syria was the most appropriate and wise one because there is no real revolution in Syria but instead a fabricated crisis. If it had been a real revolt of the Syrian people to uproot corruption, dictatorship, and dependency on the United States and the Zionists, Iran would have had no fear of supporting such a revolution. But the Assad regime is interested in reforms and, compared to the other regimes, its dependency on the United States and on Zionism is at the most minimal level possible.
The conservative newspaper Siyasat-e Ruz wrote:
The United States is trying to weaken Iran by exerting pressure on Syria through various tactics; on the one hand the United States is interested in engaging Iran through dialogue on the nuclear issue, but at the same time it is trying to isolate it by intervening in Syria’s internal affairs.
Siyasat-e Ruz, July 4, 2011.
27. Hemayat, June 27, 2011.
31. Fars news agency, June 23, 2011.
32. Khabar-online, June 25, 2011.
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IDF Lt. Col. (ret.) Michael (Mickey) Segall, an expert on strategic issues with a focus on Iran, terrorism, and the Middle East, is a senior analyst at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.