When Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made his surprise visit to Damascus, last month, rumors spread over Tehran’s real intentions: whether it was as innocent as to wish the Syrian president godspeed on his second inauguration occasion. Or was a secret meeting shoring up a common strategy against Israel?
New intelligence assessments, currently circulating among Mid East experts now suspect, that the real reason behind Ahmadinejad’s visit, was to warn his Syrian friend against taking any evasive action on the mutual strategic alliance, which lately seems to be undergoing growing uncertainties.
Tehran’s concerns must have increased, following United Nations’ special envoy Michael Williams’ visit, who claimed that: “The impression I got from my visit to Damascus was that if there was progress in terms of establishing a peace track, then we would see some changes in Syrian behavior on the three issues, Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.” Indeed, there were already several alarm bells ringing in Tehran, over persistent rumors that secret talks existed between Jerusalem and Damascus over a renewed peace initiative, mediated by Ankara.
The Turkish capital seems to have become a key venue for secret negotiations on critical strategic issues in the region. A recent shift in Turkish foreign policy has already emerged in the Turkish-Iranian rapprochement over a multi-billion gas and energy deal energy. But there may be more at stake here, than meets the eye. Washington is already concerned over this new rapprochement between its first NATO partner and Ahmadinejad’s rogue regime in Tehran. There are reports that Turkish and Iranian officials are quietly cooperating against separatist Kurds, which are causing both countries growing security headaches.
Could it be that Ahmadinejad will use his new relations with Turkey, to outflank any Syrian disloyally to Tehran’s strategic ambitions?
The shrewd Shi’ite president may well regard the present “sabre rattling” moves by Israel and Syria as mere camouflage, hiding real interest of Bashar Assad in joining the forming anti-Shi’ite axis, led by Saudi Arabia. This US sponsored initiative, which was recently “oiled” with Washington’s generous arms package to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, was received, surprisingly, with unprecedented silence from Jerusalem, which traditionally opposes such sales.
According to the Israeli daily, Haaretz, a senior government official said last Saturday that although Damascus believes Tehran is the ‘best thing they have at the moment,’ Syria is not yet a satellite of Iran and can still be extricated from an Iranian “bear-hug.” While Bashar Assad seems to be extremely grateful for Ahmadinejad’s generous gifts, shoring up Syrian’s military with new weapon systems from Russia, all paid in cash from Tehran’s coffers. Such modern weapons, which only a year ago, Syrian generals could have dreamed about, will surely rejuvenate the long obsolete Syrian armed forces. But whether young Assad is willing to pay the political price and become a full client state to Iran’s Shi’ite clerical regime is open to debate.
The recent analysis by Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi of a joint declaration from Assad and Ahmadinejad made at the end of Syrian-Iranian summit lends credence to this view. Writing in a London-based Arab daily, the highly respected, but regime-critical Hamidi warned that unidentified members of Bashar Assad’s regime already argue that Syrian decisions are made in Iran and not always coinciding with Syria’s national interests.
Israeli military intelligence is currently deeply immersed in real-time assessment over Syrian military preparation for a potential military confrontation with Israel over the Golan Heights dispute. Officials believe that, while Bashar Assad’s national strategy is still adhering to the guidelines laid out between Damascus and Tehran on the last reciprocal high-profile visits and strategic exchanges, Ahmadinejad is already deeply concerned over Syria’s future intentions. Tehran’s major concern is over the Sunni axis led by Saudi Arabia, which might eventually gain more and more interest among Bashar Assad’s closest Alawi associates, to change direction by make peace with Washington’s “good guys”.
In order to ensure that such a dangerous move on Tehran’s behalf would be deferred as long as possible, at least until its controversial nuclear program reaches maturity, the Iranian president has initiated a new plan, under which pro-Iranian loyalists in Assad’s entourage will remain in highly strategic decision-making positions.
In fact, Ahmadinejad is already highly suspicious over some of the “old guard” officers, still holding vantage positions in the Syrian armed forces. These include among others, veteran generals, like Hassan Turkmani (a Sunni Muslim), Habib Ali and Muhammed Nasif. These officers, still serving from father Hafez Assad’s era, have been traditionally more western oriented, although extremely careful not to air their personal opinions in public. One may remember the “passive” involvement of a Syrian division under US control during Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
A more radical attitude can be attributed to the younger generation of Syrian officers, led by the dubious General Assef Shawkat, the president’s brother-in-law, who by sheer chance is also prime suspect in the Hariri affair. Shawkat is a devious bravado and his entourage includes some of the most dangerous and ruthless elements in Bashar Assad’s Alawite regime. These officers, which are already closely working with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, may well become the backbone of Ahmadinejad’s future efforts to maintain his grip on Damascus’ loyalty, with or without Bashar Assad at the helm.
But this, according to Israeli sources is far from easy to implement. Not only is part of president Assad’s entourage constantly on “alert”, since Bashar Assad’s inauguration in July 2000, but there are always subversive elements, clandestinely active to sustain the sensitive Alawite minority rule, which has come under threat in past efforts to topple the regime from within. Traditionally hostile elements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and others, who were, sofar beaten off by brutal regime action, but this could change if the time and political unrest be ripe for a well prepared and supported coup d’etat. The present Iranian Shi’ite “bear hug” can become a trigger, setting off internal discontent among subversive elements, even within Bashar Assad’s own loyalists, should he go too far in his dubious alliance with the Tehran clerics. The example, demonstrated by Ahmadinejad’s meddling in Lebanese affairs having sparked off last summer’s Hezbollah war with Israel, has caused much more damage that was initially believed and could well become the catalyst for a political change in Damascus.
It is little known, that such a near situation was only averted in 2005, following Assad’s hasty withdrawal from Lebanon, following the murder of Hariri. This had caused considerable unrest among the Syrian armed forces and other regime elements, which regarded Assad’s performance with deep discontent, a move which they attributed to the young president’s lack of experience. Many at the time claimed, in private, that his father the “Lion of Damascus” Hafez Assad, would never have ventured into such a politically dangerous trap.
A similar development can happen, if Bashar Assad will not be able to survive the present UN sponsored legal investigation of his and his closest associates’ alleged part in the Hariri fiasco, which is already looming over the Damascus palace.
Even beating the war drums, which his mentor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may have proposed to divert international attention, may not bring succor to Bashar’s plight. In the contrary, any reckless venture, by misjudging the real outcome of the “Tamuz War” in Lebanon and starting even a limited confrontation with Israel, on Hezbolla-style guerilla warfare on the Golan, will meet with devastating response from the newly trained and invigorated IDF under its new leadership. This will no doubt spell catastrophic consequences on Damascus and result in the finale act of the Alawite regime in Syria.
All in all, there seems to be little enthusiasm in Damascus for a war with Israel these days. Ahmadinejad’s predicted “hot summer” is already nearing its demise and the thirty year long silence along the Golan borderline is strictly maintained, though on both sides, officers watch each other with reserved suspicion. In the Middle East, the clock go different, veteran military experts caution, nevertheless, that under the present situation, neither side of the equation have anything to gain from war but certainly everything to lose. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad may well be on the receiving end of another strategic setback, which has already cost Iran dearly last year, when the final accounting of Hezbollah’s Iranian sponsored war with Israel, destroyed Tehran’s strategic forward base in Lebanon. If he loses Damascus, the Shi’ite Crescent may yet rip apart, before it materializes into a strategic pact for Iran’s regional ambitions. The winner will. No doubt be US backed Saudi Arabia’s Sunni axis, if its reaches sufficient momentum, in time to mature into a strong anti-Shi’ite alliance and before a nuclear Iran becomes reality.