- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 18, 2012

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — It wasn’t exactly a break-up moment between Iran and ally Bashar Assad. But Tehran’s whiplash diplomacy over the weekend suggests its embrace of the Syrian president could be cooling.

Just a day after Iran’s foreign minister pledged unwavering support for the embattled Mr. Assad, officials in Tehran outlined on Sunday a step-by-step peace plan for Syria capped by elections that presumably could usher in a new leader in Damascus.

It was another possible sign of Mr. Assad’s fraying alliances after similar mixed messages last week from Russia, which tried to backpedal after a top diplomat said Mr. Assad is losing control of his country.

Yet it also highlights the limited options available to Iran to try to preserve perhaps its most critical alliance in the Middle East, where Tehran has far more rivals than friends.

The Iranian initiative proposed Sunday — while almost certain to be rejected by Syrian rebel factions — marks some of the clearest signals that Tehran’s leadership is looking to hedge its bets and remain a player in Syrian affairs if Mr. Assad is toppled.

Participants at a conference on Syria in November await the start of a session at the Esteghlal Hotel in Tehran. (Associated Press)
Participants at a conference on Syria in November await the start of ... more >

“When it comes to keeping Assad in power, Iran does not have many options,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born political analyst based in Israel. “As the situation gets worse for Assad, Iran may consider sending more weapons to him and a few senior advisers. However, these are unlikely to be game-changers.”

A no-win situation?

Just as the Syrian initiative was announced in Tehran — during a gathering that included more than 200 Syrian political and religious figures — rebel fighters allied with an Islamist faction announced they had captured an infantry base in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo.

It was the second Syrian military site overrun in a week. There are also signs of increasing Western support and aid for the rebel side.

Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa acknowledged in a newspaper interview published Monday that neither side could “decide the battle militarily” and called for a negotiated settlement to save the country from ruin.

It was a rare and candid assessment from a top official that Syria’s powerful military appears unable to crush the uprising, and suggested the Assad regime may be contemplating an exit strategy as rebel forces move closer to the capital Damascus.

A rebel victory would be a particularly stinging blow to Iran, which so far has been able to leverage some gains in the Arab Spring upheavals such as the fall of pro-Western Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and more Arab pressure on Israel.

Iran counts on Syria as a bridge to its proxy Hezbollah — a dominant political force of militants in Lebanon — and an important foothold for Iran’s own Revolutionary Guard.

The Hezbollah connection

Iran’s proposals to end the 21-month civil war appear intentionally vague on the endgame.

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