How strong is their alliance?
The Syrian and Iranian regimes may have their differences, but their alliance is not going to end anytime soon, Basel Oudat reports from Damascus
Syrian-Iranian relations didn't start with the Khomeini revolution of 1979. Relations between the two countries started to move forward nearly 35 years ago, when Shah Mohamed Reza Pahlavi was still in power. Not long after Hafez Al-Assad came to power, he visited Tehran in 1973. The visit raised eyebrows across the region, for Syria was supposed to be a leftist country, an enemy to imperialism and a friend of the Soviet Union, while Iran was seen as a friend of the US and an enemy of communism and socialism. Furthermore, the shah wasn't exactly a popular figure in the Arab world. He had occupied three UAE islands and at one point assisted the sultan of Oman in quashing leftist rebels. Al-Assad's visit to Tehran was frowned upon by Arab progressive (and not so progressive) parties, and was considered controversial to say the least, but it had a point.
The two countries had something in common: both hated Iraq. The Baathist regime in Baghdad was not just a rival and potential threat to the Syrians, it was dead set against letting the Iranians throw their weight around the Gulf. The Syrian regime was afraid the Iraqis would stage a coup against it, and that wasn't mere paranoia. At the time the founders of the Baath Party, Michel Aflaq and Akram Al-Hurani, were political refugees in Iraq, and there was no love lost between them and the Syrian regime. So although Iran and Syria had little in common, they had enough reasons to stick together.
Following the Khomeini revolution of 1979, Syria forged closer political, economic, and cultural links with Iran. Once again, it was Iraq that brought the two together. The Syrians were still afraid of Iraq's Baathists, and the Iranians had their eye on Iraq's Shias. Khomeini wanted to export his revolution badly, but his style reminded many of Persian-Arab rivalries of long ago.
Oddly enough, the Iraq-Iran war further cemented Iranian-Syrian cooperation. The Iranians needed Damascus more than ever, if only to persuade the Arabs that it is a potential friend, not the devil Saddam was portraying. Weapon shipments bound for Iran went straight to Syrian ports and were then shipped to Iran through various means. Tehran rewarded Damascus by giving it Iranian oil at favourable prices. As the war went on, Syria, fearing retaliation from Baghdad, clung to Iran more.
As a whole, the alliance was more circumstantial than ideological. The two regimes disliked Iraq, and both found that they could help each other. But as time went by, their relations coalesced into a solid pattern.
Professor Burhan Ghalioun, director of the Centre d'Etudes sur l'Orient Contemporain in Paris, says that the Syrian regime has no interest in breaking up with Iran. He told Al-Ahram Weekly, "this is the only remaining card in the hands of the Syrian regime, a real bargaining chip. Even if Western powers offered the Syrian regime concessions here and there, it will not abandon its current policy. It is in its interest to keep Iranian-Western relations strained and maintain the escalation in Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and the region in general. The Syrian regime doesn't want to be left alone; it needs chaos in order to survive."
Iranian projects in Syria now amount to more than $1.5 billion in capital. The trade balance between the two countries is more than 90 per cent in Iran's favour. Right now, Iran has more than 100 projects in Syria in manufacturing, trade, construction, tourism, and even education. And Syria receives nearly 600,000 Iranian tourists per year.
If anything, the US threats against Iran and criticism of Syria served only to consolidate the bonds between the two countries. Eager to reach the Mediterranean and have a foothold next door to Israel, Iran would go to any lengths to stay on good terms with the Syrians. This is why Iran formed Hizbullah and supplied it with money and weapons. The Iranians gave Hizbullah its ideological doctrine and, with Syrian help, turned the Shia militia into a formidable force in Lebanon.
As Hizbullah's stature grew in Lebanon, Syrian influence began to wane. When the Syrians had to pull out of Lebanon, Hizbullah became their last advance post in that country, their one remaining bargaining chip. And the more the Syrian regime felt threatened by an international court on Al-Hariri's assassination, the more it clung to Hizbullah and Iran. Syria and Iran now face a common enemy, the US, and the more the latter threatens them the more they stick together.
Mohamed Habash, Syrian parliamentarian and director of the Islamic Studies Centre, says that, "Iran and Syria share a common vision regarding the US schemes in the region." Habash, who is close to Syrian authorities, adds that, "there is no doubt that the US would have attacked Iran and Syria had things been different. What is holding the US back is not ethics or even the real interests of the American people, but the inability to face the consequences of a military strike against either country."
Syrian analyst Said Moqbel says that, "the attempts by some Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, to get Syria to distance itself from Iran have failed." Moqbel told the Weekly, "Syria and Iran, just as Hizbullah and Hamas, feel threatened, and this is why they stick together." For now, Syria and Iran "are not willing to put their relations in second place."
Against all expectations, relations between Syria and Iran were unshaken by the assassination of Imad Mughaniyeh, Hizbullah's military impresario and Iran's strongman in the region, in mid-February, even though Damascus turned down a request by Iranian intelligence services to participate in the investigation.
When Syria announced in May that it was starting direct talks with Israel, many thought that Iranian-Syrian relations would be affected. Wrong again, the Syrian and Iranian defence ministers met last week to launch a programme of joint military cooperation and renew the joint defence agreement their countries signed in 2006. Officials in both countries say that their alliance is not up for discussion.
Syria and Iran have their differences, as Turki Saqr, Syria's former ambassador to Iran, says. But "points of agreement outweigh points of disagreement," Saqr told the Weekly. "A Syrian-Iranian alliance is actually in the interest of the US and Europe, for such an alliance could help bring stability and calm to the region." Saqr added that both Damascus and Tehran can "help America and Europe in their effort to calm things down in the region, especially in Iraq and Lebanon, perhaps even Palestine."
One cannot rule out that differences between Damascus and Tehran may affect their alliance one day, but a falling out is for the time being far-fetched. Still, the differences the two are having on Iraq and Israel may get worse with time.
Concerning Iraq, both Damascus and Tehran are opposed to the US presence and policies. But while Tehran favours a system of sectarian quotas in Iraq, Damascus fears that such an arrangement may lead to the partitioning of Iraq, something that would weaken Syria itself. Damascus also has reservations about Tehran's military, financial, and political support of some Iraqi Shia factions. The Syrians are implicitly as least concerned about the prospects of an Iranian-dominated Iraq.
As for negotiations between Syria and Israel, Iran has its strategic and religious concerns, but its main worry is that an Israeli peace would reduce tensions in the region and thus diminish Tehran's power. Should Iran's support to Hizbullah and Palestinian organisations become irrelevant, Iran would have no way of posing as a big shot in the region. So although Iran is refraining from criticising its allies in Damascus, it cannot be happy with the way things are heading.