After the fall of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, Iran fears that Damascus might be next. Anti-regime protests have been continuing for the past five months in Syria. The regime has been responding to the spontaneous uprising by killing over 2.000 people. Nevertheless, Syrian protestors say they will keep on demonstrating until the regime of Bashar al-Assad, Iran's staunchest ally, will be toppled.
The Iranian leadership knows that if the Assad regime falls, the Iranian expansionist dream of recreating the greatness of the Persian Empire -- from the Pakistani border to the Mediterranean Sea -- will be doomed. Iran has simply been using Damascus as a spearhead into the Arab world.
Syria's isolation entails a weakening of the Iranian regime, and at a time when it is aiming to impose itself as a regional superpower. Despite the bullish rhetoric that Iranian leaders keep on dispensing, the Iranian regime is currently in trouble: without Assad, Iran will be isolated.
On August 27, however, Iran's Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi said that the Syrian regime should recognize the "legitimate" rights of its people: "Both in Yemen, Syria or any other country, people have some legitimate demands and governments should answer them as soon as possible," Salehi said. His statements echo the words of Iran's President, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who said that the Syrian government should reach an understanding with the demonstrators.
Salehi and Ahmadinejad's statements do not stem from the fact that the Iranian government abhors violence, but rather, from the fact that Iran now needs to improve its image among the Syrian people. Teheran feels that Assad might fall at any time. To keep on defending the repression of the demonstrators, therefore, would just damage the Iranian regime -- not only with the Syrian population, but also among the Arab and Muslim world.
Radio Free Europe (RFE) reports that protesters in Syria have been burning Iranian flags and chanted slogans against the Islamic republic in retaliation for its support for Assad. Further, these images have been circulating on YouTube among members of Iran's opposition, who have shared them on social networking sites. In an interview with RFE, the Paris-based analyst and researcher, Mohammad Javad Akbarein, said that the Iranian regime is trying to make statements showing sympathy to the Syrian protestors in an attempt to "decrease the hatred and anger that has been created in the Syrian society toward Iran because of its support for Assad, as well as to protect [the regime's] interests in the event that Assad's regime collapses." Iran cannot afford to have an post-revolutionary Syria as its enemy.
In the meantime, Iran is trying to lobby against a foreign intervention in Syria. Teheran fears that the West, after having successfully toppled the Libyan dictatorship, might be encouraged to start a similar military operation in Syria. Salehi has therefore warned NATO against any temptation to intervene in Syria, saying that instead of defeating a regime, they would be stuck in a "quagmire" similar to Iraq or Afghanistan. "Syria is the front-runner in Middle Eastern resistance [to Israel], and NATO cannot intimidate this country with an attack,"Salehi stated.
The Syrian regime, however, seems to be more and more isolated. Hamas refused to give its support to Assad, even though for many years Damascus hosted its political bureau.
The Syrian regime recently extended its brutality to a Palestinian refugee camp near the port city of Latakia. Syrian forces opened fire on the camp, causing an undisclosed number of victims, and obliging 10.000 refugees to flee. Even Turkey is withdrawing support from Syria. The paper Gulf News reports that Turkey apparently suspended all forms of dialogue with its neighbor even though in the last years, relations between Turkey and Syria had deepened. The two countries had dropped visa requirements, and in 2009 had started joint military training exercises. But the latest developments in Syria were too much even for Ankara's Islamist leaders.
Turkish President Abdullah Gul said he has been receiving detailed daily intelligence reports on the shootings of protesters in its neighbor, Syria. "We have lost our confidence," Gul said in an interview with Turkey's state-run Anatolia news agency published recently. For his part, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the government of Syria's President, Bashar al-Assad, risks the fate of others toppled in the region this year if it does not stop its deadly crackdown. "A regime cannot survive with force, by killing unarmed people on the streets with heavy weaponry," Erdogan said.
Iran needs Assad as an ally to keep its foot in the Arab world and to have access to Lebanon to provide weapons and support to Hezbollah. Moreover, if Syria falls, that development could encourage the Iranian opposition to go out in the streets again and defy the regime. Salehi's statements of sympathy towards Syrian protestors will not fool any post-revolutionary Syrian government: such a new government will support toppling the mullahs' regime. That is why, if a democracy movement succeeds in Syria, the Iranian regime might be the next to go.