According to reports that first appeared in the Arab press, the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad last week expelled the commander of Iranian forces in his country. The reports, if true, run contrary to much evidence that Assad is the junior partner in his alliance with the Islamic Republic. More importantly, the news has raised hopes of a possible rift between Tehran and Damascus, encouraged further by signs of reconciliation between Syria and the Persian Gulf states. David Adesnik argues that those hopes are unfounded, and that the theory of an emerging split between the longtime allies contains two logical flaws:
First, it presumes that Assad is prepared to trade the certainty of Syria’s 40-year partnership with Iran for the potential benefits of improving relations with the Gulf states. Recall, these are the very states that bankrolled the insurgents who almost brought down the regime.
Second, there is a tendency to forget that the war in Syria is far from over, with Iranian advisers and Shiite militias still playing a critical role—hence the presence in Damascus of Javad Ghaffari, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander apparently expelled last week.
The war in northwestern Syria remains bloody. . . . Assad is likely biding his time. His own ground forces are dilapidated, and Russia fights mainly from the air, so the regime still depends on Shiite militias organized and directed by Tehran to carry out its military operations. The most effective is Hizballah, but there are significant Iraqi and Afghan Shiite formations as well.
Assad has every reason to believe that his diplomatic rehabilitation will continue even if he remains as close to Tehran as ever. Arab kings and princes may come bearing gifts, but they cannot buy the loyalty that Tehran has earned.