September 2nd, 2011
09:21 AM ET

Why civil war in Syria would serve Iran well

Editor's Note: Meir Javedanfar is an Iranian – Israeli Middle East analyst and the co-author of The Nuclear Sphinx of Tehran: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and The State of Iran.

By Meir Javedanfar, The Diplomat

Revolutions are unpredictable, but so are post-revolution periods – something that will be evident if and when the Bashar al-Assad regime falls in Syria.

It is, of course, possible that when the regime falls, the fighting will end and a single body will manage the country’s affairs until elections take place. But it’s also possible that there will be chaos or even civil war. If this happens, expect fighting between the minority ruling Alawites and the majority Sunni population to ensue.

Should there be a smooth transition to democracy, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei is likely to try to establish relations with the new Syrian government – indeed he may even try to do so before Assad falls, in order to protect Iran’s interests in Syria. And Khamenei may succeed, depending on whether the new authorities in Damascus are interested in relations with Tehran.

But what if there is instead a civil war? After all, as prominent Middle East analyst Vali Nasr noted in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, in the Arab world, ‘when dictatorships crack, budding democracies are more than likely to be greeted by violence and paralysis.’

Clearly, chaos in Syria could have region-wide implications, and Iranian government officials have already started to warn the international community about the possibility of such a scenario unfolding. It’s unclear how Iran would respond if this does transpire, but one thing seems certain – Iran is extremely unlikely to play the part of spectator. In fact, the opposite may very well end up being true, with Iran likely to back the Alawites by providing them with material and economic support.

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The Alawites are a subset of the Shiite sect of Islam, and Iran, the biggest Shiite country in the world, whose supreme leader sees himself as God’s representative to all Shiites, would support them. But religious proximity isn’t the only reason Iran would support the Alawites. To Iran’s leaders, alliances are there to serve the regime’s interests, meaning that if supporting fellow Shiites serves Iran’s interests then Tehran will do so. But by the same token, if assisting Shiites undermines the regime's interests, Tehran isn’t afraid to steer clear – one only has to look at the relative indifference Iran shows to the many hundreds of Shiites killed each year in Pakistan by Sunni extremists simply because it isn’t in Iran’s interests to fall out with the Pakistani government.

So if not just for religious reasons, why would Tehran back the Alawites in the chaos of a civil war? Because it would help Tehran undermine Israel’s security and Saudi Arabia's interests.

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Civil war in Syria would be a nightmare for Israel, worse even than the Muslim Brotherhood taking over in Damascus. After all, should the Brotherhood come to power, Israel would at least have someone to hold to account for attacks launched from Syrian territory. But the anarchy of civil war would leave Israel with no one to turn to, and no single authority to threaten reprisals against. If this happens, expect Iran to encourage its allies to attack Israel in an attempt to undermine its security further.

But a civil war could be welcomed in Tehran for another reason – because it would also undermine Saudi interests. Saudi Arabia and Iran have for years been engaged in their own Cold War, especially since Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1979. They’ve competed for power and influence in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen and Bahrain – and now Syria.According to David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post,  the Saudis have been ‘pumping money to Sunni fighters in Syria.’ Meanwhile, Iran has been backing the Alawite dominated government of Assad. In the case of civil war in Syria, Iran would use the opportunity to undermine Sunni groups as a means of limiting Saudi influence in Syria. Iran has already lost Bahrain to the Saudis – it’s determined not to lose Syria as well.

Fighting a proxy war in Syria on behalf of the Alawites wouldn’t be without risks for Iran. For a start, it could place Iran’s relations with Hamas under severe strain as an overwhelming majority of Palestinians in Syria, as well as the Hamas movement itself, are Sunni.

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But it could also impact Iran’s relationship with Hizbollah as Iran would most probably require their assistance in backing the Alawites in the event of civil war. Securing Hizbollah’s backing could affect that group’s standing in the Islamic world, as its popularity in the region has until now come from its portrayal of itself as an Islamic resistance force. Helping to put down Sunnis in Syria would risk undermining this image.

And of course fighting a proxy war in Syria could also impact Iran’s relationship with Turkey, itself a Sunni country whose priority is stability in Syria.

Still, such costs are unlikely to dissuade Iran from taking part, should the opportunity present itself. In Tehran’s cost/benefit analysis, the chance to undermine Israel and Saudi Arabia in one go is likely to outweigh the potential dangers. With Syrian demonstrators burning Iranians flags, Tehran may find that a rapprochement with the Sunni opposition may prove to be too cumbersome, or even impossible. A civil war might suit it better, as would the ensuing grief for Israel and Saudi Arabia.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Meir Javedanfar.

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Topics: Civil War • Iran • Syria

soundoff (35 Responses)
  1. Mark

    It is going to just get worse for the people of the Middle East.
    http://msmignoresit.blogspot.com/2011/09/week-in-review-september-2-syrai-iran.html

    September 2, 2011 at 10:14 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      I agree, ordinary people have no say – just like extras in a movie – in the Middle East. If they fall victims, their grief will be capitalised.
      No doubt Iran wants to flex its muscles in Syria, which could be the venue of a proxy war fought between Iran and Saudi Arabia. I suppose the Syrians are ready for a civil war, however bloody it will be and threatening for the region.

      September 3, 2011 at 6:33 am | Reply
      • seppe

        The only people that will benefit from this xenario is Israel, they are prying and kissing the stone that Iran and siria or any other two country near by start to decimate each other, they are working on that for the past 50 years.

        September 3, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • Hugh Webber

      Its a totally unrealistic article. Checkout Wikipedia: Alawites 7% of the Syrian population. Any civil war in Syria and the Alawites lose power and lose heavily and also by extension so does Iran.
      With Bashar Assad's murderous crackdown an armed resistance is only a matter of time. The armed forces may be Alawite officered but the men will increasingly defect. Smuggled arms will pour through the porous borders. Bashar Assad and Iran are on on a way ticket to the exit, only a question of how long they can draw it out.

      September 6, 2011 at 5:32 am | Reply
  2. John

    I feel for the people of Israel... they will suffer when hell will break loose with islamists in the north, east and south! What will they do when those who faught alongside the talibans in afghanistan and the insugents in irak will push their way to Israel.
    Maybe a small Nuclear bomb in Baghdad will ripple through to jordan, syria and turkey and this will open the road to the jewish state from sea to river. God bless israel!

    September 2, 2011 at 12:46 pm | Reply
    • 100% STRONGER!

      Me as well.

      September 2, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Reply
    • 100% STRONGER!

      Muslim Brother Hoods held highest positions in Canada. They let the Canadian Government to divided and dismantled Christian Ethiopians in Canada.

      Shame on the Can Government.

      September 2, 2011 at 1:56 pm | Reply
    • seppe

      Don't kid yourself that is watt israel want.

      September 3, 2011 at 6:56 pm | Reply
    • liz48

      So the opposition is against Iran and will probably forge peace with Israel...hmmm; waiting for brother BHO to protect the innocent civilians being murdered in Syria as he did in Egypt, but wait, Israel may be the cause for his apathy...lol! I guess the Syrian people dying on the streets are mere pawns who do not undermine Israel's security...

      September 15, 2011 at 11:17 am | Reply
  3. 100% STRONGER!

    Unless unexpected situation created, I ran will benefited whom ever is the. Leader of Syria.
    I don't speculate what the reasons are.

    September 2, 2011 at 12:47 pm | Reply
  4. 100% STRONGER!

    Iran is the survival of Westerns sanctions and politics, so Syria.
    For the future Arabs might create problems to the West.
    The more they become the. Victims of common cause, ...the bond between them will get stronger.

    September 2, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Reply
  5. Sami LIPKIN

    One would see previous articles for " Meir Javedanfar" and he will learn how much his analysis are correct: his prophecy in Dec. 2009, for Iranian Intifada for example.
    This author only wishes and sponsor wrong and destroying ideas. One can see that he did not mention USA and its role in the sectarian clashes in the middle east, nor US support to Israel as part of the instability of the middle east.

    On the other hand, he wants Iran to fight Pakistani Gov because some Salafi there killed tens of Shia through sectarian clashes. And if Iran supports anti-american actions in the middle east , this can never be to help peoples against occupiers but only for sectarian reasons.
    Khamenei became the GOD of Shia and still ready to jeopardize his country stability cause of his support to HAMAS, the Sunna.
    The author seems stuck with his view to the world through sects and religious wars. And in all this, Israel is the prodigy child the miserable that will receive the harm of everybody: Assadd and Anti-assad.

    September 2, 2011 at 4:44 pm | Reply
  6. george betterton

    Isreal had better get off it's behind and take some action in regards to the nuclear threat posed from Iran.They did it to the puppet government of syria now is the time for decisive pre-emptive moves

    September 2, 2011 at 4:46 pm | Reply
    • seppe

      Watt you are suggesting is immoral/illegal/and plain out wright criminal.

      September 3, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Reply
  7. Shawn

    There is stood chance if Asad's regime is over thrown there will be fragmentation of the country among Sunni,Alawis and Kurds.
    As it appears lately the Kurds are not too happy with the opposition groups in Syria and don't have much loyalty to Asad's either and want to go it alone; the non- attendance of Syrian- Kurdish groups in Turkey's opposition conferences the case in point. Anything that has to do with turkey's involvement the Kurds are weary of.
    As for Alawis; turkey has a sizable Alawi minority according to Global Security between 5-12 million(the Turks are too afraid to count them correctly!) they have been greatley discriminated against by the successive Turkish regimes from Ottomans to present.
    If Turkey does not play her role as a true mediator and side squarely with the Sunni camp which is very likely due to he nature of the present Sunni/religious government; then the region has to brace itself for further chaos similar to what has happened in Iraq and the smoke of the conflict will deffinatley blow towards Turkey.

    September 2, 2011 at 9:03 pm | Reply
  8. Shawn

    I appologize for my typo and grammatical error. Blame it on my index finger!!

    September 2, 2011 at 9:06 pm | Reply
  9. Syria2011Archives

    Iran has already lost Syria. We all hate them for supporting Assad and things "will never be the same" with Iran in the post-assad future.
    . Assad will fall – it is only a matter of time, The Iranians will be kicked out of Syria for helping our regime to kill us and the iranian dream of regional domination in a shiite crescent from tehran to lebanon will be a thing of the past. Syria will survive the attempts by Assad and the iranians to sow sectarian discord and we will have a much brighter future, especially in light of our miserable 41 years of darkness under the Assad Police State

    September 3, 2011 at 12:14 am | Reply
    • Shawn

      My dear Syria2011Archives;
      Replace the word Iran with Saudi Arabia in you comment and you will be just about right!

      September 3, 2011 at 3:07 am | Reply
      • Jarrah58

        Smart comment Shawn!
        Saudi arabia needs a revolution or an invasion ASAP!!!

        September 3, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
    • Syrian

      Real Syrians understand that the combination of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, USA, EU, and etc are not looking for their benefit.
      Look nationally first, then think about religion (most Syrian think nationally first, but Islamic brotherhood think about Sunni first, unfortunately). Islam is about being equal and respect each other.

      September 5, 2011 at 9:44 pm | Reply
  10. Dr T

    The bottom line, Iran could care less about the koran. They ARE real MUSLIMS GOING WITH THE FLOW OF POLITICAL EVENTS. Says volumes about their religion.

    September 3, 2011 at 12:25 am | Reply
  11. True Voice

    Allah will soon destroy israel...U.S who are responsible for everything bad happening in the middle east..As far as Iran is considered it is just a matter of time they will realise what they are doing...they should realise that Israel,U.S are enemies of all muslims...and I can well see the end of israel by the hands of Turkey saudi pakistan and Iran and end of U.S by Russia and china...InshaALLAH

    September 3, 2011 at 12:37 am | Reply
    • Dannyp

      Your a joke and so is allah

      September 5, 2011 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  12. Fernando

    Israel is the enemy of christians...may God destroy jews who crucified jesus.They are pretending to be friends of jews coz they know they can't survive without us but once they finish with muslims they will attack us.I support another Inquisition another holocaust.

    September 3, 2011 at 12:41 am | Reply
    • jonathan

      when you come to know Jesus in reality and in the truth you will then not care whether Israel is our friend or not..The fact that Jesus said to bless those who curse you, pray for those who dispitefully misuse you , do good to them that do evil to you..should put an end you your kind of anti-christ tripe... Jesus loves the Jews..they are his people..They were all anti-Christs that planted the seeds from 1,000 years ago that produced on the tree the fruits of the Holocaust...I'm assuming that you have the same kind of hateful anti-christ spirit that led to that holocaust.. 😦 you are no friend of Jesus Christ...

      September 5, 2011 at 1:27 pm | Reply
  13. Fernando

    Sorry i mean they are pretending to be friends of christians

    September 3, 2011 at 12:42 am | Reply
  14. Dr T

    I feel so sorry for you poor muslims. You are brainwashed from day one and you have the education of a 10 year old american. Your "religion" is responsible for over 90% of the problems of the entire world. What a religion.

    September 3, 2011 at 12:53 am | Reply
    • Shawn

      Dr T you are responsible for the other 10%!!!!!!!!!!!!

      September 3, 2011 at 3:03 am | Reply
    • jonathan

      If you truly feel sorry for them than pray continously for their salvation.. putting down their inteligence is a good start yeah really 🙂

      September 5, 2011 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  15. clearick

    Iranian ambitions are thwarted by a regime change in Syria, and a civil war in Syria is more likely to benefit the majority Sunni's. The Iranian regime already tried to prop up Assad so the majority are against Iran. Iran will have more problems supporting Hezzboloah with a land-route to Lebanon, blocked by Syria. In fact Syria failing as a state benefits Israel far more than Iran, since Assad was hostile and no group in a civil war would want to engage the Israeli army. Any government coming out of Syria will be far more likely to be aligned with Turkey, which shares a common border, than Iran which is a country away. Syria's biggest concerns after the conflict will be on how to develop their economy and how to find their way forward without Assad. Politically unstable countries in the ME are more of a problem and an opportunity for their own people than anyone else. Any of them with a pragmatic view would look to Israel and Turkey as examples of what to aspire to than Iran which is a political and economic basketcase or oil rich Saudi Arabia which depends on a single resource for growth.

    September 4, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Reply
    • jonathan

      Presently Syria is the "only" Muslim majority nation that allows conversions to Christianity without reprisals ...it may be an evil motivation behind it but it is the only nation of Muslim majority that allows Muslims to convert to Christ.. when Assad goes so goes this liberty for Muslims converted to Christ... 😦 😦 😦 ...

      September 5, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Reply
  16. JJ58

    Everyone knows that israel has WMDs yet no one does anything!!! if you count the number of human rights violations committed by israel it exceeds the ones committed by saudi arabia! And the US citizens fund those violations with our tax money because the US government is israel's slave!!!
    Israel Has been working hard on the dominance over the region through Media control and weapons control. Anyone that criticizes Israel is branded as an anti-semite! And the whole world runs to the rescue of Israel... the spoiled brat that is no less than a criminal state!

    September 4, 2011 at 4:33 pm | Reply
  17. Saad Al-Haffar

    Civil war in Syria is a must. I think the situation in Syria has reached the "Point of no Return". There is so much blood shed, where civilians will soon take to "hand to hand". None of the military bunkers have been penetrated yet as the public continues to advocate peacefull demonstration. However, the public's patience is wearing thin and will soon translate into organised street warfair utilizing sticks and pitchforks if that is all that is available. There will not be any U.S. intervention here as Syria has been a great supporter and protector of the state of Isreal, and president Obama needs the jewish vote for next elections.

    September 11, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Reply
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    October 26, 2012 at 3:00 am | Reply

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