U.S. Aid to Syrian Rebels Is a Signal to Iran

In what was clearly an officially-sanctioned leak, the U.S. sent Iran a clear message just a few days before the next round of Iran-West nuclear talks in Baghdad.

The word Iran appears only once in Wednesday's report in the Washington Post on American assistance to rebel forces in Syria, which includes coordination of larger and much improved arms shipments. That mention was buried at the end of the long piece, almost as an aside - but Tehran's address is written all over the report.

Administration sources emphasized to the Post that it's not material aid either, the money and arms are coming from the Sunni Gulf states. What the U.S. is providing is "assessments of rebel credibility and command-and-control infrastructure" for the Gulf arms suppliers. Or in other words, America is the go-between, the crucial link ensuring that the most useful weaponry goes through to where the rebels need it most.

Since it's not clear when the American aid began and from the wording of the report, it is clear that this was an officially-sanctioned leak, accurately timed to come out just a few days before senior American diplomats and other representatives of the five permanent Security Council members and Germany are to meet with a senior Iranian delegation in Baghdad.

The Syrian rebellion has been ongoing now for fourteen months, in the course of which anywhere between 10,000-25,000 Syrians have been killed, at least three-quarters of them civilians. Arms have been coming in, financed by the Saudis and other Gulf governments, earlier in a trickle but now apparently flowing, for most of that time. Until now the Obama administration has been observing a hands-off policy, denouncing President Bashar Assad and calling upon him to leave, but doing nothing to actually make that happen.

So why has the administration decided just now, not only to provide "nonlethal assistance" to the Syrian opposition, but also to announce it? The administration officials speaking with the Post went a step forward and reported that there were also discussions being held with leaders of the Kurdish community in eastern Syria, who have so far remained mainly on the uprising's sidelines. One of the ideas apparently floated in these talks was the possibility of opening up a "second-front," forcing Assad to split the forces still loyal to his regime and send part of them far away from Syria's urban centers.

Assuming that nothing by now is going to force Assad out of power of his own free will, and the Gulf states obviously already know that the Americans are cooperating with them, the only player whom the administration is sending this message to is Iran - probably the country with the most to lose if and when the Assad regime goes down, taking with it a critical link in their strategic Shia chain of allies, which now includes also Iraq and Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon.

Assad's downfall will not only mean the loss of an ally and the strategic "depth" that enabled Hezbollah to train and store advanced weaponry far away and relatively safe from Israel. It will serve as a major encouragement to the anti-regime elements within Iran, largely dormant for over two years since the suppression of the Green Revolution.

What is the administration hoping to gain from this signal to Tehran?

Are they hoping that the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will finally realize that the noose is beginning to tighten, and give up on the dream of nuclear weapons along with Iran's strategic vision of a Shia crescent stretching across the Middle East? Hardly likely. But could Barack Obama be playing a much more Machiavellian game?

In its desire to prevent a war in the Persian Gulf, would the administration be willing to forego even this limited assistance to the Syrian opposition, in return for some flexibility over the uranium?

Syrian rebels May 12, 2012 (AP)