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Iran’s perspective on Syria: U.S. allies to blame for rise of Islamic State

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, welcomes his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Moscow on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015. The two held talks on implementation of the nuclear deal and on international efforts to mediate the conflict in Syria.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, welcomes his Iranian counterpart Mohammad Javad Zarif in Moscow on Monday, Aug. 17, 2015. The two held talks on implementation of the nuclear deal and on international efforts to mediate the conflict in Syria. AP

If, as many expect, Iran will soon be invited to play a bigger role in combating the Islamic State and in any future talks over the future of Syria, its clerical regime will arrive with an entirely different perspective from other participants’.

Iran has sent hundreds of advisers and thousands of volunteers to Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad, and few in Tehran would dispute that that support has been has been indispensable for Assad’s survival to date.

“If Iran didn’t support Assad, he would be gone by now,” said Ali Bigdeli, an international relations professor at the National University of Iran.

But Iran takes no responsibility for Assad’s war tactics, including the alleged use of chemical weapons against rebels in 2013 and the use of “barrel bombs” that have killed thousands of civilians.

Although Iran’s influence is on the upswing following the July agreement on its nuclear program, there are major questions about its ability to manage crises in Syria and Iraq.

Some 12 million Syrians have been forced from their homes by what a U.N panel says are government crimes against humanity.

But Iran remains adamant that Assad remains the legitimate ruler in Syria, and that it is opposed to the establishment of a no-fly zone, something Turkey has demanded, but that the United States also opposes.

“The security of Syria as our strategic ally is very important,” Hossein Amir-Abdollahlan, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, told McClatchy. “We do not support the establishing a no-fly zone or a protected one in Syria. We believe this will complicate the situation more.”

Although Iran’s influence is on the upswing following the July agreement with six great powers on its nuclear program, there are major questions about the country’s ability to manage crisis, not only in Syria, but also in Iraq, where Iran has been the dominant outside power since U.S. forces departed at the end of 2011.

It was on Iran’s watch and under the leaders it backed, Assad in Syria and Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki in Iraq, that Sunni extremists captured an enormous swath of territory in both countries and set up a self-styled “caliphate.” Yet few in Iran accept any responsibility for the upheaval, and many put the blame exclusively on Arab states, Turkey and the U.S.

Half of Syria has now been captured by Islamic State forces with the support of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

Mohammad-Javad Hag-Shenas, former Iranian official.

Officially, Iran even disputes that the Syrian revolt was home-grown, but blames it on unspecified “foreign intelligence services.”

“It is more than four years that Syria has been fighting terrorism,” Amir-Abdollahlan said.

“Based on our information, the uprising began in the border city of Daraa, and from the early hours of the uprising, foreign forces entered Daraa. . . . Of course the people’s demands turned violent. And the Bashar Assad government took measures to control it.”

Amir-Abdollahlan offered no evidence to back that version, which does not accord with news and eyewitness accounts from the time. He rejected claims by Assad’s opponents that Assad had close links to jihadists during the U.S. occupation of Iraq and therefore bears some responsibility for their rise in Syria.

“The information, from my point of view, is not very precise,” he said.

He also defended the presence inside Syria of fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia, saying they were there not just to defend Assad, but also Lebanon’s own security from the threat of Sunni Muslim extremists.

“Hezbollah, in order to defend the security of Lebanon, was forced to undertake operations in coordination with the Syrian government . . . inside the Syrian borders,” he said. “And all of the people of Lebanon, be they Muslims, Sunni, Shia, or Christians are supporting Hezbollah in this.”

Some prominent voices here go so far as denying that Assad has committed war crimes. “These reports that you hear that Assad has done these kinds of things are not real,” said Hamid-Rezi Taraghi, the international affairs spokesman for the Islamic Coalition party and a former member of parliament. He said all the crimes against civilians “had been done by terrorists supported by Turkey.”

According to Taraghi, Iran is prepared to send Iranian forces into Syria. “If necessary, we will send them,” he said. Some officials have threatened to send up to 100,000 Basij or revolutionary guard fighters. “They’re always ready,” said Taraghi.

Across the political spectrum, Iranian foreign affairs experts claim that the Islamic State is sponsored by U.S. allies in the region.

“You see half of Syria has now been captured by Islamic State forces with the support of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar and with technical assistance by Erdogan,” said Mohammad-Javad Hag-Shenas, a journalist, academic and former government official, referring to Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Bigdeli, the university professor, said the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Qatar “created” the Islamic State in order “to rein in Iran’s power in the region,” and for this same reason, the U.S. decided “not to eradicate the Islamic State group.”

And Taraghi claimed there was a “U.S. plan for a new Middle East” to set up and finance the terrorist groups in the region with the aim of making “the Muslim countries insecure.”

If Iran is invited to future talks on Syria, it will probably urge the participants to support Assad at least until his term ends “and to help Assad fight the Islamic State inside Syria,” Hag-Shenas said.

Roy Gutman: @roygutmanmcc

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