Balancing power in the Middle East | Rich Elfers

“Iran spends $35 billion a year to prop up the Assad regime, according to one estimate.”

This report comes from an Iranian official who was interviewed by Nicholas Blanford, a Christian Science Monitor correspondent in an April 27 article entitled, “Why Iran Is Standing by its Weakened, Expensive Ally, Syria.”

A senior Iranian cleric, Mehdi Tebb, was quoted by Blanford as saying, “Syria is a strategic province for us… If we lose Syria, we cannot keep Tehran” (Iran’s capital).

The problem is not so much Bashar al Assad, Syria’s leader, continuing to keep control of what little he still governs. Al Assad is expendable to the Iranians, according to Blanford.

Iran needs a way to connect to its Shiite ally, Hezbollah, operating out of Lebanon on the Mediterranean. If that line of supply and war material is cut, it will be very difficult to prevent Israel and the United States from being able to shape the Middle East according to their strategic visions.

From Iran’s perspective, al Assad should abandon the northern city of Aleppo, the major commercial center for Syria, if fighting continues to go against loyalist forces in that region.

The al Assad regime has suffered between 80,000 and 100,000 killed or wounded soldiers in the four-year civil war and lacks the ability to effectively counterattack the Syrian rebels, according to Blanford. Since Syria is majority Sunni, al Assad can’t get more reinforcements from them.

As the article stated, quoting a former Syrian official, “To prevail, 200,000 to 300,000 mothers need to be convinced to send their sons to fight. But why would a Sunni mother and father send their son to die for Bashar al-Assad?”

Al Assad is fighting the rebels in both the north and the south of the country and has suffered strategic losses in recent weeks as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as Qatar and Jordan, have allied against al-Assad. The various factions of rebel fighters have also been better able to coordinate their attacks and have attained major victories.

Iran has already spent billions of dollars in weapons and thousands of lives to support al Assad. They would spend more, but the western sanctions against them are deeply hurting the regime’s ability to pay. That’s one major reason why Iran wants to sign a nuclear agreement so badly with the United States. It would free up resources to continue to support Hezbollah.

This might be construed as an argument for the U.S. not to sign a nuclear deal with Iran, but the Sunni ISIS threat in Iraq and Syria is a big enough problem for the Iranians. The U.S. also wants to see ISIS destroyed and is more willing to see Iranians fighting them rather than U.S. soldiers with boots on the ground.

Israel and Iran may find themselves re-allying in the coming years, as they did during the shah’s years of rule. Both nations have common enemies among the Sunni Arabs that live between them. It seems logical that Israel and Iran would link up to protect their common interests in the region as strategy changes due to what occurs in Syria and Iraq.

President Obama’s strategy of balance of power is already forcing Saudi Arabia and Turkey to become more active in the region. Neither country wants to see Iran as the dominant regional power. Obama’s strategy seems to play the three major regional powers off against each other, so the U.S. can continue its pivot to Asia to counter China’s growing aggression in that region.

The Syrian civil war bears continual watching to see which in direction dominance in the region will gravitate. Expect to see the battles continuing with no real end to the conflicts. Expect also for Iran to continue to support Syria with billions of dollars of aid each year, whether or not al Assad remains in power.