The surge in casualties at the time of Zarif’s visit is arguably indicative of the divisive role that Iran plays in Syria and in other war-torn regions of the Middle East. Iran’s support for Assad has largely taken the form of reorganizing the local army along the lines of Shiite militias. In both Syria and Iraq, this strategy has been blamed for increases in the sectarian nature of the conflict, and for creating recruitment opportunities for Sunni ISIL militants, who are able to point to Tehran as the opposite extreme of political Islam.
Notwithstanding such criticisms of an expanded Iranian role in nearby civil wars, the Obama administration has encouraged Tehran to be an indirect partner in the fight against ISIL both during and after nuclear negotiations in Geneva and Vienna. Last week, President Obama intimated that Iran may be recognizing the severity of the threat to the Assad regime, and may thus be willing to have more productive discussions with the West about a potential political solution.
But it is generally accepted that Tehran will not accept a solution that does not preserve the Assad regime, and it remains to be seen whether the Obama administration will concede to this point in spite of prior calls for his ouster. Zarif’s visit to Damascus is apparently aimed at discussing a “new plan” for Syria, and one that the Iranian government intends to present to the United Nations in the near future.
But Reuters points out that Wednesday’s meeting was preceded on Tuesday by a visit to Beirut, suggesting that the Iranian plan involves input from Tehran’s traditional allies and partners, such as the Lebanese paramilitary Hezbollah. By contrast, Iran has reportedly not discussed its proposed solution with Saudi Arabia, the West, or any non-allied entities that stand to be directly affected by a resolution or shift of the Syrian conflict.
The inclusion of Hezbollah and the Lebanese government in current planning discussions certainly raises questions about the nature of the “new plan” and its impact on sectarian tensions. But it is also sure to raise alarms among Israel and its defenders on the international stage. Iran’s state-affiliated Tasnim News Agency noted on Wednesday that Zarif used his meeting with Lebanese and Palestinian groups in Beirut to “reiterate Iran’s unwavering support for [a] Resistance Front against Israel.”
The Tower added that Zarif told Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah that last month’s nuclear deal and the associated rapprochement with the West constituted an “historic opportunity” to confront Israel.
Many analysts worry that Iran’s investments in Syria have made it more capable of exploiting this opportunity. In recent months, Tehran has directed Hezbollah to take a more active role in the fight against Sunni extremists and moderate rebels in Syria, and this has given the anti-Israeli terrorist group a notable foothold in the Golan Heights, just across the Syrian border with Israel.
Meanwhile, Iran continues to work with and finance other terrorist groups as part of its effort to build and maintain the aforementioned “Resistance Front.” This was proven once again when, according to The Tower, Israel’s internal security service received new information from a captured Hamas operative about Iran’s provision of money, weapons, training, and electronic equipment to the Palestinian terrorist group.