Asharq Al Awsat, London – After meeting the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert this week, the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice announced, “It is time for a new Middle East,” but did not elaborate further.
Earlier this month, US officials spoke about breaking the “alliance of convenience” between a theocratic regime in Tehran and a secular Baathist regime in Damascus, on the basis of there being no commonalities between the two, except their international “isolation”. They believe that by merely promising to end one party’s isolation and re-integrating it into the international community, this will lure the party to change its alliances. The United States has already spoken about “the weaker partner”, Syria, and attempts to convince it, through Arab intermediaries, to stop its support for Hezbollah, in order to neutralize Damascus and exert pressure on Iran, ultimately, to draw the features of a new Middle East. Without publicly speaking of “incentives”, the current US administration believes it can tempt Syria away from Tehran.
What are the roots of the Syrian-Iranian alliance? Can it survive current developments in the region?
Bilateral relations between Damascus and Tehran go back to before the Iranian revolution, in 1979, when then-president Hafez Asad supported Ayatollah Khomeini and his followers, in the hope of defeating the Shah’s regime, which threatened Syria because of its excellent relations with the United States, and weakening the Baath in Iraq. Crucially, the ruling Alawis in Damascus were naturally drawn to Iran’s Shiaa, given the religious affinity of the two groups.
After the success of the revolution in February 1979, Asad was amongst the first leaders to welcome the revolution and congratulate Khomeini. In August of the same year, the Syrian foreign minister at the time, Abdel Halim Khaddam, visited Tehran and said the Iranian Revolution was the most important event in contemporary history and said his government had supported it from the very beginning.
Under Khomeini and his successor Supreme Guide Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, relations between the two countries remained strong, especially after Saddam Hussein seized power in July 1979. It was therefore entirely expected that Syria would standby Iran in its war against Saddam, in opposition of the rest of the Arab world which supported Iraq. The war, which lasted from 1980 until 1988, ended with a practical Iranian victory. During these years, as Iran fought its western neighbor and Syria came under pressure from Israel, the two countries agreed to support the Shiaa community in Lebanon, to lessen the pressure on both countries. Soon after, Hezbollah was born, through 1000 members of the Iranian revolutionary guards and significant financial and military assistance and training. In 1982, Iran sent members of the revolutionary guards to train Hezbollah cadres. In recent years, however, Iran has started training Hezbollah members on its own soil, because it believes there is no need for its troops to be on Lebanese soil, according to a senior official who spoke to Asharq Al Awsat, adding that the training was intense and of a high-level. As part of the special relations between the two countries, Damascus imports oil from Tehran at a reduced price and receives assistance in agricultural and industrial projects. The commercial exchange between the two countries reaches 70 million dollars a year, the biggest part of which is Iranian exports to Syria, worth some 60 million dollars annually. Both countries signed a defense agreement in 2004, after the US invasion of Iraq, because of their fear of US policies and intentions in the region.
Following the adoption of resolution 1559 by the UN Security Council in 2004, which called upon Lebanon to establish its sovereignty on all its land and for Syria to end its military presence in the country, the Iranian president Mohammad Khatami visited Damascus in October 2004 in order to show solidarity with Syria. After Damascus was politically isolated, in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in February 2005, Iran stressed its support of Syria and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Damascus in December last year to strengthen bilateral relations. In June, Iran’s national security adviser and senior nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani visited Damascus, where he met Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas’ politburo and other Palestinian officials. Since the beginning of Israeli attacks on Lebanon, no foreign visitors have arrived in Damascus, except Iranian officials.
However, the bilateral relations are not without limits. Iran, for example, has not discussed its nuclear arsenal with Syrian officials or Hezbollah. Neither country has been militarily involved in supporting the other in a confrontation. This indicates that this “marriage of convenience” has its limits.
Yet, the challenge facing plans to weaken the alliance between Tehran and Damascus is that the Bush administration and the Israeli government do not seem ready for and have not yet tabled a comprehensive peace plan for the region. Perhaps Israel believes Hezbollah can be pressured to give up its arms through international channels, without it having to pay a price, which would be starting negotiations on the occupied Golan Heights. In addition, the Bush administration does not have any clear plans about how to steer its relationship with Syria in the future. It is unexpected for it to do anything that would not serve the interests of Israel, especially as the mid-term Congress elections are scheduled for November and the preparation of the presidential election begins next year.
Michael Rubin, a researcher at American Enterprise, a think-tank in Washington D.C, said that the proposed plan to break up the alliance between Damascus and Tehran is mere “wishes and a naïve thinking on the part of some members of the administration that believe they can sabotage this relationship. The easiest and quickest route for President Bashar Asad is to resist the current US administration. If he can continue on this path, he can act as a leader of Arab nationalism,” he told Asharq Al Awsat.
If the Bush administration was effectively preparing a plan to sabotage alliances, it will undoubtedly have to take into consideration its side effects, including the possibility that a renewed dialogue with Syria might lead it to increase its influence in Lebanon. In this respect, Scott Lasensky, a researcher at the Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention in the US capital, told Asharq Al Awsat, “The challenge facing the US is how to find a way to resume direct contact with Syria, as well as working with the rest of Washington’s Arab allies, who will be more interested in exploiting their relationship with Syria, if they see that Washington is ready to take some risk. When we Americans decide to resume contacts with Syria, the challenge facing us will be to convince the Syrians to work to calm the situation, without this leading to a return of Syrian influence in Lebanon. We can’t solve the current problem of violence in Lebanon, by creating another problem, which is renewed Syrian influence in the country. How do we achieve this? I think it starts with dialogue, in addition to the US using its influence on Israel, perhaps by convincing it of the need for a temporary ceasefire and a halt to military operations. The US administration should also stress to Syria that its regime will pay the price for its continued support of Hezbollah and this will be represented in increasing US efforts to isolate Damascus.”
Because a scenario such as the above demands two players, Washington has to find a partner in Damascus, currently unlikely, given the US conditions. Syria, which proposed to mediate between Washington and Hezbollah, in order to help reduce the escalation of the conflict, has never suggested it intends to neutralize Hezbollah or restrain it. Its proposal, which came during the first few days of the Israeli attacks, through its foreign minister Walid al Muallem, included discussing all outstanding problems in the region, including the fate of the Golan Heights, in exchange for calming the current situation. Syria is extremely unlikely to sacrifice Hezbollah, as this is against its interests for the foreseeable future. It feels surrounded by a hostile environment: the US is occupying Iraq, Lebanon and its government reject Syrian influence, Israel continues to occupy the Golan Heights and Jordan and Turkey have strong relations with Washington. Damascus believes an armed Hezbollah is the only card in its hand, not only in Lebanon but also in front of Israel, if it one day to regain the Golan Heights on its terms and not those set by Israel.
Observers have spoken of divisions inside Syria on the country’s alliances and whether it is best to ally itself with the West and distance itself from Iran, which is under increasing pressure because of its nuclear program. But according to senior Syrian forces, who spoke to Asharq Al Awsat on condition of anonymity, the alliance between Syrian and Iran is “strategic, as both countries form a regional axis that confronts US plans, and talk about spoiling Syrian-Iranian relations is just American wishful thinking that won’t happen so long as all countries in the region are under threat.”
The source added that Damascus does not reject a dialogue with Washington D.C by principle. “If Syria wants a dialogue with the US, it will be to find a solution to all the outstanding issues, but this is what the US doesn’t want and it insists on breaking the axis of rejection by weakening Hezbollah and the Palestinian factions and then seeking to break the alliance between Syria and Iran, by broadcasting rumors. Every time US efforts in this respect increase, the Syrian-Iranian alliance will grow closer.”
If the United States is not concerned with starting talks with Syria, is Israel? Probably not. The Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has not commented on any Syrian statement during the ongoing conflict and has not shown any interest in starting a dialogue or talks on the fate of the Golan Heights. Yossi Alpher, advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the Camp David II talks, told Asharq Al Awsat, “I believe it is in the interest of Israel to open a channel for dialogue with Syria, as Syrians have been suggesting for years. This might be a way to improve the situation in Lebanon and limit the Syrian (and Iranian support) of Hezbollah and Hamas. But this will require Israel to give up the Golan Heights and will require the US to provide Damascus with a positive offer for dialogue.” Alpher, who also worked at the Israeli Defense Ministry, added, “The US administration has denied it is seeking to open up a channel to negotiate with Syria. The Israeli prime minister also rejected the idea. I do not know how much influence Egypt and Saudi Arabia have in Damascus, taking into consideration the weight of the alliance between Syria and Iran.”
Many analysts believe the strength of the alliance between Tehran and Damascus depends on “foreign factors” more than internal developments in each country. Emile El Hokayem, an analyst at the Henry Stimson Center and a Middle East and Asia expert, told Asharq Al Awsat, “Syrian-Iranian relations are now at their strongest but this depends on the regional situation. With Syria and Iran under pressure from Europe and the United States, it is normal that the two countries forge an alliance.”
“When the regional situation is quieter, as was the case in the 1990s, during the Middle East peace process, relations between Iran and Syria are weaker. Therefore, the direction of bilateral relations can change.”
Yet, he added, “Saying that, it is very unlikely this relationship will change in the present circumstances. This might require a substantial transformation in US policy in the Middle East, in order to convince Syria to break off its alliance with Tehran, or Syria would have to change internally. In other words, Washington would have to change significantly its policies towards Syria, or Damascus will have to agree to the US demands relating to Hezbollah and the Palestinian factions and Iraq. Either option is unlikely at this moment. The US sees Syria as an instigator of the current crisis. Syria sees America acting, motivated by Israel. What can the US offer Damascus [in the current circumstances], my answer is: nothing!”
“Syria is playing with time. I believe that if it can wait until the US is weakened even more in the Middle East or until the end of Bush’s second term in office, it can emerge victorious. It’s is not looking for a confrontation, as much as it wants to avoid it.”
If the alliance between the two countries is broken, their losses will not be equal. Syria is set to be the biggest loser. In this respect, El Hokayem said, “The focus on the alliance ignores the reality that the two countries are very different in their other strategic goals. Iran is a country confident of itself and is an international player while Syria is the smaller partner and is suspected and involved in regional developments; it isn’t confident of its future.”
A senior Iranian official told Asharq Al Awsat: The relationship between Syria and Iran is one of mutual interest and a product of the circumstances that both countries have experienced. Nowadays, Iran is the main partner and sees that the importance of Syria is connected to Hezbollah. Syria acts as a strategic corridor to provide Hezbollah with money and weapons. Therefore, if Hezbollah is neutralized in the region, Damascus will become less important for Tehran. As long as Hezbollah is an effective player, relations between the two countries will remain warm.
As both countries are united in the face of a common danger, in the shape of the US and Israel, Byman from the Brookings Institution believes it is unrealistic to expect the alliance between Syria and Iran to be broken. According to Lawrence Wilkerson, the former assistant Secretary of State, “Many of the entangled issues and the geographical situation will have to change for Syria to change its alliances with Iran and Hezbollah, but I don’t believe that this is possible at the moment.”
It seems that at the present time, the “marriage of convenience” between Syria and Iran has continued, especially as all parties are playing the waiting game and there is no “deal” to entice Damascus or Tehran to break off the alliance that appears to be a winning one, for the time being.