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Why Iran’s plan in Syria will fail

For the past week or so, Iranian official media and social networks have been abuzz with anecdotes woven around a football match in Tehran between Iran and Syria, and the light it might shed on a complicated relationship.
According to most accounts, a group of Syrians flown in by special charter to cheer their national squad in its bid for a place in the World Cup in Moscow staged an anti-Iran demonstration in the stadium. The Syrian contingent included young ladies who refused to wear the Iranian-style hijab.
Their presence in the stadium highlighted the fact that no Iranian woman is allowed to attend a football match after a religious edict by the country’s supreme leader that women watching young men running around with bare legs might cause “undue excitement.”
The Syrian fans seized the opportunity to unleash a torrent of venom against Iran and its people. If videos posted online are a clue, the Syrians used words and expressions that are not fit to print. That provoked an equally abusive torrent from Iranians on social media, and a debate over their country’s role in the Syrian tragedy. “What are we doing there?” was a question repeatedly posed.
The initial answer provided by the authorities was that Iran is fighting in Syria to prevent the fall of the Assad regime, which had been an ally during the war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s, and is now a member of the Iran-led “axis of resistance.” That answer failed to convince many people, even within the Iranian regime’s base.
Then another reason was cited: Iran is fighting in Syria to prevent the destruction of Shiite holy shrines. Official media published lists of such shrines, sometimes with photos. That too was challenged, as more than 90 percent of Syrian “Shiite holy sites” turned out to be burial places of Sunni Muslim theologians and scholars.
The latest and current justification cited by Tehran for its role in Syria, which means helping Assad kill more Syrians, is that Iran needs secure land access to the Lebanese border where, thanks to Hezbollah, it sets the agenda. The Syrian part of that dream corridor, which must pass through a long sliver of Iraqi territory, skirts the fertile plains to the south of Damascus.

Empire-building is not easy, especially when you have neither the military power nor the religious and cultural charisma needed to win native support. Iran is bound to learn that, unfortunately, the hard way.

Amir Taheri

Hence the idea of a deal with Turkey with Russia’s blessing. Under the deal, Iran will station troops in a “de-escalation zone” south of Damascus, while Turkey will seize control of a chunk of Syrian territory in Idlib province. The putative deal is supposed to receive an official facade during talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, under UN auspices.
If put into practice, Moscow’s “de-escalation” project will freeze the division of Syria into five segments, with Russia, Turkey and Iran dominating three, and the US and its Kurdish and Arab allies present in the other two. The scheme may end, or at least tone down, the fighting for a while, but it risks leading to the destruction of Syria as a unified nation-state. It is doomed to fail.
From what I know of Syria, which I have observed and visited since 1970, despite almost seven years of tragedy, the sense of “Syrian-ness” is still strong enough to frustrate putative imperial appetites. In that context, Iran has even less chance of succeeding than Turkey or Russia. In Idlib, Turkey has the advantage of territorial contiguity with Syria, a fact that facilitates logistics and permits significant military intervention to pursue political ambitions.
Also, Ankara has close ties with some elements in Iraqi Kurdistan, and could use them to influence at least a segment of Syrian Kurds to accept the “de-escalation zone” as the least bad option. The presence of small groups of Turkmen and Turko-Circassian minorities in the area is an additional boon for Ankara.
Russia is also in a better position than Iran to secure a piece of the Syrian cake. Thanks to its monopoly of firepower in Syrian airspace, Russia’s air force can be used in support of any design on the ground. Much of Moscow’s piece of the cake is by the Mediterranean, easily supplied and defended by its navy. And a majority of the local population, having adopted an ambiguous posture toward the Assad regime, might prefer Russian domination to Iranian.
Iran has none of those advantages. Syria is not Lebanon, where Shiites — a third of the population — have always looked to Iran as a protector. At various times, notably in the heydays of pan-Arabism under the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser, Iran under the shah was seen even by Lebanese Christians as a counterbalancing force.
Iran’s presence and influence in Lebanon date back to the early stages of the Safavid dynasty more than 500 years ago, with close family ties, especially among the clergy and traditional business families.
Tehran’s attempts to cast Syrian Alawites as almost Shiites, and thus deserving protection, have failed. Not a single ayatollah has agreed to cancel the countless historical religious edicts that castigate Alawites as “heretics” or crypto-Zoroastrians. This means that unlike Lebanon, where at least part of the Shiite community is sympathetic to Iran under any regime, in Syria today Tehran lacks a local popular base.
Iranian Gen. Hussein Hamadani, killed in action in Syria, admitted as much in an interview he granted weeks before his death. In it, he revealed that even Assad supporters within the Syrian Army and Baath Party were hostile to Iran’s presence in Syria. “The way we think, the way we live is abhorrent to them,” Hamadani said.
In a recent TV interview, Assad indirectly echoed that sentiment. “We look east to Russia,” he said. No mention of Iran. Empire-building is not easy, especially when you have neither the military power nor the religious and cultural charisma needed to win native support. Iran is bound to learn that, unfortunately, the hard way.

• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books.
• Originally published in Asharq Al-Awsat.