Iran has saved Bashar Assad (for now)
The details emerging over the last few days can leave little doubt that the active campaign of support by the Iranian regime has ensured that Assad will remain the absolute ruler of Syria for the foreseeable future.
The ongoing debate for and against international intervention in Syria has been rendered obsolete by the mounting evidence that at least one nation has already very much intervened. The details emerging over the last few days can leave little doubt that the active campaign of support by the Iranian regime has ensured that President Bashar Assad will remain the absolute ruler of Syria for the foreseeable future.
An interview Friday with Major General Yair Golan, who heads the IDF Northern Command, is particularly interesting since it is the most detailed account any serving Israeli officer has given on how Israel sees the Syrian uprising since it broke out fourteen months ago. Despite Defense Minister Ehud Barak's confident assertions recently that Assad would be toppled "within a matter of weeks,"
Maj.-Gen. Golan, who has ultimate responsibility for the Syrian border within the IDF, said that, "It will take long months. Last October, we said it would take another year and a half and I think we underestimated that. In my opinion it will take even longer… I believe it will carry on into 2013." Ultimately, says Golan, "Assad will be overcome by an accumulation of defections, of reluctance to enlist, financial hardships and erosion of the senior leadership but these processes do not take place overnight."
In Golan's opinion, among the reasons Assad is hanging on is the fact that the Syrian opposition has yet to coalesce into a united front and above all, due to the direct Iranian support and its support through Hezbollah, who are "advising, training and I assess, also fighting. They are involved up to their necks." He says that the Iranian arms shipments are "all the time, in a constant continuing effort. The Iranians are saying to Assad – 'listen, you are dear to us' and supporting him with great vigor. Part of the Syrian regime's resilience is derived from the fact that Assad feels he still has support in the region, overseas and at the super-power level.
When he looks outside, he says to himself, I have Hezbollah here helping. I have the Iranians who are supporting me, and in the background there are China and Russia."
I asked a senior IDF officer with extensive intelligence experience this week why they were predicting Assad's swift downfall a few months ago and are now saying he may have another couple of years in his power. "We didn't think the Syrian Army would stay with him," he answered. "We saw thousands of defections, including of some quite senior officers and thought that it would continue and Assad would be lost without military support. But the great majority of the army and the generals are still with him because they feel that they have no alternative, since no-one else is stepping in. And of course, the Iranians are still supporting Assad which makes the generals believe that he can still survive. The generals don't love Assad, but as long as he has the Iranians, they will stick with him."
And that support is being stepped up, as reported by Amos Harel in Haaretz on Friday, who, relying on Western and Israeli intelligence sources, reports that Iranians have given Syrian security forces training in the use of aerial reconnaissance drones and that Hezbollah members have been killed, fighting in Assad's service. This week I spoke to a Syrian opposition figure that recently left the country, who said that "there are Hezbollah elements among the Syrian regime forces and also Iranian special forces and the Iranians are giving tactical support." The Wall Street Journal, in a profile this week of Iran' Qods Force commander Major-General Qasem Soleimani has additional details of four Iranian cargo planes carrying munitions to Damascus in February and backing up this are the claims made in an interview this week to Al-Jazeera by fugitive Iraqi vice president Tariq al-Hashemi that his country's Shia-dominated government has opened up an air corridor over its territory for such flights. All this does rather make a mockery of the Iranian protests against foreign interference in Syria's affairs.