Haaretz recently offered some empty speculation concerning the rumors of a Turkish intervention in Syria should Assad not end the violence against the Syrian people: Turkey sends troops to Syria, and Iran retaliates by sending troops to Bahrain. It seems unlikely that Turkey would send its military into Syria and there is nothing to support the hypothesis that Iran would send its military to Bahrain. To do so would be to create an inevitable conflict with Saudi Arabia and the rest of the GCC – if not more. It seems like Iran would support the Assad regime through arms shipments as well as through diplomatic and financial support (also allegedly pressuring Iraq to help); Iran is reportedly even helping the Assad regime put down protests.
In other words, Iran recognizes it has a clear interest in Assad retaining the top post in Syria. Not only has Assad been a loyal ally, but he is also the link between Iran and Hezbollah, Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. There is also a religious aspect to the potential post-Assad period that Iran fears: nearly 75% of Syrians are Sunni – by far the dominant religion in Syria – whereas only 13% are Shi’a (including the Alawite sect, which many do not consider to be Muslim.) Should a democratic Syria emerge, it is likely that Syria would take more religiously driven policies that would conflict with the ideals of the (Shi’a) Islamic Revolution in Iran.
Yet, some believe that Iran (specifically Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei) could be stepping away from its unwavering pro-Assad line. Meir Javedanfar, writing in the Guardian argues that Iran has already taken steps away from Assad and, while still supporting the Syrian regime, is taking steps to prepare for a Syria without Assad. Iran holds economic interests in Syria that it doesn’t want to lose and understands the geopolitical value of Syria within the resistance axis. Should Khamenei feel as though his attachment to Assad harm any of these Iranian interests, it is likely drop Assad – so the argument goes.
(Interestingly, Javedanfar also points to a report that Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah has stepped back from his support for Assad and is asking the Syrian leader to adhere to the demands of the Syrian people.)
While the Iranian regime is certainly more interested in maintaining its own interests, I am not sure that Khamenei would drop Assad so quickly. The theoretical backing for Javedanfar’s argument is simple: Iran will support change if it provides benefits, or at least minimizes damage. The material evidence included a review of PressTv’s (the Iranian state media) coverage of the Syrian crisis includes more stories and facts about the brutality of the Syrian regime. As PressTv is a state media outlet, there is something to be said about the evolution of the reportage on Syria. However, if the reports of concrete Iranian support for Assad are true, it seems unlikely that any new Syrian regime would forget Iran’s role. Iranian support, it would seem, is too deep to be quickly forgotten.
Should it become obvious that Assad is falling (far from a certainty at this point), Iran will distance itself; Khamenei will not support a lost cause. However, the challenges for Iran of a new Sunni-led regime in Syria will be present whether Khamenei cuts off Assad today or the day before he falls. In other words, Iran will continue supporting Assad until it is unquestionably clear that the regime is doomed. Considering the likelihood of Assad retaining power in Syria, it would be surprising if Iran stopped supporting the Assad regime.