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The Ajami Blog | Does Tehran Hold the Key to Syria?

by RASHA ELASS

10 Apr 2012 03:41Comments
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Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in February 2010.

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Rasha Elass covered the Middle East for Reuters and The National, among others. Her reportage on Islam has been recognized by the Cornell Religion Reporter award committee. She is currently writing a memoir about Syria, where she was born. Ajami, which means "Persian" in Arabic, is a blog about the role of Iran in the Arab world today.
[ blog ] The deadline for the U.N.-brokered agreement to stop the Syrian government's ongoing crackdown on opposition enclaves has arrived. But it is increasingly clear that the Assad regime has no plans to hold up its end of the bargain.

With Iran a major player in the Syrian conflict, should the next step in containing the crisis in Syria include diplomacy with Tehran?

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad agreed last week to withdraw heavy weaponry from civilian areas. Kofi Annan, the U.N.-Arab League peace envoy, brokered the agreement, and said that Assad agreed to an April 10 deadline.

But so far there is no sign of military withdrawals from densely populated Syrian towns and cities. The Assad regime now says it wants certain conditions met before it withdraws. It wants the disarmament of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a loosely organized group composed mainly of defectors from the Syrian army. It also wants written assurances from Saudi Arabia and Qatar that they will stop funding the opposition.

These are difficult conditions to meet. The FSA is not a cohesive entity, and its members are scattered all over Syria, with little communication between each other or with its leadership, which is based largely in Turkey.

And while Saudi Arabia has openly said it is now arming the FSA, and in theory could reverse itself in that regard, it would be difficult to fulfill any pledge to entirely stop funding the opposition.

The reason is that millions of dollars are already entering Syria for humanitarian reasons, be it from the Saudi Arabia and Qatar governments or ordinary citizens. This includes hundreds of thousands of dollars from expatriate communities in the United States alone. Much of this money, sent through U.S.-registered nonprofits, goes toward medical and other daily needs of families affected by the regime's brutal crackdown on the rebellion. It is too easy for the Assad regime to claim this money is supporting the opposition, and use it as an excuse to nullify Syria's agreement with Annan.

This point is not lost on those in the know, like Brazilian diplomat Paulo Pinheiro, who is chairing a U.N. inquiry into the Syrian conflict. He said the demands made by Syria were almost "impossible" to meet.

So, now that the Assad regime is once again reneging on what it said it will do, what's next?

Some say the key is with Tehran. There are rumors that Annan might be headed there this week.

Iran has been a major player in the Syrian crisis, both militarily and financially. There are even reports that Tehran will purchase Syrian bonds to help keep the Assad regime afloat.

Former Syrian Deputy Oil Minister Abdo Hossam al-Din, who defected in March and now resides in Turkey, said at the "Friends of Syria" summit held earlier this month in Istanbul,

The regime is selling bonds to cover a deficit in the Syrian budget, and to cover the cost of the war that is has launched for the past year against the Syrian people. The regime is now in the middle of negotiations with China, to sell it bonds in the amount of $10 billion, and with Russia and Iran to sell them bonds of $5 billion each.

Syria's economy has been under immense pressure, partly from the E.U. and Arab League embargos that went into effect earlier this year, and partly because of internal pressure that diverts resources toward the government military apparatus to support the crackdown.

Hossam al-Din added that money has also been coming from unverified sources in Iraq, another Iran-friendly Arab state.

"Millions of dollars came from an Iraqi company to the Syrian Central bank, which initially did not approve the transaction because it did not know the source of the funds," he said.

"But orders came from the highest [Syrian] ranks to accept these funds, and hence they were accepted."

Militarily, it is also hardly a secret that Iran is increasing its support of Damascus.

An article published by the Wall Street Journal this month details secret talks between Iran's top elite forces commander and Damascus. The authors, Jay Solomon and Siobhan Gorman, say the meeting took place in January, and "Iranian jets ferrying munitions to Syria" followed in February.

There are also numerous reports, some difficult to verify, in the Arab media and blogosphere of the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards on the ground in Syria.

One such report that aired on the Saudi-owned satellite channel Al Arabiya included an interview with one Akil Hashem, who claimed he was a retired Syrian Army officer.

"Foreign forces, specifically from Iran, are training Assad's army," he said.

Another report, published on the website all4syria, which was integral in leaking the embarrassing Assad emails, quotes an anonymous source from a military distribution center in Damascus saying, "Each day that anti-regime demonstrations take to the street in rebel zones, we receive more than 50 four-wheel drives with personnel from Hezbollah and Iran. They assemble PKS automatic weapons and load them with ammunition, and from there it is distributed and sent to the troubled areas."

Social media and YouTube are rife with alleged pictures of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in Syria, like this one, which claims they were captured by the Free Syrian Army.

Regardless of the true physical extent of the Iranian presence in Syria, there is little doubt that Tehran is intertwined in the Syrian crisis. There is little doubt, too, that Tehran will not abandon Assad and risk losing an integral ally and unfettered access to Hezbollah, its proxy in Lebanon.

Any diplomacy with Tehran will have to take these factors into account.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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