Iranian authorities have realized that their longtime ally in Syria is on the way out and have held talks with members of the opposition about a transitional regime, reports the Los Angeles Times. From the piece (with excellent reporting from Ramin Mostaghim and Alexandra Sandels) it appears that Iran’s government is still not willing to break with Assad, but is increasingly and reluctantly coming to conclude that efforts to save him are doomed.
For those concerned about a possible US-Iranian military conflict — which is to say everyone in the world who cares about war, peace and the price of oil and gas — this is an important moment of truth. The loss of its key ally in Syria will bring dramatic changes to Iran’s position. Will the ruling mullahs and their allies decide that it’s time to call off the confrontation before Tehran is even weaker and more isolated, or will they double down on nukes and a hard line in the belief that nothing else can save them? One way or another, the course of the war in Syria will help determine whether the US finds itself in yet another Middle East war, and watching the Iranians process what looks like the downward spiral in Assad’s fortunes offers clues as to how the larger drama will go.
We aren’t at the decision point yet. At this point the Iranians don’t seem to have completely accepted that their ally cannot survive and the debate in Tehran over Syria policy isn’t over. The government looks to be floundering around hoping to save something out of the wreckage. Experts and officials talk about preserving the “structure of the Syrian state,” presumably hoping for Assadism without Assad: an Alawite dominated state structure that would continue to align with Iran while offering restive Sunnis more economic and political space. The current situation on the ground makes it unlikely that the Sunni opposition would settle for this now, but if the government’s military situation stabilizes, Tehran seems to hope that international pressures for a negotiated, compromise solution would grow.