Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Iran’s Syria Policy, and Ours

by Elliott Abrams
August 28, 2012


Today’s news dramatizes the contrast between Iran’s Syria policy and that of the United States.

American policy is devastatingly described in a Washington Post editorial today as “reprehensible” and “morally indefensible” for its passivity. The editorial must be read in full for the anger behind it to be fully understood. (Parenthetically, it raises the question of whether the Post will endorse for re-election a candidate whom it has described in this manner.)

Meanwhile, the new president of France has called for action in the face of the daily slaughter. Washington is ignoring him. But the call for action is being heard in Tehran, which is both acting and planning for greater action if that is what is needed to win.  The Wall Street Journal reports that Iran has sent troops to “bolster” Assad’s forces and is ready to send more:

On Thursday, Iran’s defense minister publicly signaled a shift. If Syria fails to put down the uprising, Iran would send military help based on a mutual defense agreement between the two countries, two Iranian newspapers quoted Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi as saying….

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has the final word in all state matters, has appointed Qasim Solaimani, the commander of the elite Quds Forces, to spearhead military cooperation with Mr. Assad and his forces, according to an IRGC member in Tehran with knowledge about deployments to Syria.

The Quds Forces are the IRGC’s operatives outside Iran, responsible for training proxy militants and exporting the revolution’s ideology. The U.S. blames the Quds Forces for terrorist attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Solaimani has convinced Mr. Khamenei that Iran’s borders extend beyond geographic frontiers, and fighting for Syria is an integral part of keeping the Shiite Crescent intact,” said the IRGC member in Tehran. The so-called Crescent, which came together after Saddam Hussein’s fall, includes Shiites from Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

Iran is now sending hundreds of rank-and-file members of the IRGC and the basij—a plainclothes volunteer militia answering to the guards—to Damascus, said two people in the IRGC familiar with the movements.

So Iran is playing for keeps. It is ironic that while so many in the West derided the notion of a “Shia crescent” when it was first raised by Jordan’s King Abdullah, that notion is believed in Tehran–and believed to be worth killing and dying for. It is true that Iran’s backing for the bloody Assad regime will increase its unpopularity in the Arab world, but Tehran’s rulers must have concluded that power in Damascus (and, if Assad wins this civil war, in Beirut) is worth whatever it costs.

We appear to have concluded that passivity is the best policy, that nothing important is at stake, and that an Iranian victory is nothing much to be concerned about. We appear unconcerned as well about public opinion in the Arab world, where people can hear Syrian rebels criticizing the United States for providing only rhetorical support and being indifferent to their slaughter. The president who traveled to Cairo in 2009 to court Arab opinion has apparently decided that speeches are one thing, and action another.

I have little to add to the Post’s rhetoric in its editorial today. This is a shameful, and damaging, moment in American foreign policy.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Michael J. Murphy

    Thank you, Elliott, for watching such an important proxy conflict so closely. I am especially interested in the information you quoted from the WSJ’s IRGC source.

    Regarding your suggestion that the U.S. should be doing more in Syria, could you comment on what – if any – consideration U.S. leaders should give to Arab popular opinion in their formulation of a Syria strategy? The following excerpt from Stewart Patrick’s piece yesterday seems especially relevant (taken from the U.S. and global poll on violent conflict sponsored by CFR):

    “…with few exceptions, Arabs show little support for tougher international sanctions, much less Arab military intervention. And the prospect of a U.S-led Western military campaign is anathema. This is significant, since roughly seven in ten polled in six Arab countries (Jordan, Morocco, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Lebanon) already disapprove of the U.S. role in the Syrian situation.”

  • Posted by American

    The US needs to stay out of Syria!! We have already wasted more than enough American blood and money on these idiotic Middle Eastern wars. Enough already!!!

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    I don’t know how many times , in commenting on this blog , I have hammered at the disgraceful inaction of the Obama administration toward Syria . This president has practically made himself ( and by extension the people of this country ) accessories to murder . My level of contempt for him , at this point , exceeds my ability to express it in a printable form .

    The only thing that surprises me is the excoriating words of the WaPo . Although I expect they’ll get their groove back by November and endorse Obama again !

  • Posted by Kevin

    Lets keep in mind that the rebels are not the good guys here either. German intelligence concluded that Al-Qaeda was likely responsible for the massacre in Houla, not Assad’s regime.

    Assad has innocent blood on his hands, but if he falls, much more bloodshed would ensue. Simply providing more support to disorganized rebels (over 2000 groups of them!), some of whom are connected to Al-Qaeda, is certainly not desirable.

    The U.S., Turkey + GCC backing of the rebels was never due to human rights concerns, quite the contrary: it has always been about bringing down a key Iranian ally and stirring the pot as much as possible to encourage more foreign support for the rebels. (And btw, the U.S. has supported the rebels to some extent… we sell arms to Qatar / SA and they send them to the rebels).

    The propaganda campaign against Assad has been so successful that apparently even someone of Abram’s stature has fallen prey to it. There never was a peaceful Syrian opposition movement that was seeking democratic freedom. If Assad suddenly falls, minorities would fear for their lives. That is why Assad still has the support of so many despite the shelling of urban areas. The Sunni rebels don’t want peace, they want power. They don’t want a secular government, they want an Islamic one.

    The U.S. cannot intervene until a planned transition is in place and that requires ample time to make sure the institutional integrity of key pillars of the government are strong enough to govern. That can’t happen without a negotiated settlement.

    Lastly, would we want U.S. boots on the ground in the event of an Israeli strike against Iran? I think not.

  • Posted by Jack

    if France is so upset, let them send their own forces

  • Posted by Matt

    I am no fan of the current Admin or their policies. But to be fair Russian have US foreign policy by the short and curly’s while we are stuck in Afghanistan and reliant on Russian supply of logistics. That was why the 5 year plan was to be out by 2013, not 2014. So next year would have been withdrawal and over-watch and the ability resupply via the air route. The allies like Australia and others that want to stay till 2014 or beyond fail to understand. You ask Clinton how Afghanistan has shaped wider US foreign policy and limited it.

    Second Putin has cast the aspersion that if the US acts outside the UNSC, it will result in war. there is only one way to find out if Putin is bluffing. Also Obama has a stated policy not act outside the UNSC. If Putin is not bluffing then the UNSC has fulfilled its role, which is to prevent wars between the major powers, nuclear powers.

    Well we will see who has the upper hand on influence over the Iraqi government to keep the land route closed to Iran conventional forces. If Iran want their own version of Iraq/Afghanistan in Syria fine.

  • Posted by Matt

    18 months and the SNC are as useful as pockets on a singlet. The develop nations are saying they cannot organize a government in exile, a Constitution and law and order. Then there will be chaos when Assad falls. I see no reason to stop or put things on hold. We will just use the Quran, everyone got one, Sharia law in the interim until the SNC and the developed nation can get their act together. There will be no chaos. Simple, problem solved Quran 2.0 Constitution in box.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required