Reuters Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during an interview with Danish television, October 2016.

Iran and Assad in the Age of Trump

Why the Don Could Cut a Deal

For the generals of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), anti-Americanism is an indispensable component of their worldview. And yet, to the surprise of many, top IRGC commanders have so far been amenable to the idea of a Donald Trump presidency. It appears that they are following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s lead and are hoping for an American self-extrication from the Middle East in the next administration.

The first big test will be on the question of Syria and Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad, with whom Iran’s history is considerably more complicated than many realize. If Trump decides to cut a deal with Russia and Iran over Syria, he will find he has more leverage on the question of Assad’s future than many might recognize. 

A FRIENDLY IRAN?

For now, Trump’s Syria policy remains something of an enigma. But there is an air of exuberance in Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran. On November 14, for example, Assad said that Trump might be a “natural ally” in the fight against terrorism. By extension, as Assad put it, that would put Trump on the same side as Iran and Russia, the biggest protectors of Assad’s regime.

Assad’s hopes are not entirely unfounded. Trump has shown an inclination toward simplistic policy views, and like the Syrian and Russian governments, he has lumped the multifarious Syrian opposition together with the Islamic State (ISIS). In that equation, he sees Assad as the lesser evil.

This is music to the ears of Khameini and Putin. It might open the prospect for a deal with Russia and Iran as a way of ending the Syrian war. If so, it would be a conclusion that keeps the Assad regime, or at least a good part of it, in power. It is therefore unsurprising—but still striking—that the Iranians have been more cautiously open-minded about Trump than several close U.S. allies have been.

Iran’s generals took their cue from statements by Russia’s influential ambassador in Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, who called Trump’s comments on Syria a few days after the U.S. election “hopeful.” Dzhagaryan’s words echoed his optimism that Trump could undo what they see as the Obama administration’s mistakes in the Middle East. 

Rahim Safavi, a top military adviser to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, even expressed his anticipation that Trump might rethink the United States’ posture toward Iran. Safavi, who was from 1997 to 2007 the head of the IRGC, pointed to Syria and Iraq as the two crucial arenas in which the United States might move closer to the Iranian and Russian positions. And he at least urged other Iranian officials to avoid prematurely judging the American president-elect. His remarks were, in many ways, unprecedented. IRCG generals have long relied on unconditional anti-Americanism. Not a single interest group in Tehran can be said to hold an Assad-or-nothing posture on the question of Syria’s future.

It is safe to assume that Safavi was speaking not only in close coordination with Khamenei’s office but also on behalf of the broader IRGC leadership. The guards, and particularly the IRGC’s expeditionary arm the Quds Force, have over the last five years dug deep in Syria’s trenches to keep Assad from falling.

Herein may lay an opportunity for the next U.S. administration. In a scenario of American-Russian give-and-take over Syria, it is not just the Russians who might reassess their commitment to Assad; the IRGC generals could, too. In reality, not a single interest group in Tehran can be said to hold an Assad-or-nothing posture on the question of Syria’s future.

Abdalrhman Ismail / Reuters Aleppo's historic citadel as seen from rebel-held eastern Aleppo, October 2016.

SANCTIFYING ASSAD IN TEHRAN

No doubt Russian and Iranian efforts to bolster Assad will continue in the weeks and months to come. But Tehran’s support for the man has hardly been set in stone since the Syrian war began in 2011.

According to a former Iranian ambassador to Damascus who was recently reappointed to the role, when he was in power, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his populist right-wing civilian team viewed the Assad government as a doomed dictatorship. They were at first reluctant to give Assad a helping hand as protests against the regime boiled up.

Even some of the hardened Islamist ideologues in the IRGC were hesitant. General Qassem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force, who today spearheads Tehran’s military campaign in Syria and in Iraq, had urged Khamenei to press Assad to stop massacring his own people and to institute political reform.

Iran’s support for Assad only solidified after 2012 as the war dragged on and the geopolitical spoils increased. Facing competition for influence in Syria from regional rivals such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Tehran doubled down on backing Assad.

Within the Iranian power structure, it is today the IRGC that is most committed to Assad. However, five years into the Syrian war and some half million people dead, IRGC generals are having an increasingly difficult time justifying at home all the efforts it takes to keep Assad afloat.

They sell him as an Arab hero who is a kingpin in the so-called Resistance Front against Israel. Assad is likewise touted as the lifeline to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Tehran’s most successful Arab proxy in history. As one IRGC general put it recently, without Iranian missiles shipped to Hezbollah via Syria and then aimed at Israel from Lebanon, Israel would have long ago bombed Iran’s Bushehr and Fordo nuclear plants.

Then there is the emotional attachment by top IRGC cadre to the Assads. Before the fall of the pro-United States Shah of Iran in 1979, revolutionary Islamists such as Safavi found sanctuary in Syria under Bashar al-Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad. The elder Assad was also one of the first heads of state to recognize the Islamic Republic, and during the Iran-Iraq War, Syria was without doubt an important ally in helping Iran contain Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. Such memories are printed daily in Iranian state-run media to justify Iran’s present-day support for the younger Assad.

In reality, the historical picture is far more complicated. Even in the 1980s, the Assads and Iranians were often competitors. They frequently sparred for maximum influence in Lebanon. Even in Iraq, their shared animosity toward Hussein did not mean that Tehran and Damascus agreed on which opposition to back to topple the Iraqi strongman. Even in the 1980s, the Assads and Iranians were often competitors.

During U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s ill-fated arms-for-hostages dealings with Tehran, Hafez al-Assad was seen by U.S. intelligence as anxious—fearing that a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington would come at his expense. This was not lost on Tehran. And then there was deep Iranian anger in 2000 when it emerged that the Syrians had held secret peace talks with the Israelis. Such historic realities undermine the notion that Iran’s alliance with the Assads is inviolable.

In other words, in the event that Trump opts to compromise with Russia and Iran over Syria, the degree of Tehran’s commitment to Assad will be critical. For many in the Syrian opposition, the departure of Assad is not negotiable. For many Iranians, it is. The fate of Assad might just mean the difference between a political settlement and continuation of the war in Syria. Trump should not lose sight of that as he ponders whether to cut a deal with Moscow and Tehran.  

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