Tuesday's visit by Iranian Supreme National Security Council head Saeed Jalili to Damascus marked a sharp escalation in The Islamic Republic's involvement in Syria's fate. His public appearance on national Syrian television and declaration that Iran would not allow Assad's regime to fall indicate that Iran has decided to take responsibility for the developments and Syria and that Assad has embraced Tehran's patronage.
Jalili made it clear that Iran's position vis-à-vis Syria is based on its regional strategy and the axis of defiance it has created over the years in the northern arc surrounding Israel. Iran even declared publicly that this axis will not only continue to exist – but will grow stronger.
The campaign Iran has been conducting over the past few decades consists of a number of key elements: A global terror campaign, both covert and overt, against Jewish, Israeli and other interests; and training non-state actors, such as Hezbollah in the north, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the south; in addition, Iran has launched an intense and cruel intelligence war - most of it secret – in different locations around the world. This, of course, is just a partial list.
The escalation of its involvement in Syria was mainly an act of defiance by Shiite Iran against Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar – three Sunni Arab countries. It was also a hostile and threatening act against secular and Sunni Turkey, which has a host of interests in neighboring Syria – a joint border; the effect Syria's Kurds have on Turkey's domestic Kurdish problem, and more.
The Iranian foreign minster was in Ankara on the same day Jalili was in Damascus, but it's highly unlikely that his explanations will ally Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan's concerns. The Iranian maneuvering also poses a direct threat to the US, which is working to overthrow the murderous Syrian regime. Jalili has openly stated that Iran holds Washington responsible for the fate of 48 Iranian Revolutionary Guard members who were captured by Syrian opposition forces.
Iran's increased involvement in Syria is not only indicative of its growing audacity, but also of how crucial the fight for Syria's future is to Iran's status in the region – and perhaps to the survival of the regime in Tehran. This is Iran's Achilles' heel. More than 20 years ago Saddam Hussein forced then-Iranian leader Ayatollah Khomeini to agree to a ceasefire and end the eight-year war between Iran and Iraq. Drunk with power after his victory, Hussein announced in the spring of 1990 that he can burn half of the State of Israel.
We knew then that he wanted to avenge the destruction of Iraq's nuclear reactor by pursuing three separate plans to obtain nuclear weapons. In August of that same year Hussein made the worst mistake of his life – he invaded Kuwait and seized its oil wells. It was a sudden move that prompted the US to form an international coalition which went to war to liberate Kuwait – and at the same time succeeded in thwarting all of Iraq's nuclear plans.
Jalili's visit to Syria was also aimed at telling Israel – we are here, on your northern border, not by way of our proxy (Hezbollah) or another non-state actor (Gaza), but with our own units and policies. We are here, in broad daylight, and we plan on staying, come what may.
Iran's increased involvement in the region poses an immediate threat to Israel, but it also offers a rare opportunity which, if handled wisely, can turn Jalili's maneuvering in Damascus into a strategic mistake which can severely weaken the regime in Tehran – similar to the mistake Iraq made when it invaded Kuwait.
Ephraim Halevy is a former director of Mossad