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What the Hell Should We Do About Syria?

Talk to Iran.
May 31, 2012 |
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The massacre in al-Houla, where Syrian military forces and allied militiamen massacred more than 100 civilians in cold blood, leaves no doubt about the intentions of President Bashar al-Assad's regime: survival at any cost and through any means. Assad does not have a Plan B.

While the United States and its Western partners remain publicly wedded to a toolbox of diplomacy, sanctions, and pressure to force Assad out of power, he responds with escalating violence. And it will only get worse: As long as Assad remains in power, more horrific massacres will follow. As long as Assad and his military elites believe they can win this fight, they will not relent, and defections from the senior brass -- whether out of loyalty or fear -- will remain minimal. The steady flow of Russian weapons and Iran's financial and military assistance reinforce their calculus.

Assad is digging in for a long fight. As the struggle goes on, the regional implications of Syria's crisis will increasingly become a complicating factor. Sunni-Shia sectarian tensions are already at a boiling point next door in Lebanon.

The Syrian opposition is also becoming more militarized, and will grow increasingly lethal with time. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are providing the weapons that are transiting through Turkey. According to recent news reports, the United States is playing a coordinating role in this process, vetting rebel groups to make sure the weapons do not fall into the wrong hands.

But don't expect this influx of arms to be a game-changer: The weapons being shipped to the Free Syrian Army do not present a serious challenge to the regime's military arsenal. They will neither serve a deterrent function nor prompt the senior brass to recalculate the long-term costs of their support for Assad. At best, the weapons will help prolong this fight.

Nor does the international climate provide much reason for hope. Russia and Iran, Assad's two principal patrons, are not ready yet to abandon the Syrian regime; they do not yet believe Assad's rule is in danger. And though the West might be overestimating Russia's sway over the Syrian leadership, it is deliberately ignoring Iran's influence in Syria. For now, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei stands firmly behind Assad.

Over the years, the Iranian leadership has nurtured contacts and relationships inside Syria's Alawite community, particularly with senior Alawite figures in the security and intelligence services. They have a good feel for the dynamics inside this community. Whether the Iranian regime is ready to be part of a deal to unseat Assad remains unclear, but the fact that an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps official has recently publicly admitted to the presence of elite Iranian forces in Syria is partly intended to send the message that a NATO-led military intervention in Syria will be costly. It is also a signal to the international community that any future deal in Syria must involve Iran.

During the recent discussions in Baghdad between the global powers and Iran, the United States rejected an Iranian proposal to add Syria and Bahrain to the discussion agenda. It might be worth pursuing this proposal at the next round of talks in Moscow. Time and again, Iranian senior officials have stressed the need for a political resolution to the Syrian crisis. They have been reaching out to different groups in the Syrian opposition. As the Western community keeps searching for a political solution in Syria, Iran might have some ideas about how to bring it about.