On Wednesday, Reuters reported that Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova responded to inquiries about Russia’s level of commitment to the Assad regime by saying that the continued rule of the Syrian dictator is “not a matter of principle” for Moscow. While this still falls far short of Moscow’s short term willingness to write off Assad, it does leave the door open, which is more than can be said of Iran.
On Tuesday, Rudaw reported that Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, had commented on the international Syrian security conference by saying that Iran would not be swayed to permit Assad’s ouster and would continue to fight for the preservation of its ally. Iran was allowed to participate in this year’s security conference, in contrast to previous years, possibly so that the US and its allies could gauge Iranian willingness to compromise on the Assad issue.
No such compromise is forthcoming, and Jafari appeared to even discount the possibility of Assad being replaced by another leader whom Tehran approves. At the same time, Iranian delegates to the conference used it as an opportunity to deride regional rival Saudi Arabia for a “negative influence” on the conflict.
But analysts who are critical of Iran have assigned it much of the blame for the deteriorating situation in Syria, where the civil war has claimed a quarter of a million lives and has displaced 10 million more. It is generally assumed that the Assad regime would have been driven from power early in the now more than four-year conflict if not for the backing of Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia.
What’s more, the Iranian role in Syria has led to the rise of Shiite militias fighting on the side of the Assad regime, and by some accounts these have long since become predominant over the nation’s official army. This has given a decidedly sectarian element to the civil war, much as happened in Iraq when Iran encouraged the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to drive Sunnis almost entirely out of the government, thus contributing to the conditions that led to the rise of the Islamic State.
As Iran seeks to extend its influence farther into the Middle East, there are periodic indications of Iran-backed sectarian conflict in other, currently stable regions, as well. Xinhua News Agency reported one of these on Wednesday when it noted that 47 would-be terrorists were arrested in a major police operation in Bahrain. The heavily armed Shiite militants are accused of being linked to Iran, in keeping with a longstanding Iranian interest in encouraging Shiite elements in the country to provide Iran with a foothold closer to Saudi Arabia.
Similarly, several apparently Iran-linked Shiite terrorists were arrested in Kuwait in August, and on Wednesday the AFP indicated that parliamentary debate over this incident and the surrounding investigation had given rise to sectarian tensions, with some Shiites defending Iran against condemnation by the Sunni majority.