End of the affair?
Syria and Iran now differ on almost every regional and international issue. Is this the beginning of the end of the two countries' strategic alliance, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus
With Western diplomatic sources in Damascus speaking of growing differences between Syria and Iran, the two countries are trying to keep their differences from view even as it is becoming increasingly clear that Damascus and Tehran are drifting apart. The two countries now differ on a wide range of issues related to Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Turkey, Israel, Europe and the US.
Over the last four years, Syria and Iran have been almost model allies. Both lived in fear of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein for nearly three decades and both were sworn enemies of the former Iraqi regime. However, increasing signs of disagreement have recently begun to surface.
One such sign came in February 2008, when Imad Mogniyah, a prominent military figure in Hizbullah and Iran's strongman in the region, was assassinated in Damascus in broad daylight, and Syria refused to allow the Iranian intelligence service to take part in the investigation. Another sign of conflict appeared two years ago, when Syria decided to begin indirect talks with Israel with Turkish sponsorship. Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad visited the Iranian capital Tehran in August 2008 and promised that the talks with Israel would not change the relationship between Syria and Iran.
However, over the months that followed it was Syrian- Turkish, and not Syrian-Iranian, relations that grew stronger in political, economic and social terms. Damascus declared Turkey a strategic partner, offending the Iranians, who had wanted sole possession of the title. The fact that the Europeans seemed to accept the Syrian-Turkish rapprochement also alienated Tehran.
The Saudis then made things worse for Tehran. When Saudi King Abdullah visited Syria in October 2009, Syrian presidential adviser Bothayna Shaaban told reporters that Syria would be coordinating with Saudi Arabia, just as it was already coordinating with Turkey and Tehran. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad struck back when President Al-Assad visited Riyadh two weeks ago by unleashing a vitriolic attack on Saudi Arabia, berating it for its role in the Yemen war.
The Iranian official news agency, IRNA, quoted Al-Assad as telling Ahmadinejad in a telephone conversation that "enemies and losers will never be able to harm the good relations between our countries."
Improving Syrian-Saudi ties have been good news for Lebanon. Last year, Syria is believed to have helped the Lebanese to reach agreement on the election of a new president and the formation of a government. At the same time, relations between Syria and the Iranian-backed Hizbullah group began to deteriorate, and Syrian officials are said to be privately critical of Hizbullah's policies in Lebanon.
Syria and Iran also disagree with regard to the Damascus- based Palestinian resistance groups. Speaking during a visit to Paris, Al-Assad promised that Syria would help to mend inter- Palestinian differences, later inviting Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Damascus, where the two men spoke highly of each other.
Some Syrian officials said that Syria would be trying to persuade Hamas and other Palestinian hardliners to agree to a truce with Israel.
Relations between Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movement have become strained of late. When Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Meshaal visited Saudi Arabia recently, he was quoted as saying that relations between Hamas and Iran were "tactical and temporary".
While Iran rarely misses a chance to challenge Washington, Syria has been asking the Europeans for assistance in smoothing relations with the Americans.
Damascus has been emphatic that only the US should sponsor any future talks with Israel. The Syrian leaders are trying to impress the US administration with how much they have changed, hoping that Washington will respond by removing sanctions against Syria. Syria has also hosted US security and military officials and discussed ways of improving the situation in Iraq.
Iraq is a divisive issue in Syrian-Iranian relations, and Syria has been displeased about Iranian policy in the country. Iran may also have prompted some of its Iraqi friends to accuse Syria of masterminding recent bombings in Iraq.
Damascus and Tehran recently also fell out over the current war in Yemen. Contradicting the Iranian position, Syria has denounced the encroachment by Al-Houthi rebels onto Saudi soil, with Syria saying that it is opposed to any attack on Saudi security or citizens.
While high-level Syrian sources have indicated that Syria and Iran have drawn up plans for cooperation in economic, investment and banking ventures, these have not yet been approved by Syria. In fact, Syria may have been using the country's ample red tape to keep the Iranians at bay, and it is thought that many Syrians may not be exactly thrilled at the prospect of closer economic ties with Iran.
Yet, some Syrian officials say that such differences of opinion between Iran and Syria do not mean that the two countries' strategic alliance is at an end. The fact that two countries are strategic allies does not mean they have to see eye-to-eye on everything, officials say, and a country can pursue its own national interests without necessarily dropping its friends.
However, speaking to Al-Ahram Weekly former Syrian minister Marwan Habash admitted that relations between the two countries were souring, commenting that "there are signs that Syrian-Iranian relations are cooling off, mostly because Syria is opposed to Iran's interference in Iraq's internal affairs."
Iranian-backed Iraqi officials have accused Syria of helping Baathists carry out attacks in Iraq, with the aim of keeping "Syria under pressure and forcing it to do Iran's bidding," he said.
Have Syrian-Iranian relations entered a final phase? Whatever the answer to this question may be, many people at least believe that the Syrian-Iranian honeymoon is now over.