Iranian support for embattled Syrian President Bashar Assad is producing a violent backlash against Tehran’s interests in the Middle East and fueling a proxy war with Saudi Arabia that threatens to further destabilize the region.
The situation is a source of growing concern among U.S. intelligence officials and regional analysts who say tension between Saudi Arabia’s Sunni-led monarchy and Iran’s Shiite-controlled theocracy has become a dangerous subtext of Syria’s civil war and poses an existential threat to regional neighbors — particularly Lebanon.
Saudi Arabia and Iran “view their influence in the Middle East region as zero-sum, and the situation in Syria is just another venue in which they are playing out their long-standing power struggle,” said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss sensitive matters.
Most of the action is unfolding inside Syria, where Iran’s Revolutionary Guard commanders are providing strategic advice to the Syrian security forces that have spent nearly three years battling predominantly Sunni Muslim opposition rebels.
While U.S. officials suspect that Iran is using civilian aircraft to smuggle weapons through Iraqi airspace for delivery to the Assad regime, Lebanon has found itself increasingly entangled in the conflict because Iranian-backed Lebanese Hezbollah militants have joined the war on the side of Mr. Assad, a member of the Alawite sect of Shiite Islam.
Lifeline for Assad
“Iranian support [for Mr. Assad] has changed the narrative in Syria from ‘it is not clear when Bashar Assad will go, but it is clear he will be defeated’ to ‘Bashar Assad is actually hanging around and it is not clear that he can be militarily defeated,’” said Simon Henderson, director of the Persian Gulf and energy policy program at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Hezbollah’s support, in particular, has turned the tide in Mr. Assad’s favor in key battles, including one last summer for the town of Qusair, which is on a key supply route near the Lebanese border for opposition rebels fighting to overthrow the Syrian government.
In hindsight, some have read the developments in Qusair as a turning point for the spread of Syria’s war into Lebanon since allies of the opposition responded to Hezbollah’s meddling in the city by declaring Iranian interests inside Lebanon to be fair game.
The result has been bloody. A series of explosions killed 23 people in an area just outside the Iranian Embassy in the Lebanese capital of Beirut in November. On Feb. 19, a twin suicide bombing outside an Iranian cultural center in the city killed six people.
More than 200 people were wounded in both attacks — responsibility for which was claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, an al Qaeda-linked group based in Lebanon. The group has warned on jihadist websites that it plans to attack Iranian interests as long as Hezbollah supports Mr. Assad.
Inside the proxy war
Saudi Arabia sees Iran’s effort to dominate the Middle East as a direct threat to the region’s security and Sunni Muslims — and is troubled by the scale of Tehran’s efforts to preserve Mr. Assad’s grip on power. Riyadh’s concerns have been heightened by a diplomatic thaw between Tehran and the West, including the U.S., that has been spotlighted in negotiations over Iran’s long-disputed nuclear program.
Tehran, meanwhile, has had a longstanding relationship with Mr. Assad and shows no signs of cutting back its involvement in Syria, which puts it at odds with the diplomatic goals of the Obama administration and its allies.