Iranian rhetoric on Syria reflects their lack of options
Iran ramps up rhetoric, after it seems to have exhausted all other options to back Bashar Assad.
One may have expected Bashar Assad's only ally in the region to be a little less voluble in a week in which the world has discovered at least two horrific massacres, on top of the ongoing carnage in Syria.
Instead, the Iranians have ramped up their rhetoric. A senior Revolutionary Guards officer admitted on Sunday for the first time that the Qods Force is active in Syria (though the interview was taken off the ISNA website after a few hours), and on Wednesday Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani threatened that if the west intervenes militarily in Syria, the violence "will spread into Palestine and the ashes of such flame will definitely bury the Zionist regime."
In an interview I made with a senior Syrian opposition figure last week, he detailed the scale of the assistance Iran is currently giving Assad in his attempts to crush the uprising now going on for sixteen months.
“Among other things, they have brought aerial drones that assist Assad’s forces with surveillance," the opposition leader, who former officer in the Syrian army said. "They also opened up a slush fund with millions of dollars to help Assad buy more arms from the Russians. In the past, the Soviet Union sold Syria arms on credit, now they are demanding cash up-front on all arms deals and the money is coming from Tehran."
But he also said that "there is a limit to how much Iran will do to help Syria. They won’t send in army units to save him because they know this will be a cause for Israel to attack them."
Over decades during which Iraq was a country with a large and powerful army, Israeli governments made it clear that if Iraqi units would enter the Hashemite Kingdom, it would be seen as an act of war. That was mainly due to the length of Israel's border with Jordan and the difficulty of defending it against a ground attack.
Israel certainly would not be happy to see Iranian forces in a neighboring country but the border with Syria on the Golan Heights is much shorter and easier to defend.
As it is, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of officers of the Qods Force, are permanently stationed in Lebanon and for at least a year now, also in Syria. Their presence is not one of the main factors in Israel's deliberations whether or not to attack Iran.
Fear of Israel is not the only reason why Iran would be reluctant to send whole military units to Syria's aid. There is the logistical problem – the two countries do not share a border, and any Iranian reinforcement would have to go through Iraq.
The Shia-dominated government in Baghdad is currently well-disposed towards Iran but they may well balk at letting through forces en route to a bloody repression of Arab civilians.
And then there is the PR angle. Iran crowed and gloated when its arch-rival Hosni Mubarak was toppled at the start of the Arab Spring and have since been executing rhetoric gymnastics to justify its support of Assad under much worse circumstances.
But even Ahmadinejad will find it impossible to sell a full-fledged intervention against the Sunni population of Syria.
Tehran seems to have exhausted its entire range of options when it comes to propping up Assad. All they have left now is rhetoric.