Syria: Is Iran Abandoning the Syrian Dictatorship's Ship?

By Barry Rubin

Here’s an interesting mystery of the day: Why are Iranian leaders starting to criticize their close ally, Syria, and imply that the regime there needs to make reforms or even leave office altogether?

There are three theories:

--This represents a split among Iran’s rulers on what to do about Syria. I don’t see evidence of that.

--Iran is worried about being isolated from Sunni Muslims, who are the large majority in the region, since this group is overwhelmingly supporting revolution in Syria. By being seen as too Shia Muslim, Iran’s regime could lose its bid to be the leader of revolutionary Islamism in the Middle East. Already, Hamas, the Palestinian Sunni Islamist group, has come out against the Syrian regime and is moving into the Egyptian (Muslim Brotherhood) orbit. That argument makes sense.

--Iran’s leaders think that the regime of dictator-President Bashar al-Assad is going to fall and don’t want to be on the losing side. That argument makes sense also. Let’s remember that Iran has good intelligence assets in Syria so they would know what they are talking about. Two months ago, Israeli intelligence changed its assessment to predict Assad’s downfall.

This could take some time and I would expect Assad to remain in power into 2012. The Syrian military can go on like this for some time. Remember that the Syrian elite believes that to lose power would mean their deaths and their families’ impoverishment. The Alawites—and probably many of the Christians—fear communal violence against them if the Sunni Muslim moderates or Islamists (or both) come to power.

So for the regime to fall, the Syrian military and the regime’s militia would have to collapse, be militarily defeated, or split. And those things won’t happen easily. If the revolution goes on long enough this might be invitable. But, unfortunately, a lot more people are going to die before that takes place.