As Chaos Grows in Syria, Worries Grow on the Sidelines

TEHRAN — Gone is the talk here that last year’s Arab Spring was a gift from God.

Now some in Iran are even starting to worry about how much might be at stake if President Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, long a client state of Iran’s, collapses — which after a fifth day on Thursday of heavy street fighting in Damascus no longer sounds inconceivable.

The fall of the Assad government would remove Shiite Iran’s last and most valued foothold in the Arab world, and its opening to the Mediterranean. It would give Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states their long-sought goal of countering Iranian influence in the region, finally splitting the alliance between Tehran and Damascus that has lasted for decades. And it would further erode Iran’s role as a patron of the Middle East’s revolutionaries, a goal that moderate Arabs and the United States have long sought.

Already the militant Palestinian group Hamas, long dependent on Syria and Iran, has thrown its support behind the Syrians in the streets seeking Mr. Assad’s overthrow.

Worse might follow, from Tehran’s point of view. Iran and Syria’s last revolutionary ally, the Hezbollah party that dominates Lebanon, would lose one of its main sources of weapons and financial support. And Lebanon’s fragile sectarian balance might be torn apart, raising the threat of another civil war there.

On Wednesday, Hezbollah quickly responded to the government’s worst day so far to make its strongest declaration that it would not abandon Mr. Assad.

In a televised address on Wednesday night, the Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah, offered eloquent condolences for the deaths of the three high-ranking Syrian officials killed earlier in the day. “These martyr leaders were comrades in arms in the conflict with the Israeli enemy, and we are confident that the Arab Syrian Army, which overcame the unbearable, will be able to persist and crush the hopes of the enemies,” he said.

He credited Mr. Assad and his government with the victory that Hezbollah claimed against Israel in the 2006 war in Lebanon and with saving Gaza during the 2009 Israeli incursion. “The most valuable weapons we had in our possession were from Syria,” he said. “The missiles we used in the second Lebanon war were made in Syria. And it’s not only in Lebanon but in Gaza as well. Where did these missiles come from? The Saudi regime? The Egyptian regime? These missiles are from Syria.”

It was a stunning testament, said Fawaz A. Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics. “For Hezbollah, it is a point of no return now,” he said. With the speech, “Hezbollah made it very clear that there is an umbilical cord between the Syrian regime and Hezbollah, and this umbilical cord is existential. They are, as he said, comrades in arms.”

Iran, too, has been staunch in its support of Syria, whose ruling Alawite minority belong to a branch of Shiite Islam, the predominant faith in Iran. Tehran continues to provide Mr. Assad with economic and public support, and it might be sending military assistance as well.

But some voices inside Iran are worried about the awkward position imposed on anyone who supports Mr. Assad against what seems like an increasingly popular and widespread uprising.

“We are supporting some uprisings and ignoring others,” said Mashallah Shamsolvaezin, a Middle East analyst based in Tehran. “Arab people do not believe us anymore. We come across as antagonists, following our political agenda.”

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran was once a model for the region, but the Arab world’s revolutionaries now look to Egypt, he said, with its experiment in democratizing an Islamic society. “Instead of gaining influence, we are witnessing the emergence of new powerful countries that in the future could pose a challenge to us,” Mr. Shamsolvaezin said.

A year ago, Hossein Alaei, a former admiral in the Revolutionary Guards, predicted on the Web site Irandiplomacy that “ideally” Mr. Assad would survive. “But this ideal might not be fulfilled,” Mr. Alaei wrote. “We should think of other ways to protect our national security.”

Iran’s unrelenting support for Syria has cost it other friends in the region, as the Arab Spring gives aspiring young rebels a model other than the revolution of Iran’s elderly ayatollahs. Most Arabs are Sunnis rather than Shiites. Beginning in February, the leadership of Hamas, which had long enjoyed a friendly exile in Damascus and military support from Iran, began moving to Qatar and other havens and publicly expressed support for Syria’s revolutionaries. With Iran hampered and hurt financially by Western sanctions, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have proven to be more helpful and better-financed allies.

The Nasrallah speech tried to make it seem “as if nothing had happened since then, as if the Arab Spring did not happen,” said Sami Nader, an analyst and a professor of international relations at St. Joseph University in Beirut.

“This is the most important transformation in the history of the Arab world,” Mr. Nader said, “and it is proving that Islam and democracy are compatible.”

The speech was in effect an acknowledgment of how completely Hezbollah depends on the Assad government’s survival. “He is telling them he is not going to leave Assad alone,” said Sarkis Naoum, a columnist for An-Nahar in Beirut, “that by protecting Assad he will be protecting his party, himself and his community, and also the interests of Syria and Iran.”

Mr. Naoum said he worried about what would happen in Lebanon if the Syrian government collapsed, or descended further into sectarian conflict. Many sectarian fault lines in Syria — Alawites and Christians versus Sunnis, for instance — are mirrored in Lebanon, which has large Christian, Alawite and Sunni minorities of its own. Already, there have been conflicts between Alawites and Sunnis in northern Lebanon. Hezbollah has refrained from any action that would threaten strife, but that may change, Mr. Naoum suggested.

“If it feels threatened by chaos in Syria, or even Assad’s regime collapses, it will have to take action inside Lebanon, at least to paralyze those who are working with the rebels, especially in the north,” he said.

“It is a lose-lose situation for Hezbollah,” he said. “Either they stay on what most Arabs would say is the wrong side of history, or they abandon an ally that links them with the rest of the Shiite world and find themselves isolated.”

An Assad victory would change that thinking, of course, and Mr. Nasrallah professed confidence. “We are confident that the Syrian Army, which has had to cope with the intolerable, has the ability, determination and resolve to endure and foil the enemies’ hopes,” he said.

That, too, is the prevailing official view in Tehran, which has its own example of successfully repressing popular dissent, after the 2009 elections. “Have no doubt, Assad’s regime will survive,” said Hamid Reza Taraghi, an Iranian foreign policy expert and a politician whose views are close to the Iranian government’s.

Mr. Shamsolvaezin was not so sure. “We were popular some years ago, but our ethical decisions have made a crisis for us,” he said. “We hoped all in the region would turn away from the U.S. Now, we should be careful they do not turn their backs on us.”

Thomas Erdbrink reported from Tehran, and Rod Nordland from Cairo. Mai Ayyad contributed reporting from Cairo.

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