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Assad's likely ouster in Syria will be blown to Iran
Vancouver, Canada - The outcome of the uprising in Syria and the increasingly violent response by government security forces has much wider implications than the survival of the regime of President Bashar Assad.
The three big beasts of Middle East politics — Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey — are each taking sides in the dispute. So a good deal of prestige and future regional influence is riding on whether Assad is able to remain in power or is swept away by the reform movement.
Assad has the strong backing of the Iranian government, which for three decades has seen its alliance with Damascus as an essential element in its tussle with Saudi Arabia for primacy in the Middle East.
But while the Iranian government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his religious master in the Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, continue to display confidence that Assad's use of extreme violence against the uprising will win the day, many Iranian scholars and former diplomats are not so sure.
Several articles written by Iranian regional foreign policy experts in an interesting online magazine, Iranian Diplomacy (http://irdiplomacy.ir/en), question in carefully couched terms whether the Tehran government is setting itself up for a fall. And that collapse in influence could be substantial.
Iran's links with the Assad regime in Damascus are vital to Tehran's support for the vehemently anti-Israeli group Hezbollah in neighbouring Lebanon. Tehran's financing and arming of Hezbollah, which most western countries regard as a terrorist organization but which is now close to controlling the government of Lebanon, is a major source of Iran's street credibility as the region's most activist anti-Israeli government.
Several of the Iranian academic and former diplomat writers have argued that Turkey, which shares an 850-kilometre border with Syria, is playing a far more subtle political game than is the Tehran administration and that the Ankara government may well emerge from the Syrian episode with dramatically enhanced regional influence.
On the surface, the 30-year alliance between the Persians of Iran's devoutly Muslim state and the secular Arab nationalists of Syria is an unlikely one. It has two main foundations.
One is that Iran is the heartland of the Shiite sect of Islam and the Assad regime is based on and dominated by Syria's Alawites, a Shiite sub-sect that makes up about 12 per cent of Syria's population. The majority of Syrians are Sunni Muslims, the orthodox strand of Islam whose overseer is the royal family of Saudi Arabia.
The political alliance between Tehran and Damascus began in the early 1980s when Syria was the only Arab country to support Iran in its war against Iraq. The relationship progressed with the joint sponsorship of Hezbollah, which for the Assad regime is a carriage for its long-standing and continuing interference in Lebanese politics.
But as the Assad government continues to insist that the uprisings in cities across Syria are foreign-inspired thuggery and cracks down on street demonstrations with tanks and artillery, killing at least 2,500 people, the regional antipathy toward Damascus is growing daily.
On Monday, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, in support of the Syrian demonstrators who are almost exclusively Sunni Muslims, denounced the government violence in stark terms and withdrew his ambassador to Damascus.
There is well-founded suspicion in Iran that the United States and Europe have out-sourced to Turkey the problem of Syria, and perhaps even the task of easing out the Assad regime.
The Turkish government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan approaches the Syrian situation with a history of friendly relations with Damascus. But Erdogan's strongly religious Justice and Development Party is made up predominantly of Sunni Muslims whose brothers and sisters are the victims of Assad's military.
At the same time, about 20 per cent of Turkey's people belong to the Alevis sect of Islam, which is similar to the Alawites of Assad's regime and also a Shiite sub-sect.
Erdogan dispatched his foreign minister to Damascus earlier this week to try to get through to Assad the seriousness of international outrage at the violence, to get a commitment for meaningful political reform and to warn of the prospect of intervention if that does not happen.
But as some of the Iranian writers point out, the time is past when reform in Syria could include Assad remaining in power. The likely outcome now is the violent overthrow of the Assad regime and a blow to Iran's prestige along with it.