Iran, of all countries, has begun to perceive its foremost ally, Syrian president Bashar Assad, as an unreliable component in the radical crescent of influence it is in the process of building across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.
Boosted by the triumphs of Hizballah’s war offensive against Israel in 2006 and Hamas’ takeover of Gaza, the clerical rulers of Tehran have invested so heavily in their expanding power structure across the region that a fiasco could push their regime and military prop, the fierce Revolutionary Guards, into a perilous slide at home. To play it safe, DEBKA–Net-Weekly‘s Iran sources reveal they have hatched a plan to replace the vacillating figure in Damascus with a puppet at their beck and call, modeled on Hizballah’s Hassan Nasrallah in Beirut.
The Iranians are uneasy most of all about President Assad’s oft-repeated bids to mend his fences with Washington through offers of peace talks with Israel.
Thus far, he has not strayed from the guidelines he and his Iranian allies laid down together, but Tehran can never be sure when he might swerve from the straight and narrow to meet the Americans. The only way they can guarantee that Syria stays in their pockets is to place a loyal character in Damascus.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources close to Persian Gulf rulers believe that if Tehran opts for this course, its chosen instrument will be the Syrian armed forces, on the assumption that a military figure has the best chance of unifying the country and its ethnic and religious minorities around a new regime. The Iranians have therefore doubled or tripled their efforts to build up influence in the Syrian army.
An overt manifestation of their success is the prevalence of Syrian army men sporting beards in the style of Revolutionary Guardsmen.
But two additional Iranian steps are more discreet, though disclosed here by DEBKA-Net–Weekly’s sources.
1. Three-week, five-star vacations in Iran are being handed out to hundreds of graduates of every Syrian officers’ course and their families. While the families visit tourist sites, the graduates undergo indoctrination at special RGs seminaries.
2. Last April, RG instructors began handpicking outstanding Syrian officers at these courses and forming them into secret cells for planting in military units on their return home. They are trained to seize centers of government, military installations and public buildings.
It is not known if Assad knows what is going on in his armed forces, or how deeply collaboration with Iranian intelligence for implanting these cells has penetrated the high Syrian command.
War could reunite Syria behind Assad, but also pave way for Tehran’s intervention
This information would be of paramount importance in a Syrian war flare-up with Israel, now projected for November or early next winter. An American intelligence estimate, passed to Israel last week, predicts that Syria will then start building up tension on the Golan border with low-intensity military operations to test Israel’s responses.
This plan has divided the Syrian leadership into two camps:
The anti-war faction. Our intelligence sources describe this camp as consisting of the veteran class of Syrian army generals, traditionally the most American-oriented of the armed forces. Its leaders, defense minister Gen. Hassan Turkemany, chief of staff Gen. Habib Ali, and the presidential military and intelligence adviser Gen. Muhammed Nasif, all urge Assad to refrain from embarking on hostile action against Israel.
The pro-war faction. This camp is headed by the Gen. Assaf Shawqat, head of Syrian military intelligence and the president’s brother-in-law. Around him is a band of ambitious young Syrian generals and colonels who have not yet made their name. They network closely with the high command of Iran’s armed forces and Revolutionary Guards.
Their argument for war is that the Assad regime is wobbling so badly that it would take the extreme measure of a war with Israel to unite the country behind the national leadership. These young Turks have convinced Assad that Israel is determined to avoid the kind of large-scale ground operation which went awry in the 2006 Lebanon War and will therefore focus on aerial bombardments of military bases and certain infrastructure targets such as bridges, power plants and water works. They estimate that even then, Israel will confine itself to a limited air offensive, because its policy-makers and military leaders alike will be leery of provoking reprisal by Syrian medium range ground-to-ground C and D Scud missiles against the central and southern populations.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources add that, by mid-July, the war faction appear to be winning the upper hand in the debate in Damascus, while the veteran generals appeared to be losing ground with President Assad.
At the same time, none of the two camps can know for sure exactly where aggressive action against Israel may lead. A Syrian military defeat in a battle for the Golan and heavy Israeli bombardments deep inside Syria would generate conditions for a military coup d’etat against Assad by generals held up as popular heroes for fighting Israel.
At the same time, Assad’s failure to repel heavy Israeli military pressure would open the door to Iranian military intervention and a tailor-made opportunity for ousting the regime in Damascus.