Thursday, April 14, 2011

With a Little Help From His Friends

While the U.S. "message" on Syrian unrest has been muddled (at best), Iran clearly understands what is happening in the streets of Damascus--and is aiding the Assad regime in putting down anti-government protests. From today's edition of The Wall Street Journal:

Iran is secretly helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad put down pro-democracy demonstrations, according to U.S. officials, who say Tehran is providing gear to suppress crowds and assistance blocking and monitoring protesters' use of the Internet, cellphones and text-messaging.

At the same time, communications intercepted by U.S. spy agencies show Tehran is actively exploring ways to aid some Shiite hardliners in Bahrain and Yemen and destabilize longstanding U.S. allies there, say U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence. Such moves could challenge interests of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia and inflame sectarian tensions across the Middle East, they say.

"We believe that Iran is materially assisting the Syrian government in its efforts to suppress their own people," said an Obama administration official.

American officials also told the WSJ they don't see Iran as the "driving force" behind the widespread uprisings that have gripped the Middle East in recent months. But the unrest has provided new opportunities for Iran to project influence in the region, although an administration source says Tehran's "aspirations [in these areas] far outpace their abilities."

However, that may not be the case in Syria. Iran has extremely close ties with the Syrian military and Bashir Assad's intelligence services. Given that relationship, it is relatively easy for Damascus to coordinate the surveillance of pro-reform leaders by Iran's intelligence services.

Additionally, there are regular shipments of military cargo between the two countries, using Russian-built IL-76 Candid transports that are operated by the Syrian and Iranian Air Forces. So, the resupply of Assad's riot police (and other security elements) is a relatively simple--and quick--process.

U.S. officials tell the Journal that Iran is also providing something equally valuable: expertise developed in crushing pro-democracy demonstrations in 2009. It's a sure bet that representatives of Tehran's various intelligence agencies are on the ground in Syria, along with representatives of the secret police and the Basij militia. Many of their members are well-versed in such measures as intimidation, torture and execution--the tactics required for brutally suppressing anti-regime protests.

And their record speaks for itself. The Iranian regime survived (in large measure) because of its harsh response to the 2009 uprising, the most serious challenge to the ruling theocracy since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. With thousands of Iranians in the streets, the government literally pulled out all the stops in suppressing domestic opposition. By some estimates, between 800 and 3000 protesters were killed on the streets, or while imprisoned. Thousands more were tortured in jail, and many were raped.

More recently, anti-government protests in Iran (triggered by the current wave of Middle East turmoil) have failed to gain traction. An interactive graphic accompanying the WSJ article shows that the last major Iranian demonstration occurred more than a month ago, while much of the region remains in flames. A mere coincidence? Hardly.

Indeed, the "expertise" that's kept the Iranian opposition in check is now aiding the Syrian crackdown. Not that Assad really needs in lessons in that area. After all, his late father ordered the Syrian Army to crush anti-regime activities in the city of Hama in February 1982. Military forces literally leveled the city, killing between 15-20,000 civilians. If necessary, Bashir Assad will do the same thing again--with the help of his Iranian friends.

As for the U.S., the situation in Syria begs both clarity and consistency. The Obama Administration has been muted in its support of pro-democracy elements in Damascus--a far cry from the recent upheaval in Egypt, where the President openly sided with protesters and demanded the departure of former President Hosni Mubarak. Why ignore forces trying to topple the Assad dynasty, one of the region's most repressive regimes, whose policies run counter to our interests in the region?

Similarly, why aren't we doing more to help our long-time friends in the region, like Bahrain and Yemen? Iran is clearly choosing sides and the U.S. should do the same. New governments in those countries are likely to be anti-American, creating additional security nightmares for the United States. And, you don't need to be an economist to understand what will happen if Bahrain falls and the unrest spreads to neighboring Saudi Arabia. Did someone say $8 a gallon gasoline?

As we observed in a recent post, the battle for Syria will determine the future of the Middle East. Toppling the Assad government will reduce the security threat to Israel, and largely isolate the Hizballah-dominated government of Lebanon. Iranian prestige will also suffer a serious blow, if Tehran is unable to prop up its most important ally.

That's why Iran is sparing no effort to keep Bashir Assad in power. They understand what's at stake in Syria. The U.S. does as well, but (unfortunately) our policies don't reflect that reality.

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