Iran has been trying to guarantee the survival of Mr Assad, who serves as Tehran's only reliable ally in the Middle East, by supplying Syria's regime with funds, weaponry and expert personnel to aid the campaign against rebels.
Saeed Jalili, the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, came to Damascus as a visible symbol of that support.
"Iran will never allow the resistance axis – of which Syria is an essential pillar – to break," he said. The "axis of resistance" refers to the Middle East's anti-Western powers: Iran, Syria and the armed groups, Hizbollah and Hamas, although in reality the latter has already broken away by ending its presence in Damascus.
Jalili also demanded release of some 48 Iranians now being held by the rebels. The Iranian representative claimed his countrymen were religious "pilgrims" visiting a shrine near Damascus, but the rebels said that most of the captives were members of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), sent to Syria to provide assistance to Assad's forces. By some accounts, there are hundreds of IRGC "advisers" now in Syria, part of a $5 billion aid package provided by Tehran.
Iran's willingness to back Assad to the end is hardly surprising. Syria is (arguably) Tehran's most important ally in the Middle East, providing a handy conduit for Iranian funding and arms to groups like Hizballah in Lebanon, and an ally in any conflict with Israel. Iran understands that the outcome in Syria will shape the future of the Middle East, and its own plans for regional supremacy. "Losing" Syria would be a geopolitical setback of the first magnitude for Tehran, which is betting that Assad can hang on.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is exerting very little influence in the conflict. Admittedly our options are limited, but the general attitude has been one of avoidance, as Eliot Abrams noted at NRO's "The Corner" last month:
How much credit does the United States get for this happy trend toward regime collapse? Very little or none. As Michael Young, opinion editor of the Daily Starnewspaper in Beirut, wrote this week, “In Syria, where the Americans have the capacity to politically cripple a principal regional rival, namely Iran, the Obama administration is still dependent on the goodwill of Russia and China, two countries that want to see American power reduced.”
What the administration wants, it has seemed for all 17 months of the Syrian revolt, is to hide behind the U.N. and Kofi Annan. The apparent success of outside aid, which has quickly made the opposition far more effective, shows that it should have been provided far sooner: regime collapse could have been induced far sooner and thousands of lives saved. Picking up the pieces in Syria will be a great deal harder because of the scope of the killings there over 17 months.
To coin a phrase, the U.S. is once again "leading from behind."
While there are signs of increased American involvement--President Obama signed an executive order last week that authorizes some assistance for Syrian rebels--the U.S. has missed an opportunity to end the Assad regime sooner rather than later, and engage Syrian opposition forces. Word of of Washington is that our intelligence community is still trying to sort out the good guys from the bad guys. That's hardly surprising in a civil war, but a more proactive stance might have placed more U.S. assets in position at earlier stages of the conflict. As it now stands, the United States will be a spectator in post-Assad Syria, for better or worse.
Which begs an obvious question: why? No one is advocating the introduction of American ground troops, or even a no-fly zone. With the right forms of assistance (secure communications gear, better anti-tank weapons, shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles), the rebels can defeat regime forces in a matter of weeks or months. Had we begun providing such aid earlier, Bashir Assad might already be gone, and Iran would be suffering the loss of an irreplaceable ally.
Then again, this is the same administration that has been overly deferential to Iran, no matter the circumstances. And, we've just learned that a key member of Obama's inner circle, campaign strategist David Plouffe earned $100,000 in speaking fees in 2008 from a South African company with close ties to the IRGC.
It's hard to get tough on foreign adversaries when your own advisers are profiting (indirectly) from that regime. That's one more reason that Iran will stay the course in Syria; not just for geopolitical reasons, but because it has little to fear from the current administration. From Tehran's perspective, the Assad government is too important to fail. Too bad we don't have the same mindset in preventing Assad (and his Iranian allies) from retaining power in Damascus.