By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
NEW YORK - If there is anyone in Damascus contemplating the use of chemical weapons as a means of political survival he is utterly mistaken. Saddam Hussein tried that with the Kurds and look where he ended up - in the dustbin of history. No better destiny will await the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad if he resorts to the large stockpile of chemical weapons to stave off the advancing rebels.
Sure, he may strike a temporary blow, but it is a given that this will be tantamount to digging his own grave, as the opposition will be ever more determined to dislodge him forcefully and the international community will back them all they can.
In turn, this calls for a stern warning from Tehran to its traditional ally in Damascus that Syria should refrain from even contemplating, let alone preparing, the use of chemical weapons, otherwise it will be nearly impossible for Tehran to continue supporting Damascus. To do so would blemish Tehran and stigmatize it in the region for a long time, a heavy price no politician in Tehran is prepared to pay.
The growing fear that Assad may use his chemical canisters against ferocious opponents bent on the destruction of the Alawite-led regime has elicited a warning from US President Barack Obama regarding the “dire consequences”, one of which would be a more interventionist approach by the US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), perhaps leading to a “no-fly zone” in parts of Syria.
For its part, Tehran must also make clear to Assad that it does not wish to be associated with a regime that commits the taboo of mass carnage, since there are hundreds if not thousands of innocent civilians who are sure to die as a result of any use of chemical weapons. Iran prides itself for its high moral standards, which was reflected in its refusal to emulate Saddam Hussein’s chemical attacks during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, and therefore it cannot compromise its norms and principles so easily for the sake of a troubled ally.
The reason a public statement by the Iranian leaders regarding this matter is necessary and called for is that it can act as a break on Assad’s chemical warfare plans and simultaneously build confidence with aspects of the Syrian opposition. Tehran recently hosted a meeting for the more “loyal” Syrian opposition groups and the circle of its contact group with the Syrian opposition can grow if the latter are convinced that Iran behaves according to certain guidelines that are inspired by its Islamist world view.
On the contrary, should the news break out that Assad has used his chemical weapons without much concern about the plight of civilians, then it will be doubly difficult for Tehran to stand by that regime and continue to support it - even domestically this will become problematic in the light of presidential elections to be held in Iran next June.
Iran’s ethical behavior during the war with Iraq, mentioned above, can be a good point of reference for Assad, who should do much more to rein in his military to refrain from committing atrocities and let the other side further tarnish its own image - it has already come under fire because of multiple gruesome video images of their cold-blooded murder of their prisoners - thus allowing him to make some gains in the battle for the hearts and minds of Syrians.
That battle, already going badly for Assad’s regime, will undoubtedly spiral toward oblivion if the government uses chemical weapons, irrespective of whatever are the short-term gains. Nothing good in the long-term can come about as a result of such a decision. At present, Assad can still count on elements of the world community, for example Russia, China, Iran, some Latin nations, defending him, yet it will be doubly difficult for those regimes to sustain their support once the red line on chemical and biological weapons is crossed. In Iran in particular, the news will alienate many young and educated Iranians from any politician preaching solidarity with the Assad regime.
Still, chances are that Tehran may miscalculate the backlashes that the Assad regime will face if it is accused and found guilty of using chemical weapons. The reason behind an Iranian silence, on the other hand, is rather easy to understand; that is, a tendency to overlook a close ally’s misconduct and simply hope for the best.
This is a very short-sighted of and definitely not in line with either Iran’s national interests nor its Islamist self-understanding. This is why Tehran must act now, and publicly, by putting aside any and all hesitation and remind Assad that its support is not a bottomless pit and there are certain limits, one of which pertains to chemical and biological weapons.
The Ba’athists in Damascus may not like it, yet few in their ranks may have the foresight to realize that Iran has Damascus’s best interest in mind by pre-empting any use of chemical weapons through a forceful denunciation, one that is not predicated on political and military contingency and is, instead, categorical.