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Iran proves to be a friend indeed with Syria, say analysts

NICOSIA, Cyprus -- As Syria's conflict spirals to vicious new depths, Iran is doubling down on its support for Damascus out of fear of losing its main pillar of regional influence, analysts said.

The backing reflects Tehran and Damascus's shared anti-West, anti-Israel position and mutual succor as each weathers international sanctions and attempts to isolate them.

Tehran's aid to President Bashar al-Assad's regime probably goes well beyond the diplomatic and humanitarian support it has publicized to also include covert military assistance, the analysts said.

Assad is dependant for his survival on Iran, which in turn fears he could be replaced by radical Sunnis who are hostile to Tehran's Shiite rulers and may cut Iran's links to Hamas and Hezbollah.

“Assad's Syria is the gateway for Iranian influence in the Arab world and the Levant,” said Alireza Nader of the U.S.-based think tank Rand Corporation.

A regime collapse could deal “a large blow to Iranian interests in the Middle East,” he said.

Iran's rivals among the Gulf Arab states, “especially Saudi Arabia, realize that Syria is a weak link in Iran's regional influence. Hence they are eager to see Assad go and be replaced by a Sunni-dominated regime,” he said.

A Western diplomat agreed.

“Shiite Iran — perhaps rightly — is concerned about what would happen if a pro-Iranian Alawite regime were replaced by one that came to be dominated by the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

However observers said Iran could be open to a scenario of Assad being replaced — as long as his regime survived and his successor kept the ties to Tehran.

“I believe that Iran does not back Assad as much as it backs the political regime in Syria, though there are very strong ties between the Assad family and the Islamic revolution which goes back to more than 30 years,” said Mohammad Saleh Sedghian of the Tehran-based Arabic Centre for Iranian Studies.

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