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Haggai Carmon Headshot

Iran, Russia and Hezbollah: Strange Bedfellows in Syria

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Why is the UN Security Council unwilling to condemn Syria? President Bashar al-Assad is butchering his own rebellious citizens and other than public expressions reproaching the massacre in Syria, the world does nothing. Why? Colonel Gaddafi of Libya was bombed by NATO for similar atrocities, then why the preferential treatment accorded Assad who seems to operate with impunity?

A close look at the Syrian arena may offer some clues. The insurrection in Syria is being brutally subdued by President Assad, who is fighting for his life -- existential and political. He is a member of the Islamic Alawite sect, a 7% minority in Syria that has controlled Syria with an iron fist since his father, Hafez Assad, assumed the presidency in 1970. A defeat of President Assad means a defeat for the entire Alawite regime, in a country where such defeat signifies also an expedited delivery to heaven or to hell depending on whom you ask.

Conspiracy theorists speculate that an unwritten understanding was reached between President Obama and Russian President Medvedev during their meeting at the G-8 conference in France at the end of May. The alleged "non paper" called for a tradeoff: Russia would agree to the forceful toppling of Gaddafi, in return for the U.S agreement to allow Assad to suppress the insurrection in his country. The existence of such an agreement -- true or false -- still leaves the question open, why would Russia continue protecting Syria?

The answer may lie in a surreptitious accord between Russia and Syria. Russia offers a military and political umbrella to Syria, and in return, the Russian Navy can use the Syrian ports in the Mediterranean Sea. Intelligence reports indicate also that there are more than 2,000 Russian military advisors in Syria training the Syrian armed forces. The Mediterranean Sea access is extremely valuable for the Russians who helped build a huge modern port in Tartus, 150 miles south of Damascus. The pronounced Russian presence would have probably gone unnoticed, but for an event occurring last August. A decomposing body was found floating in the Mediterranean Sea near the Turkish-Syrian border. The body was of General Yuri Ivanov, deputy chief of the Russian military intelligence (Glavnoye Razvedyvateinoye Upravienie). Official reports claimed he drowned while swimming, but many don't believe that the head of operations for the Russian military intelligence would go swimming without half a dozen bodyguards around him. Was his death connected to the growing Russian involvement in Syria? Just decades ago, Russia had a broad military presence in Mediterranean countries: Egypt, Algeria, Libya, just to name a few, and now just Syria is left on its short -- once long -- list, hence its determination to secure its only remaining stronghold.

Then there are accounts that Iran and Hezbollah sent elite forces to Syria to help President Assad quell the riots. Both Iran and Hezbollah have significant stakes in Syria. Deserting soldiers from the Fourth Syrian Division, under the command of Maher Assad, the president's brother, told reporters that Iranian and Hezbollah officers executed Syrian soldiers who refused to open fire on demonstrating Syrian citizens and deserting soldiers. Syria has traditionally been the route through which Iran was sending military assistance to Hezbollah, its terrorist subsidiary in Lebanon, and a regime change in Syria is likely to cut off that route. Therefore, both Hezbollah and Iran have been assisting Assad. If successful, he'll owe them his allegiance. If Assad falls, Hezbollah would be significantly weakened.

The Syrian population read the event map correctly. There were reports of Syrian demonstrators burning images of Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah's leader, and calling President Assad "Iran's puppy" or "the Nuzair butcher." "Nuzair" is a derogatory term used by Sunni Muslims against Alawi Muslims whom they claim are in fact closer to Christianity than to Islam (Nuzair comes from the word Nazareth.) The burning of the Shiite Nasrallah's image is particularly ominous for Hezbollah, as the uprising in Syria resembles more and more strongly Sunnis against Shiites -- to whom the Alawites are considered to be religiously similar. The burning occurred during demonstrations in Hamat to commemorate the massacre of Sunnis there as the Shiites inside and outside of Iran remained indifferent. If the uprising in Syria develops into a Shiite-Sunni war, it could have far reaching regional consequences that would likely envelop Lebanon as well.

Tayyip Erdogan, the recently re-elected prime minister of Turkey, understands the risks to his country from such an all-out war on his southern border, and therefore, condemned in no uncertain terms the conduct of President Assad and opened the Turkish-Syrian border to thousands of Syrian refugees seeking asylum. These surprising steps might indicate that Erdogan has had second thoughts regarding his earlier decision to side with Iran and Syria against the West. Distancing himself from Iran would help him get closer to the leadership of the Muslim world, a position coveted relentlessly also by Iran.

Iran, Hezbollah and Russia on one side? The Russians probably hope that sleeping with dogs won't give them political fleas in the morning.