By Mohammad Ataie*
Throughout the Syrian-Iranian partnership, few men had a more important role in the genesis and evolution of the alliance than Major General Mohammed Nassif. Known by his sobriquet, Abu Wael, he was the last of Hafez Asad’s men to remain at the heart of the regime. He died on June 28, 2015 in his 80s. The secretive Major General was central, from the early 1980s, in forging Syrian policy towards Iran and directing their often turbulent cooperation in both Lebanon and Iraq.
Nassif was known for his political clout and elusive character as a central member of the security apparatus. His star began to rise in the 1970s, when Lebanon’s Shia emerged as an important political force under the leadership of Musa Sadr. Musa Sadr turned to President Asad as an ally when he fell out the Shah of Iran. Asad directed Nassif to take responsibility for Shia affairs in Lebanon and to act as liaison with the clergy there. According to Sadr’s family, Musa Sadr stayed at Nassif’s house when he visited Damascus. Nassif also cultivated friendships with leaders of the Lebanese Amal movement, such as Nabih Berri and Mustafa Chamran, who was an Iranian member of Amal. After 1979, Chamran became minister of defense in Iran. With Sadr’s disappearance, Nassif’s ties remained strong with his family, including Sadr’s nephew, Sadegh Tabatabai. In 1981, Nassif while on an official visit in Tehran, asked Tabatabai to arrange a meeting for him with Ayatollah Khomaini, the leader of the revolution. The meeting did not take place.
With the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980 and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon two years later, Damascus drew closer to Tehran. Nassif’s importance in nurturing the creation of Hizbullah and the emerging “Shiite Crescent” could not have been more important for Iran because Saddam threatened the survival of young Islamic Republic. Claiming to be the shield of the Sunni Arab World, the Iraqi leader dragged his country into its eight-year conflict with Iran. Saudi Arabia and the Sunni monarchs of the Gulf accustomed to Sunni supremacy and Shiite docility believed that Saddam could contain, if not crush the new revolutionary force in Tehran.
Mohammad Nassif sensing that Syria could harness the Shiite awakening to its advantage became infatuated with Ayatolah Khomaini and Shia doctrine. His rapport and common intellectual outlook with Iran’s revolutionary clerics helped make him indispensible in Damascus, where secular Arabism seemed to preclude real sympathy with the Persian upstart. The secretive Major General was one of very few people, according to Patrick Seale, who could telephone Asad at any time of day or night. In the eyes of Iranians, he was not only a key channel to the Syrian President but also a power behind the throne.
In 1980, when Ali Akbar Mohtashami went to Damascus in the hope of exporting the Islamic Revolution, he was sorely disappointed by his cold reception by the secular Baathist leaders of Syria and with a “sluggish bureaucracy” in the Syrian Foreign Ministry. He was unable to get an audience with the President himself or stimulate interest in the president’s office. Mohtashami, the key Iranian in building the eventual Syro-Iranian alliance, was not put off. Undaunted, he cultivated a close relationship with Muhammad Nassif, a winning strategy. If either the Foreign Ministry or the Prime Minister’s Office threw up road-blocks in front of Mohtashami or if conservative Sunnis, such as Abdulhalim Khaddam or Abdul Rauf al-Kasm, looked with distaste at Iranian advances, Nassif could find ways around them; he helped convince Assad that the Iranians offered a stable and strong ally in the dangerous sea of fickle Arabs partners surrounding Syria. For the Iranians, he was the right man in the right place.
When Iran’s revolutionary leaders sought to get to the bottom of the 1978 disappearance in Libya of Musa Sadr, the Iranian-Lebanese divine and Shiite politician, they turned to Mohammad Nassif. To their surprise, Nassif openly accused Colonel Muammar Qaddafi of kidnapping Musa al-Sadr and used the strongest invective in characterizing Libya’s strongman, but despite his belief in Qaddafi’s guilt, Nassif explained to his Iranian counterparts that any investigation into Sadr’s death would be useless. All the same, the Iranians insisted on talking to Hafiz al-Asad. True to Nassif’s warning, the President told the Iranian envoy: “the issue of Mr. Imam Musa Sadr is over. Unfortunately, I must insist that you not follow up Mr. Sadr [‘s case]”. Syrians never publicly accused the Pan-Arab leader of Libya of murdering Musa al-Sadr and, as it turned out, neither did Tehran. They swallowed their anger in recognition that Libya was too important to the unfolding Middle Eastern chess game to be sacrificed in an unconsidered fit of rage. Some insisted that Qaddafi murdered Sadr because the Libyan leader was furious at the mocking tone adopted by the learned Imam as the two leaders debated Sunni-Shiite theological differences. Others claimed that Yasser Arafat had asked Qaddafi to dispatch Sadr, a competitor in Lebanon. Now that Qaddafi has met his grisly death, the real reasons for Sadr’s death may never be known.
In the early 1980s, Syrians were concerned lest Iran embrace Yasser Arafat as an instrument of its broader revolutionary policy in the region. Khomeini seemed to flirt with the idea of forming an alliance with the PLO to harness the passions created by the Arab-Israeli conflict. Mohammed Nassif took a strong anti-Arafat position; he advised Tehran against cooperation with the mercurial Palestinian. In 1981, an Iranian delegation dispatched by Tehran to meet Arafat in Beirut, stopped off in Damascus to see Nassif on their road West. Nassif argued against depending on Arafat who he described as unreliable and two-faced. Instead, Nassif asked the Iranians to side with Nabih Berri, the leader of Amal, Lebanon’s dominant Shiite political movement. Syria’s anti-Arafat stand kept Iran from choosing Arafat, but despite Syria’s advocacy of Berri, Ayatollah Khomaini never agreed to meet Berri and the revolutionary clerics hung back from choosing a Lebanese client until the rise of Hizballah following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.
Nassif remained a key player in the triangular relations that bound Syria to Iran and Lebanon during the next decades. Following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, he added Baghdad to his brief. In both Lebanon and Iraq, Syria’s two principal arenas of cooperation and competition with Iran, Nassif played a crucial role. A loyal and substantial figure under both Asads, he knew how to remain in the shadows and eschewed self-aggrandizement or promoting family. His death brings to an end the influence of the original architects of the Asad regime.
* Mohammad Ataie is an Iranian journalist and a PhD student in History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.