US-led action in Syria would empower Iran, not weaken it
Syria has been subject to a plenitude of political polemics, but insufficient scholarly research and analysis. Pundits and policy analysts are beating the drum for the US to intervene in Syria or pushing the US to take a leadership role, as it did in the case of Libya.
Pressure on Washington to intervene increased after reports in the past few weeks alleged that the Assad regime used chemical weapons in a number of locations.
What is intriguing is that the analysts who are calling for intervention are the same ones who would later, should the US decide to do just that, condemn Washington for its imperialism and modern colonial tendencies - especially if the effort were to fail. Some politicians like Senator John McCain have publicly criticised the current administration for not taking an active role in Syria and advocating military tactics such as buffer zones, no-fly-zones and weapons deliveries.
And yet, there are some very sound arguments why the United States should refrain from intervening in Syria.
First, it is important to address a widely argued sentiment claiming the positive effect that a Syrian intervention would have on the US's national interests and security.
According to this sentiment, if the US intervened either directly or indirectly in Syria and toppled the Baath regime, Iran would lose its consistent regional ally and bedfellow in the international arena. This would disrupt Iran's logistical and communication channels with Hizbollah and Hamas, which would ratchet down Tehran's regional influence.
Additionally, the next Syrian government, with leadership presumably drawn from the Sunni majority, would be more strategically allied with the US and Arab Gulf states, primarily Saudi Arabia, than with Iran. Regional pressure would increase and Iranian leaders would become more likely to enter into negotiations about its nuclear enrichment programme and human rights abuses, or, alternatively, be subjected to the same fate as the Syrian president, Bashar Al Assad.
But this argument stands against history and Iran's regional capabilities.
The Iranian leadership has a successful track record of emerging as the winner whenever a sovereign state in the Middle East experiences instability, civil war or foreign intervention. For instance, the protracted civil war in Lebanon created a ripe environment for Iranian leaders to give birth to one of the strongest non-state actors in the region, Hizbollah.
Also, after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, Iranian leaders were immediately able to help create a powerful Shiite proxy in Iraq - the Mahdi Army - as well as coordinate with Shiite leaders to infiltrate Iraqi governmental affairs. The Iranian leadership and Revolutionary Guard's strategies are characterised not by public or foreign interventions, but by clandestine investments in local, community-based, organised groups that empower a proxy capable of fighting not only regional governments but world powers.
Iran can be considered the regional mastermind when it comes to developing proxies. By implementing this strategy, Iranian leaders avoid being held legally accountable in the region and by the international community.
If the US were to intervene in Syria and liberate Damascus, Iran would definitely not be the loser. Iran has strong political bonds with the Alawite leaders and community and is capable of creating a proxy as powerful as Hizbollah, or more so.
An Alawite proxy could then instigate considerable amounts of tension throughout the region and keep Syria destabilised and in a civil war climate indefinitely. The price of oil would inevitably rise as a consequence, which would also serve the interests of the Iranian leaders, suffering as they are from economic sanctions that hurt even more when oil prices are low.
The second argument offered by those who advocate intervention says that if the US takes a leading role in Syria, the "democratic" system of governance that would follow would be strategically and politically allied with US interests.
Those who make this presupposition should take a closer look at the socio-political fabric of Syrian society, and at state formation and the process of democratisation in the Middle East at large. In a case of intervention in Damascus, the immediate creation of a centralised government would be highly unlikely.
Democratisation is not a simple process that is achievable overnight. It is a long, messy and bloody process that necessitates sacrifices. If the US intervenes in Syria, we are more likely to witness one of the greatest regional and international proxy battlegrounds of our generation, at least since the Vietnam War. It would pull Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Hizbollah, Hamas, Iraq and other powers actively into Damascus to preserve national and geopolitical interests.
Those advocating a US-led solution like the one in Libya should consider the fallout before making bold, reckless recommendations.
Dr Majid Rafizadeh, an Iranian-Syrian scholar and political analyst, is the president of the International American Council on the Middle East
Published: May 14, 2013 04:00 AM