Robert Jervis in “Perception and Misperception in International Politics” investigates how international political decision-makers perceive themselves, other actors, and the environment; how perceptions and misperceptions can influence their decisions; and how such decisions can influence outcomes in international politics. This issue is very true to Iran’s attitudes toward Syrian developments.
The explosion in the building of the Syrian National Security Council and the assassination of the Syrian Defense Minister and other top brass have been characterized as a unique and turning-point event in Syria’s political developments since the start of the unrest. It seems that the main purpose of this action has been to show the fragility of the regime and to challenge the role of Russia, China, and Iran in Syria’s international balance of power.
The Syrian opposition tries to complicate the crisis through the lessening of the army’s morale. They have wanted to prove that even the heartland of Bashar Al- Assad’s regime is not secure anymore. By dragging the war into Aleppo and trying to make another Benghazi in Syria, the situation is getting out of control at this juncture. One of the questions that are raised after this event is that: will the policy of Iran towards Syria change after these events? Why, unlike in other Arab revolutions, have the developments against President Assad not been supported by Tehran?
To answer these questions, it has to be noted that in Tehran’s perception; the nature of events in Syria is different from other Arab Spring countries for the following reasons:
1. Iran’s understanding is that in countries such as Bahrain, Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, the majority of people opposed the ruling regime and just a weak minority supported them; but it is quite the reverse in Syria. The vast majority of people in Syria have repeatedly expressed their support for the president and just a minority, mainly from border cities, has been pitched against the government. In Iran’s opinion, Syrian people’s participation in two consecutive elections in recent months is a case of this claim. The Syrian opposition include groups such as Al-Qaeda, the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (unlike Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has Salafist tendencies), and the dissident Kurds. There are some other small groups that are in line with the strategy of opposition. The types of massacres by the rebels in Syria show that it is similar to others where perpetrated by Salafist groups, such as mutilation, skinning, scorching, and other evil deeds.
2. In Tehran’s perception, the Syrian regime is not dependent on the West; in contrast to the other Arab leaders, who were puppets of the US. One target of other Arab Spring uprisings have been against the US and Israel, while the Syrian regime is completely anti-American and anti-Israeli. Tehran believes that the Syrian rebels have been incited and assisted mainly by the US and Israel.
3. The assistance of reactionary Arab sultans such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar against Syria are a good evidence of this claim that the issue of Syria is not reform or democracy. In Tehran’s mind, it is unlikely for the non-democratic sultans to strive for democracy.
This is why Iran has supported the movement of people in the other Arab Spring cases, but movement within Syria is not labeled as a “genuine movement” by Tehran. Accordingly, the Supreme Leader in Iran opined that Tehran just supports movements which are “Islamic” and “anti-arrogance”; in Tehran it is believed that the Syrian opposition movement not only does not have any of these features, but also, unfortunately, is in line with the world arrogance, i.e. America.
Since the beginning of the unrest in Syria, while Iran has confirmed the rights of people in their legitimate demands, it has opposed adventurous interference in the internal affairs of Syria. Iran has called on Syria to accelerate the reform process, so to meet the greater satisfaction of its citizens. Therefore, Tehran believes that it has not ignored the opponents or the people’s legitimate demands. Iran believes that political reforms will result in a favorable situation in Syria, while anarchy or foreign interference will not bring about any benefit for the people of Syria. In Tehran’s view, the current situation in Syria is just dragging the country into civil war and destruction, not a promising future.
Furthermore, Iran believes that its strategic depth has been extended to the borders of Israel after 1980, right after the Islamic revolution in Iran. So, the Lebanese and Syrian borders are virtually the strategic border between Iran and Israel or the US in other terms. In fact, Syria is considered as the front line; Tehran believes that the Iran’s so- called enemies know that without breaking the front line, it is not possible to infiltrate the heartland, i.e. Iran. In Tehran’s perception, Syria, Iran, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas have formed an alliance against Israel, while Syria plays the role of bridge to that front. The US and Israel know very well that toppling the Syrian regime means destruction of the bridge. If they eliminate Syria, the connection between Iran and Hezbollah and other anti-Israeli movements will cut. Therefore, Iran views Syria from this perspective and has been opposed to any foreign military option in Syria; because any change in the political scene in the region, particularly the political system in Syria, may weaken the geopolitical depth of Iran. So, for political, ideological, and geopolitical reasons, Iran will continue its current policy toward Syria.
Tehran believes that the Western and regional allies’ utmost strife to weaken the Assad Regime shows that the West views developments the same way. The West’s ardent opposition to any participation of Iran in any international diplomacy on Syria shows that it is not seeking to reduce violence in Syria, but just to shorten the circle of siege against what Iran calls it “resistance against Zionism”. The West and its allies in some Arab states, those who exert political pressure on Assad’s regime and offer financial support and weapons as well as media coverage to the armed opposition groups, have shown that they are not seeking a political solution to the crisis. Iran believes that only conventional methods for legal and political reform in Syria are a natural and reasonable right of the people of Syria.
Given to such perceptions, it is believed that Tehran will exert its utmost efforts to keep the status quo as it is; even if it entails the risk of political isolation.