- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Col. Robert Killebrew (U.S. Army, ret.)
Best Defense guest columnist
Few in the West understand the stakes in the Syrian rebellion.
For Iran, maintaining the Assad regime is a vital interest in its attempt to break out of its Persian Gulf isolation. For that reason, the Iranian mullahs have put skin in the game — troops of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) as well as Hezbollah fighters that are deployed alongside units of the Syrian regular army and irregular police forces — and Iran shows every sign of being willing to do more. Barring any dramatic action by NATO or the United States, it is difficult to see how the Syrian opposition can prevail. The next two years may well see an emboldened Iran astride the Levant, a complaisant Assad regime propped up in power, Turkey and Jordan swamped with Syrian refugees, and Turkey and Israel confronted with a strengthened, hostile Iranian presence on their borders — in Turkey’s case, flanking a vulnerable Turkish salient extending across Syria and turning north along the current eastern border with Iran.
For Iran, propping up an Assad government in Damascus gives the mullahs access to an unmatched, dominating presence in the Levant — that stretch of geography from Israel’s southern border to eastern Turkey — that touches every frontline Mideast country. As well, a Syrian-Iranian victory offers Iran an outlet to the Mediterranean and access to the near-obsolete Russian naval facility at Tartus, a base that has begun to figure again in Russian plans for its navy. Wars never really return to the status quo ante, and a victory for the Assad regime, and a concomitant rise in influence and access for Iran to this strategic geography, changes for the foreseeable future the power balances and political relationships in the region and perhaps the world.
The consequences of a Levant dominated by Iran and Iranian aggressiveness should be carefully considered. Any hope for Lebanese independence will be lost, and supply lines through Syria and the Bekaa Valley — and possibly from Tartus — to Hezbollah will be fortified by Syrian and Iranian air defenses to make Israeli strikes more difficult. Israel will be under more pressure than ever, and Jordan more vulnerable.
One of the more consequential results of an Assad victory, though, will be rising tensions between Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran, with an exhausted Syria playing a passive, pass-through role. (It is interesting that, as Iranian attention shifts northwestward, the Saudis and other Gulf states will likely become bystanders to Sunni-Shia competition, instead of their accustomed role at the center of regional politics.)
As recent events in Turkey show, the pro-Islamist policies of current Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan have caused an unusual tide of domestic dissent. In the face of an external threat, however, there is every reason to believe the nation Ataturk founded will unite, and the (majority Sunni) Turkish people will stand behind their ubiquitous flag. Turkey through Erdogan has been outspoken that Assad should go; the Turks have sheltered refugees and assisted rebel forces. They have earned Iranian enmity. In a post-rebellion Levant with Assad still in power, there can be little doubt what Iran’s attitude will be toward Turkey. Even aside from the current proxy hostilities, the particular brand of Shia Islam that Ayatollah Khomeini installed after the Iranian Revolution makes mandatory Iran’s enmity to the West, and to the Sunni sect. Iran’s previous and more recent record of hostility to other governments, including aggression against States even outside the Mideast, is a good indication that it will be actively hostile to Turkey as well. Given free use of the interior of the Levant, with access to Russian arms and the resources of the Syrian state, Iran will be in an exceptionally strong geopolitical position to follow up its inclinations.
Competition between Sunni Turkey and Shia Iran can take many forms other than outright war, though that possibility cannot be discounted if the two states find themselves directly at odds, the Turks feel themselves at a geographical disadvantage, and Iranian hostility to Sunni Islam takes a more violent form. However, Iran has other options than all-out war. It is the world’s leading sponsor of modern terrorism, that strange mixture of murder and crime, and it has become adept at mobilizing and directing global networks of terrorist organizations and criminal mafias (which are often one and the same). An Iranian campaign against Turkey could well take place in Turkish cities, mosques, schools, and market squares, while marshaling strong conventional forces to dissuade a Turkish response. At the same time, the IRGC will most probably conduct terrorist attacks in Western countries and the United States as a demonstration and a warning of the cost of supporting Turkey, which has been a stalwart and supportive member of NATO since the alliance’s beginning.
How the West — and Europe in particular — comes to Turkey’s defense will be the most severe test of the alliance in its history. Today, Turkey balances between both sides of the Bosphorus. A Turkish intellectual once said to me, "Our generation thought the way for Turkey was toward Europe and the EU. But the younger generation (of which Erdogan is a member) has figured out that the EU is a white, Christian club. They will face east." The loss of the Turkish "bridge" to the Mideast, with all the explosive energy and industry of this growing, modern country, would be a disaster for the West. European policymakers may be tested to support an ally or give in to Iranian terrorist blackmail; if the choice is the latter, Europe will effectively have confirmed the "white, Christian club" and will have withdrawn from the Mideast. The choice for American policymakers will be as stark: The IRGC has already attempted at least one terror attack inside the United States, and there is every reason to believe it would be tried again in the case of U.S. support for its Turkish ally and, indirectly, Israel as well. As the Iranian nuclear program progresses, the long-term potential of Iranian short- or medium-range nuclear missiles should not be discounted.
Whether Assad falls or stays in office will result in historic realignments in the Middle East and the Mediterranean littoral — the Levant, from which the state of Syria was carved. As Iran ups the ante and the West fumbles for a response, chances increasingly favor Assad’s survival as an Iranian puppet. Iranian suzerainty over Syria and a breakout into the Levant will give it an enormous geographical advantage from which to attack both Israel and Sunni Turkey, already a foe in all but name. The confluence of these political, cultural, and military events presages not only an uncomfortable near-term future, but also the potential for prolonged and bitter religious war through this century. American policymakers should consider carefully future U.S. options as events unroll in Syria.