In the spring of 2014, a handful of Syrian, Lebanese and Iranian activists held a protest in Berlin denouncing Tehran’s involvement in the Syrian war.
“Syria is Iran’s Vietnam,” read the signs in English, Arabic and Farsi. From there, the grassroots activist network Naame Shaam (Letter from Syria) was born. The group of mostly unnamed activists is led by Fouad Hamdan, a Lebanese political advisor and trainer in emerging Arab democracies since 2011.
It is not a stretch to see why security for these activists remains a concern. Naame Shaam began publicly challenging Iran soon after that protest by asking questions such as: How much of the public’s funds is the Iranian government spending to arm and support the Syrian regime? How many Pasdaran members are fighting alongside Syrian regime forces? What are Iran’s goals in Syria?
“All military operations in Syria are being run, commanded, controlled, organized and coordinated by the Pasdaran and Hezbollah,” Fouad Hamdan tells Syria Direct’s Kristen Demilio during a recent visit to Washington DC to discuss Iran’s ongoing interests in Syria.
The Syrian regime is no longer in charge of this war, says Hamdan, who asked that the city he is based in not be disclosed for security reasons.
“What regime are we talking about in Syria? It doesn't exist anymore. It's an empty shell,” he says.
Iran is the sponsor of the Syrian side of the war, and despite the nuclear deal, the only possible hope to save Syria is to defeat it there, Hamdan says.
“We are in a situation where a compromise with the Iranian regime on Syria is impossible,” says Hamdan.
“It's a war where someone has to be defeated.”
Below, the first of a two-part interview.
Q: What is the Iranian goal in Syria? If Iran wants to control Syria, how can they sustain that in a Sunni-majority country?
Why has Iran invested billions of dollars to establish its army in Lebanon, Hezbollah? Hezbollah is Iran in Lebanon, it is the Pasdaran in Lebanon. Hezbollah is not like any other party in Lebanon that you can buy and sell and that will change alliances - no. Hezbollah is organically part of Iran. They are the best fighting force in the region.
I tell US officials, and they do not contradict me, that the main reason for the Iranian regime's determination to save the Assad regime at any cost is to maintain Iran’s ability to ship arms to Hezbollah in Lebanon via Syria. The strategic goal is to keep Hezbollah as a strong deterrent against any possible Israeli or Western attacks on Iran's military nuclear facilities. Remember that Syria has been the lifeline of Iran’s army in Lebanon, Hezbollah, since 2006. Hezbollah’s raison d'être is to enable the Iranian regime to build a nuclear bomb.
By putting Hezbollah on the northern border of Israel, the Iranian regime is telling Israel and the West, you can't do with us what you've done with the Iraqis or the Syrians, bombing any nuclear installation they build.
The regime in Tehran has wasted billions of dollars to create Hezbollah to be able at some point to build its own nuclear arms. "If you bomb us, missiles will rain on Tel Aviv." That is what Iran is saying.
Q: Would they do it?
Are you kidding - of course they would do it. In 2006, Hezbollah was on the verge of firing missiles on Tel Aviv. Not the pathetic little Grads and Katyushas, but very nasty and much more accurate missiles like the Fateh-110. No Israeli system can stop dozens fired at the same time on one target. They would probably do it the moment Hezbollah and Iran feel they are being defeated in Syria and have to withdraw.
Having said that, one has to ask the question - so why are they fighting like hell for the Syrian regime? They could just dump it and withdraw to Lebanon and that's it.
You know what happened at the end of the Hezbollah-Israel war in the summer of 2006: UN Security Council Resolution 1701 imposed an arms embargo on all Lebanese parties other than the army. (See points 8 and 14 in particular of the resolution here.)
It was a defeat for Hezbollah, which sold the war as a victory. It was their defeat because from that day on, all the weapons coming to Hezbollah come through Syria. If Syria falls, Hezbollah will not be able to get weapons. And if they cannot fight, they cannot serve Iran as a deterrence force.
The moment you start a war, a lot of your equipment will be bombed, so you need a steady influx of weapons, which was the case in 2006 with weapons coming in daily through Syria. Otherwise Hezbollah would have lasted a week or two, maximum.
Iran is fighting in Syria to keep Hezbollah as its most important, most formidable deterrent force. It is their number-one line of defense. That's it.
The funding of rebels in Syria by the Gulf Arabs, the Turks, the West is basically to choke Hezbollah. The regime of Syria is dead; it doesn’t exist anymore. Finished. This is not about Syria, this is about Hezbollah.
It's all linked to the dream of the Iranian nuclear bomb. Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani [of the Iranian Army of the Guardians of the Revolution and the commander of the Quds Force] will fight until the last Lebanese Shiite and the last Syrian Alawite to get it. The moment he and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have the bomb, they will drop everything and everybody in Syria.
Q: What do you see in Damascus, in the inner circle – what is happening? Talk about the regime being an empty shell.
The fact is that all military operations in Syria are being run, commanded, controlled, organized and coordinated by the Pasdaran and Hezbollah. Not a single battle happens in Syria without them knowing and coordinating and even giving the orders for it to happen.
Not a single barrel bomb with chlorine gas hits civilians without the knowledge or even the order given by Pasdaran and Hezbollah. And this makes them co-responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in Syria.
The economy in regime-held areas collapsed some time around the end of 2012, early 2013. We can say, and it's official, the Iranians also say it, Iran is pumping $500 million every month into the Central Bank of Syria so that salaries can be paid and that the Syrian lira does not totally collapse.
In addition to that, they fund Alawite and other Shiite militias in Syria fighting for the regime. They pay the bills for the Syrian army, and regularly send food, fuel and other commodities for regime-held areas. The level of the economic and military support from the Iranian regime to the Syrian regime is at such a level now that we are talking of about $1 billion per month – Iran is wasting between $10 billion to $15 billion a year in Syria.
If you put all of that together, and note that the Syrian paramilitary shabiha were also formed by Iran on the model of the Basij, tell me, what regime are we talking about in Syria? It doesn't exist anymore. It's finished. It's an empty shell.
And in our opinion, these guys [Assad and associates] are de facto hostages of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani - the whole Assad family is still there. No one can fly, no one can leave.
It is no longer accurate to describe the war in Syria as a “conflict” between Syrian rebels on the one hand and Bashar al-Assad's regime forces supported by the Pasdaran, Hezbollah and Iraqi and Afghan militias on the other. The Assad regime would have collapsed long time ago if it was not for this Iranian support. The Iranian regime and its Shiite militias are effectively an occupying force in the so-called regime held areas in Syria.
This is the narrative we are trying to push forward since November 2014 and it is picking up.
Q: What are your thoughts on Assad himself? You are of course familiar with his pedantic, patronizing style in Arabic, his arrogance and inability to connect with the suffering of Syrians. What's your assessment of him as an isolated person and even as a human being?
He's a ruthless dictator who is sacrificing his country to keep his family in power. It's very simple.
Q: Was he always that way? I believe he was.
He was always like that. When he came to power in 2000, following pressure from the West, he opened up and we had the Damascus Spring. That was a joke. He allowed people to speak out, he released some political prisoners from jail, some dissidents returned from exile. After a while, he showed who he really was and cracked down.
Q: How in this situation, and even in the Arab world writ large, are you anything other than ibn abu [his father's son]? None of them is fundamentally different from his father.
None of them. In Syria, it's a dictatorship that killed tens of thousands of people before the revolution and the Assad family has no problem with that. Bashar al-Assad said it at one point: he is willing to incinerate Syria just to stay in power. And he's doing it without mercy, with the support of the Pasdaran and Hezbollah.
Q: Do you see Assad as having changed in any way over the past four years? Or has he just become himself?
You're asking me a question that gives the impression you still believe there is something called an Assad regime and an Assad who can take any serious decisions. This is not the case.
I answer you by saying, Assad doesn't matter. Assad is a puppet. Assad is a spokesman of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, saying what needs to be said in the eyes of the Iranian regime, whether that there is no barrel bombs, every Sunni is a jihadist or terrorist, we are the only ones who can protect minorities in the region, we are secular. This is Iran talking to the West via the mouth of Mr. Bashar al-Assad.
Q: Hafez al-Assad did not have this relationship with Iran. Why the dramatic shift with Assad fils?
I disagree. From the beginning, when he inherited this country, Bashar al-Assad also inherited a strategic alliance between the Assad regime and the Iranian regime. It was cemented in 1983 when Hafez al-Assad allowed Iran to set up Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Q: But now it's not a strategic alliance; it's a relationship of subservience on the part of Assad.
Yes and no, that's why our November 2014 report has the title: "Iran and Syria, from an ally of the regime to an occupying force." It was a strategic relationship in which Syria became very dependent on Iran. Let us go back to 1983, when that alliance was forged on a large scale, on a military scale after the Syrian army was defeated in Lebanon by Israel the year before.
The Syrian army in 1982 was pushed to the Beqaa Valley in the east and to Tripoli in the north. Hafez al-Assad realized he was losing Lebanon and his leverage with it to ever get back the Golan Heights and play a serious regional role. Ayatollah Khomeini came and told him, “don't worry, we're willing to support you, the Shiite population in Lebanon in 1982 is in disarray, and we will fill the vacuum.”
This helped Hafez al-Assad regain Lebanon. From 1983 onward, Lebanon was a shared property of the Iranian and Syrian regimes. In 2000, Bashar al-Assad inherited exactly that. So there was a dependence, as an ally. After the start of the Syrian revolution in March 2011, it turned from an alliance into an occupation because the dependence of the regime increased, and at some point in 2012 the Pasdaran and Hezbollah took over.
Hafez al-Assad sold his soul to the devil and that devil at some point took more from his son, Bashar. No more Syrian sovereignty, no more Syrian regime.
Q: I remember us in 2013 covering the presence of Iranian soldiers in Syria. It was new and hard to believe for the outside world at that point, but we would see videos uploaded to YouTube showing hand-written pages with basic Arabic phrases and their equivalents in Farsi confiscated from soldiers fighting in Syrian army uniforms. We were trying to raise the alarm that Iran had a presence inside Syria. Iran was hiding it at that point. I feel like Iran realized somewhere along the line as more videos and accounts inside Syria came out that ultimately the world did not care that it was taking over the war and they stopped hiding it. What do you think?
This slow takeover of Syria happened at the same time as a growing Iraqi Shiite dependence on Iran. This resulted in the Iranians having a hard time reining in their egos. You have Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani showing himself regularly in Iraq, but not as often in Syria.
Q: Why is that? One notable picture of Soleimani earlier this year in Syria comes to mind.
Yes, from January or February on the southern frontline in Daraa. But they are more subtle in Syria. Why? Because they don't want to be seen as responsible for all the crimes against humanity and war crimes in Syria committed by the regime.
In Syria, the problem is that if it becomes too obvious, you cannot hide anymore that you are a de facto occupying force. When you are a de facto occupying force, you are legally responsible for the people you are occupying according to international law. We at Naame Shaam argue that every crime that has happened in Syria, that Iran is behind it, and as an occupying force they are even more responsible for it.
Maj. Gen. Soleimani was also sending a message to Israel: We are here and we are getting closer to the Golan Heights. His goal is to control the area east of the Golan Heights in order to open a new line of defense for Iran. If you ever think of bombing us, Israel, you're not going to get missiles only from Lebanon but also from the Syrian part of the Golan Heights.
That operation in early 2015 failed; if you remember at the same time they were trying to cut off and encircle the rebels around Aleppo, that also failed. That was a setback for them.
Jabhat a-Nusra, backed by Saudi Arabia and other parties, saw to it that Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani could not take over that area in Quneitra province [east of the Golan].
Q: Is there any scenario in which Iran accepts a Sunni-led Syria?
Yes, but only if these Sunnis are their Sunnis and if the Pasdaran keep controlling the shipment lines of Hezbollah weapons… If they ever find a “Sunni Assad,” another puppet. But I cannot see any Sunni rebel or member of the Sunni political opposition sitting at the table and agreeing with Maj. Gen. Soleimani on this point. Even if they did accept it, which they wouldn't, Soleimani would neither believe it nor trust them.
We are in a situation where a compromise with the Iranian regime on Syria is impossible. It's a war where someone has to be defeated. Iran will be defeated in Syria, eventually. Look how they are bogged down in Syria, all the resources they are pouring into it. This is their Vietnam.
This is also the beginning of the end of Hezbollah as a militia. Their entry into al-Qusayr in mid-2013 will be recorded in history as the beginning of their end.
It was the Pasdaran’s biggest strategic mistake.