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Iran likely to boost assistance to Assad regime in the near term

By Ayham Kamel

Iranian leaders believe more and more that Western and Arab involvement in the uprising against Syrian President Bashar al Assad is designed to weaken the Islamic Republic. Tehran feels threatened by the so-called Sunni Triangle's (Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia) support for Syrian rebels, which Iran views as a complement to sanctions that aim to limit its regional influence and prestige. The United States's alliance with these countries makes it more difficult to resolve any disagreements over Syria. In this context, Iran finds supporting Assad -- at least in the near term -- as the best worst option. This policy isn't new, but the parameters of what Tehran is willing to provide have expanded.

The audacious bombing of the National Security Council in Damascus on 18 July probably represented a watershed moment in Iranian thinking about the uprising in Syria. The "nuclear" option, dispatching units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps to assist Assad's weakened forces, is very unlikely -- it would likely trigger a so-called Chapter 7 UN resolution authorizing Western military intervention or provide enough impetus to inspire a coalition of the willing. But Tehran, now more than ever, is willing to do more to help Syria's embattled president.

First, the Iranian regime is likely to divert perhaps tens of millions of euros to help Assad counteract the flight of foreign reserves. It views support of Assad as important enough to justify the diversion of scarce reserves despite the increasing domestic economic pain caused by international sanctions. Second, Iran is likely to boost its provisions of arms and intelligence to the Assad regime. It has so far been reluctant to provide a large amount of support out of fear that doing so would play into the Syrian opposition's efforts to divide the regime's base on sectarian grounds. As the threat to the Assad regime has grown, that calculus has changed. Finally, Hezbollah forces have a great deal of fighting experience that would be valuable to Assad. However, the regime will likely dispatch them in a covert manner to avoid destabilizing the Lebanese government.

Iran, for now, may have an unrealistic view of Assad's chances of staying in power, and of its own ability to influence the outcome. It is likely that Iran will eventually reduce or eliminate its assistance to Assad as the latter's position grows increasingly untenable. Biting sanctions, declining oil revenues, rampant inflation, and dwindling foreign reserves will force Iran to focus internally. In the long run, the Islamic Republic will not be able to afford supporting a sinking Syrian regime either financially or diplomatically.

Ayham Kamel is an analyst in Eurasia Group's Middle East practice.

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