‘America talked the talk while Iran walked the walk’

June 12, 2013

A Syrian rebel stands next to burning tires in Maaret al-Numan. (Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty)

Iran, though it is isolated, is still outmaneuvering the United States in the Syrian conflict that matters for them both. The Washington Post's Liz Sly reports that Hezbollah's entrance into the war on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad signals the degree to which Iran, Hezbollah's sponsor and Assad's ally, "is emerging as the biggest victor in the wider regional struggle for influence that the Syrian conflict has become."

Hezbollah and Iran have been helping Assad's forces to regain the momentum in the war, making it look more likely that he could ultimately prevail over the rebels. If and when the war ends, it's increasingly plausible that Iran will emerge as the big winner, able to project even more influence in a weakened Syria and into Lebanon, where Hezbollah is based. “If Iran wins this conflict and the Syrian regime survives, Iran’s interventionist policy will become wider and its credibility will be enhanced," an analyst at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Council told Sly.

How did it happen? The answer may be both simple and complex. For all the twists and turns in regional politics, sectarian divisions and even great-power politics, it might come down to something really simple: Iran just has a bigger stake in Syria than the U.S. does.

It's true that Iran has responded more forcefully in Syria, sending in weapons, cash, even Revolutionary Guards officers while the United State has hesitated over even arming select rebel groups. But it would be overly simplistic to boil that down to the decisions of a few U.S. and Iranian officials, to reduce the war's sweep to the Obama administration's reluctance to send arms.

Long-held international relations theory maintains that states, though their leaders might nudge them a few degrees one way or another, tend to conduct foreign policy in accordance with their national interests. And the simple fact is that, for all the U.S. interests in Syria, Iran's interests run deeper. The country just has much more to gain in "winning" the conflict than does the United States and much more to lose if it doesn't.

A rebel-held Syria, whether those rebels were the Islamists favored by Saudi Arabia and Qatar or the moderates hoped for in Washington, would shut out Iran from its only major Arab ally and and make it much tougher for Iran to reach its proxies in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. It would leave Iran less able to reach the outside world or to threaten Israel, which Tehran sees, rightly or wrongly, as an imminent threat to Iranian security that must be deterred.

Amr al-Azm, a history professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio who is Syrian and active in the opposition, put it succinctly to the Post's Sly. “Politically we’re screwed, and militarily we’re taking a pounding,” Azm said of the opposition's recent setbacks. “America talked the talk while Iran walked the walk.”

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Max Fisher · June 12, 2013