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A Historic Settlement?

Tony Badran
20th December 2012 - NOW Lebanon

On Monday, the Hezbollah-aligned al-Akhbar published an interview with Syria’s Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa entitled “Decisive military victory is an illusion. The solution is a historic settlement.” 

Some commentators interpreted Sharaa’s interview, which followed the Iranian Foreign Ministry’s announcement of its “six-point plan” to solve the Syrian crisis, as an indication that Iran was ready to look beyond Bashar al-Assad. This is a misinterpretation.

Statements by Iranian and Hezbollah officials over the past week show us, rather, something else entirely. Taken together in context, these statements and Sharaa’s interview provide us with an insight into the thinking of Iran and its ally in Damascus regarding the next stage of the Syrian war. A close parsing of these statements shows that while Iran’s position in support of Assad remains unchanged, Tehran also understands that its only option at this point is to seek to guarantee the survival of the Assad regime in reduced form in Damascus and the coastal Alawite enclave. Iran’s aim, then, is to force a stalemate, making sure that Assad remains in the game, and then push for a settlement that guarantees its interests.

In contrast to Sharaa’s well publicized comments, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Ali Akbar Salehi, asserted last Saturday that Iran would “absolutely not allow any Western project to forcefully depose Syrian president Bashar Assad.” Salehi added that while the West was doing its utmost to change the regime in Syria, Iran was putting all its efforts into “preventing this by any means necessary.”

Even as they bolstered Assad militarily and financially, the Iranians have publicly held that they backed a negotiated settlement through dialogue between Assad and his opponents. Salehi reiterated this position, adding that it was the consensus view supported by Russia and China. However, the key premise behind Iran’s support for a Syrian “national dialogue” was that it had to involve Assad as the primary interlocutor. This is why Salehi added an important caveat: “The few remaining months before the decisive military victory will force the arrogant powers … to accept a political settlement as the only solution.” In other words, negotiations will take place once the rebels and their backers understood that Assad wasn’t going anywhere.

But does Iran really believe that a decisive victory by Assad is still possible? That is unlikely. Was Salehi’s statement, then, simply propaganda? No, it is part of Iran’s Syria strategy. Accordingly, it’s useful to consider the message put forth by Iran’s Lebanese asset. The day after Salehi’s comments, Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah made a speech disseminating the Islamic Republic’s latest talking points.

Taking Salehi’s lead, Nasrallah emphasized two points: first, that the opposition was not stronger than the Assad regime, and thus could not defeat it militarily. Second, that the only solution was a negotiated settlement between the two.

What was curious, however, were the details of Nasrallah’s description of the balance of power and the remaining loci of regime power. “All the Arab media outlets and satellite channels said that Damascus was collapsing and would fall to the opposition, and that the regime would be finished in a matter of days. This was the prevailing mood over the last two weeks,” he said.

However, Nasrallah argued, “any fair-minded person who looks at a map of Syria, and sees the important cities and places where the regime continues to be present, and where it remains strong … would they conclude that this regime would fall in a matter of a month or two, or a year or two?” Whoever thinks the opposition is capable of such a decisive victory, he added, was “very, very mistaken.”

When Nasrallah decided to specify the areas in which the regime retains popular support, he went back to focusing on the Syrian capital, citing the “neighborhoods of Damascus,” and specifically suburbs like (the predominantly Druze) Jaramana, and nearby towns like Qatana (home of a Christian community), southeast of Damascus.

Nasrallah’s emphasis on Damascus reveals that Iran’s calculation at this stage is to preserve the Assad regime in the capital, as well as fortifying its strategic stronghold in the Alawite coastal mountains. Tehran, as Salehi stated, would use “any means necessary” to ensure this outcome and force a stalemate, which would then, it hopes, open the door for negotiation, much like what happened in the Lebanese civil war. Securing Damascus, the seat of government, is critical in order to fortify the regime’s future negotiating position. The Alawite enclave is essential to the regime’s ability to fight a protracted civil war. However, as Michael Doran recently noted, “[s]o long as Assad maintains control of Damascus, he is the leader of Syria,” and not simply an Alawite warlord.

Iran’s “means” to ensure this outcome include the formation, training and equipping of the so-called “Popular Army” militia (al-jaysh al-sha’bi), recently sanctioned by the US Treasury Department, which Tehran modeled after its own Basij paramilitary units.

Then of course there’s Hezbollah’s role in support of the regime. Of particular interest is the geographic location of Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria, namely in al-Qusayr, across the border from the Shiite group’s bastion in Hermel, as well as around the Homs countryside more broadly.

On the one hand, Hezbollah’s presence there serves to help secure the Homs gap, protecting the access point from the Syrian interior and central plains into the southern part of Alawistan, along the northern border with Lebanon. On the other hand, maintaining a position in al-Qusayr protects the northern flank of Damascus and the strategic highway coming down from Homs to the capital.

To be sure, the Islamic Republic’s strategy is fraught with uncertainty. This probably explains the concerted effort by Iran, the Assad regime and Hezbollah to put forward this offer of a negotiated settlement, while also emphasizing that Assad is not about to collapse, as Tehran will back him to the hilt.

This is the context in which Sharaa’s interview should be read. Following Salehi’s and Nasrallah’s talking points, Sharaa emphasized that the opposition will not be able to defeat the regime, and that, therefore, the only way forward is through dialogue with the regime. Far from signaling clashing messages within the Iranian axis, these statements were all part of a single package.  

There was one thing Sharaa said that stood out. He noted that Assad “does not hide his preference to achieve a decisive military victory, after which the ground would be set for dialogue.” Consequently, Sharaa implied, his proposal of a “historic settlement” was a magnanimous concession. In reality, Iran and Assad are still betting on entering this dialogue following the establishment of a military stalemate on the ground – namely with the regime in control of Damascus and Alawistan.

Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

Tags

arab-spring, hassan-nasrallah, hezbollah, iran, lebanon, state-sponsored-terrorism, syria