For more than six years Syria has been on front pages and top headlines of the media in Iran as the most important international news story. The Syria “story” also enjoyed an almost unique position in the media scene in Iran because it was of keen interest to both those in power and society at large.
Those in power regarded Syria as of urgent importance because “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei has described the struggle there as “decisive” for the future of the Khomeinist revolution and its ambition to dominate the Middle East.
“The Tehran leadership believes that without maintaining control of Syria it would be unable to consolidate its gains in Lebanon and Iraq and spread its message to other Arab countries and Turkey,” says Iran media analyst Massoud Barazandeh. “In no other country has Iran spent so much money and offered so much blood. What Iran pays to use Hezbollah in Lebanon is chicken-feed compared to what it has spent in Syria.”
Khamenei’s interest in Syria isn’t limited to his need for a base to extend the Khomeinist zone of influence. It has deep emotional roots as well.
In 1984, Khamenei, then President of the Islamic Republic, visited Damascus for talks with then Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad. In a speech, Khamenei recalled that Damascus had been the capital of the Bani Umayyad who had “martyred” Hussein Ibn Ali, the third Imam of Shi’ism in 680 AD. Hussein had been killed in Karbala, Iraq, but his mortal remains and his captive family had been transported to Damascus.
In a speech, interrupted by his tears, Khamenei whose full-name is Husseini Khamenei, claimed that his visit as “a descendant of Hussein” to Damascus was in itself a symbol that the martyred imam was being avenged.
For the past six years, Khamenei has been repeating the mantra “We shall never leave Syria!”
In other countries of interest, Iran has shown a degree of pragmatism, toning down its involvement when the price gets too high.
In Lebanon, for example, Khamenei agreed to propel Michel Aoun, who had been Tehran’s bete-noire because of his collaboration with Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war, into the presidency because that was expedient. According to Tehran sources, the Lebanese branch of “Hezbollah” has also had to accept a modest pay-cut.
In Bahrain, Khamenei has so far refused to arm the Khomeinist groups challenging the monarchy or to organize attacks on the US naval base there.
More recently, in Yemen Khamenei ordered the transfer of Iran’s embassy from Sana’a to Muscat, Oman, and the withdrawal of at least half of the estimated 200 “military advisers” stationed to help the Houthi rebels.
Even in Iraq, the dire economic situation in Iran itself has forced Khamenei to order a cut in money spent on some 23 pro-Iran militia groups there.
But, at least until the end of 2017, support for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has remained constant.
That, however, may be changing.
One sign is that for the past two weeks at least Syria has been relegated to inside pages in the Tehran media. Even when Bashar’s army, backed by the Russian Air Force, launched what it boasted would be “the last great battle” in Idlib, the news didn’t make the front pages. The key reason, of course, was that Iran itself was shaken by more than 10 days of nationwide protests in which the slogan “Forget about Syria! Attend to our problems!” was a popular slogan.
There was no sign of multi-page reportages, dotted with photos in color, and TV footage “from the front-line” that have been dished out for more than six years.
There was also no sign of Jerusalem (Quds) Corps commander Qassem Soleimani, whose “selfies” have shown him leading the liberation of parts of Idlib as he had liberated Aleppo, Albukamal and Deir Ezzor before.
More importantly, perhaps, the usual hullabaloo regarding the martyrdom of “Defenders of the Shrines” was toned down significantly. In the first week of 2018 the remains of four Iranian officers killed in clashes around Damascus were buried in four cities without attracting the usual publicity.
To some observers, this was a sign that the decision-makers in Tehran begin to appreciate the deep unpopularity of Iran’s involvement in Syria’s seemingly endless tragedy.
One indication of that “appreciation” came in a long editorial in the daily Kayhan, believed to reflect Khamenei’s views.
The editorial expresses deep dissatisfaction with how things are going in Syria and the “political plan” proposed by Russia.
“Russia is making a lot of propaganda about its plan, presenting it as the best and most complete plan” the editorial says. “However, this plan is full of major defects that must be removed before Iran, the Syrian government and the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah agree with it.”
The editorial then singles out Khamenei’s opposition to three key features of the “Russian plan”.
“Iran,” it says, “cannot accept the creation of a parliamentary system, as opposed to the present presidential system, in Syria. “Nor can it accept the formation of a transition government composed of the (Syrian) government and its opponents.”
The editorial also rejects Russia’s proposal for the creation of a federal system in Syria.
Iran cannot accept a situation in which “Kurds, Alawites and Sunni Muslims each have their own zone of domination”, the paper says.
One reason, as far as Tehran is concerned, is that there are not enough Shi’ites in Syria to receive their chunk of territory in a federal Syria.
However, the deeply hidden purpose of the editorial is revealed in a short sentence.
“The process of future security developments (in Syria) can be pursued in a less costly way compared to previous years,” the Khamenei organ asserts.
This may well be a thinly disguised threat to Russia which is anxious to disentangle itself from Syria as fast as possible and transfer more of the financial burden to Iran. The message is: We want cost reduction, not an increase!
However, it may also be a message to Iranian protesters that the regime is contemplating a lower and less costly involvement in Syria, using Russian “double-dealing” as an excuse.
For more than two weeks there has been no news of new Iranian forces, or even “volunteers for martyrdom” from Pakistan and Afghanistan, being dispatched to Syria while Gen. Soleimani remains in purdah.
Iranian leaders may be beginning to understand that helping Bashar al-Assad kill more Syrians may prove too costly at home and abroad.