If you haven't been paying close attention to what is happening in Syria, yesterday's announcement that the United States is closing its embassy in Damascus might have caught your attention. This extraordinary diplomatic move is a stark demonstration of the growing danger the unfolding situation posed to American diplomats, as well as a harsh condemnation of the Syrian regime's brutality against its own people.
For those who have been paying attention to the unfolding crisis in Syria there is all too much evidence of the barbarity of the Assad regime. Social media sites are replete with shocking (and often stomach turning) footage that exposes the horror of what is currently happening on the streets of this eastern Mediterranean country. Images and reporting from Dera'a, Homs, Aleppo, Hama and increasingly, Damascus, offer disturbing accounts of what is happening on the ground. If any doubt remains, it shouldn't. It is clear that Bashar is his father's son.
While what we see is the behavior of the Syrian Government, there are other important and influential forces involved. What we often miss is the story taking place beyond the grainy and gruesome videos posted on the web. An important and underreported aspect of this intense violence is the role being played by the Iranian regime. For months, those watching the region have indicated that Tehran is offering material support to the Assad regime's brutality, and more recent reports have placed Iran at the center of the violence.
Haaretz reported recently that Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran's Quds Force, has been offering military direction to Bashar Assad and Syrian forces in their efforts to suppress growing unrest. Al-Arabiya has reported that the Free Syrian Army, the principal irregular force fighting the Syrian military, detained seven Iranians, five of them members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, while fighting in Homs.
There are few governments as practiced in brutality as the one in Iran, and they seem eager to share their know-how. For Assad, it's little wonder that assistance in suppressing a peaceful domestic uprising has become Iran's most valuable export. Lest we forget, the "Arab Spring" largely took its inspiration from Iran's "Green Movement." We all remember how in 2009, in the wake of tainted elections when thousands of young Iranians took to the streets, their efforts at peaceful protest were brutally suppressed by pro-regime thugs. Hundreds, if not thousands, of student activists were arrested, and when in prison they were subjected to unspeakable acts of torture.
Likewise, it should be little surprise that Iran would involve itself in Syria. Syria and Iran have been in an awkward embrace for decades, and Tehran is in a unique position to provide guidance to a regime struggling to crush a budding democratic movement. We are reminded of the Iranian regime's proficiency in this regard nearly every day. Over the past month alone, at least ten journalists, bloggers, and other independent commentators have found themselves behind bars on various trumped up charges. And over the last several days, Tehran has taken to targeting the families of BBC journalists.
Sadly, the Iranian regime has treated its own people with extreme brutality for the past thirty years, and it has often proved its willingness to suppress domestic dissent. It is a system dedicated to the suppression of dissent by women, ethnic and religious minorities, independent media, labor activists and anyone bold enough to stand up to the theocratic order. Sadly, the brutality of the regime is a byproduct of an ideology, and a system, that demands deference to a select cadre. It is important not to forget that this is a revolution and a system of government that Iran's leaders have promised to export throughout the Middle East.
There are few places that the Iranian regime has succeeded in the export of its influence more successfully than Syria. And because of that, we shouldn't be surprised that a hallmark of Iran's post revolutionary order, violence targeting civilians, is now on prominent display in Syria's towns and villages. At a moment like this, it is important to remember that Iran's most important export isn't petroleum, carpets, or pistachios; it is violence.