The Magazine

The Brezhnev Doctrine, Iran-style

Tehran pulls out all the stops to win in Syria

Jun 3, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 36 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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“We cannot afford to lose this one. A Sunni government in Syria would align with Turkey or the Gulf Arabs or the West, or some combination of them, against us. The bridge between Iran and Hezbollah would be lost. Hezbollah would be badly weakened, thus weakening our ability to threaten Israel. Israel would be more likely to attack our nuclear sites for this very reason​—​because it would think Hezbollah and Iran are weaker. Our influence in Iraq would fall too. People would say the rise of Iranian and Shia influence in the region was now over. Hezbollah’s enemies in Lebanon, the Sunnis above all, would be energized. People would realize Russia is no match for the Americans. So we must win, and we will dedicate to winning any resources that are needed. As to the humanitarian toll, we don’t care about Sunnis in Syria, or about weakening Turkey or especially Jordan; in fact, those would be nice side benefits from the struggle in Syria. There is only one point here: Do we win or do we lose? We have decided to win.”

Three news stories last week illustrate this. From the May 22 New York Times we learned that

Qassim Suleimani, the Quds Force commander, recently ordered Iranian artillery and armor officials to help Mr. Assad’s regime, American officials say. And Mr. Suleimani has also requested that several hundred fighters from Asaib al-Haq and Kataib Hezbollah, two Iraqi Shiite militias that have been trained by the Iranians, join the war effort in Syria, according to officials familiar with the intelligence assessments. Iran is heavily involved in training thousands of members of Mr. Assad’s militia, the Jaish al-Sha’bi, including in Iran.

The Washington Post reported on May 21 that “Iran has sent soldiers to Syria to fight alongside forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad and those of the Lebanon-based Hezbollah militia, a senior State Department official said Tuesday. An unknown number of Iranians are fighting in Syria, the official said, citing accounts from members of the opposition Free Syrian Army, which is backed by the United States.”

The Economist in London reported,

Mr Assad’s allies, Iran and Hizbullah, the Lebanese Shia movement, have backed the regime with more dedication than the Gulf Arab and Western states have helped the opposition. .  .  . Hizbullah and the Iranian al-Quds force are helping to train a new “national defence force” of 50,000 drawn from the mainly Alawite militias. Recent sectarian killings in and near the port of Banias suggest a plan to cleanse some of those areas of Sunnis. Hundreds of them have been killed in what seem to have been premeditated massacres.

A good summary of where things stand: They have decided to win, and we have not.

Prudent voices will say that “winning” is a ridiculous concept in the context of Syria today. Not to Hezbollah and Iran it isn’t; “winning” means Assad stays in power. So far, so good for their side. Many people (myself included) did not think the regime would last this long, but that miscalculation was due to underestimating the willingness of Iran and Hezbollah to make this their fight, by sending unlimited quantities of money and arms, and then sending thousands of fighters. And due to a further miscalculation: thinking that with this high a humanitarian toll, and the rising threat to stability in Jordan, and the violation of the chemical weapons red line, and the direct Iranian and Hezbollah role, the Obama administration would be forced to do something serious. So far, so bad for our side. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps and Hezbollah probably wondered if we would really tolerate their sending an expeditionary force to Syria, which in effect they are doing. They have their answer now; we would.

This amounts to a kind of Khamenei Doctrine, in memory of the Brezhnev Doctrine. For those too young to remember, Brezhnev said this in November 1968 in Poland:  “The weakening of any of the links in the world system of socialism directly affects all the socialist countries, which cannot look indifferently upon this.”

This was stated three months after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and the meaning was clear: No one leaves the Warsaw Pact and the Soviet camp. Today, substitute Shia for Soviet​—​and the Khamenei Doctrine holds that a country that is part of the Iranian security system, what King Abdullah of Jordan once called the Shia Crescent, will be kept in that system. At all costs. That is what winning means for Iran.

Are we going to accept that—​coming now not from a global superpower with a gigantic nuclear arsenal, but from a Third World country of 75 million? Reality forces us to answer “maybe.”

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