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Syria and Iran: The Perils of a Radical Bond

By Michael Young - January 24, 2006 12:00 AM

BEIRUT -- Last week Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited his comrade in isolation, Syrian President Bashar Assad, during a two-day official visit to Damascus. Assad was surely pleased with the event, which allowed him to play up a rare alliance he has managed to consolidate of late. But amid the self-satisfaction, the political costs to his regime may be high.

Assad is under considerable pressure today. A United Nations (UN) investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri threatens his leadership, with Syria considered the prime suspect. The United States is also incensed with Syrian behavior in Iraq, in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and in Lebanon, where several foes of Syria have been murdered in recent months and where Damascus has been accused of causing instability.

To face this, Assad and Ahmadinejad have rekindled the controversial alliance Assad's father sealed with Iran during the 1980s, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq war. At the time, Hafez Assad was accused of being a renegade for siding with "Persian" Iran against Arab Iraq, which was supported by most Arab states.

On the surface, Bashar Assad's meeting of minds with Ahmadinejad won him a powerful partner committed to the survival of the Syrian regime. Syria now finds itself at the center of a potent, mainly Shiite axis extending from Tehran to the southern suburbs of Beirut, the stronghold of Hizbullah. And that axis presumably includes pro-Iranian groups in Iraq. Within this axis, Assad has greater margin to maneuver vis-à-vis the international community -- particularly the Security Council, which is overseeing the Hariri investigation. In fact, Assad is hoping the UN body will split over Syria, with Russia and China said to oppose measures that might diminish Assad's hold on power and lead to his downfall.

These are indeed gains as far as Assad is concerned. However, several difficulties tarnish this optimistic assessment. The first is that, unlike during the 1980s, the Syrian-Iranian relationship is lopsided today: Syria needs Iran far more than Iran needs Syria. The Syrians are no longer in Lebanon to defend, or manipulate, Hizbullah, making them less essential to Iran than they were 20 years ago, when the party's abduction of foreigners gave Tehran leverage with the U.S. and Europe. The Iranians also seem willing to cut a profitable deal with the international community over their nuclear program, and relations with Syria may be a convenient bargaining chip in that process. In turn, Syria has little hope of using Iran in a similar way, since the UN remains intransigent in insisting that Assad cooperate with the Hariri inquiry, whatever the impact on his future.

And while Syria and Iran had parallel interest in containing Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war, today the two countries have differing calculations there. Both oppose American success, but the means to that end are different. For the Iranians, a fragmented Iraq is welcome, even as Tehran operates through the country's Shiite majority. But Iraqi fragmentation is bad for Assad's minority-led Alawite regime in Syria, since Sunni displeasure in Iraq might provoke shockwaves of discontent in predominantly Sunni Syria. Nor can Assad ignore that virtual Kurdish independence in Iraq might encourage his own substantial Kurdish community to follow suit.

A second difficulty Assad will have to face because of his renewed alliance with Iran is notoriety. The move has placed Syria squarely in Washington's crosshairs at a time of especial animosity between the U.S. and Iran -- with Assad an easier target. In latching on to the Iranians, the Syrian president may have assumed his situation was worse off than it really is. The Hariri investigation has troubled him to the extent that he feels his authority, even his life, may be at stake. However, even in the worst-case scenario for him, no one, not even the Bush administration, is yet willing to back regime-change in Damascus for fear of what might come afterwards. Given this, was it necessary for Assad to suddenly turn Syria into a perceived threat to the U.S., alongside Iran, when this might cut him off from those who are still keen to save his regime?

This leads to the third difficulty, namely Assad's gratuitous segregation from his Arab brethren. The region's predominantly Sunni states, particularly Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are alarmed with Iran's influence in Iraq and the possibility that it might build nuclear weapons. However, they remain willing to prop up Assad because they too fear the instability that might follow his regime's collapse. Recently, for example, the Saudis and Egyptians sponsored a scheme to improve Syrian-Lebanese relations, one that would have taken Lebanon back to the years of Syrian hegemony. Not only was the plan ridiculed by the Lebanese, it was shot down by the Bush administration and French President Jacques Chirac.

However, with Syria now openly siding with Iran, it is unlikely that the Arab states could successfully mediate on its behalf, whether with the UN or Lebanon, since this would only provoke greater American ire. Simply put, Assad has made it more costly for his regional friends to rescue him.

Finally, Assad may have miscalculated in Lebanon, by undermining the credibility of his most powerful ally there: Hizbullah. The party has spent 15 postwar years moving into mainstream of Lebanese politics, and its resistance against Israel bolstered its nationalistic bona fides. However, there is currently a divisive debate taking place over Hizbullah's true loyalties, with many political groups accusing it of being more committed to Iran and Syria than to Lebanon. Indeed, the party's refusal to disarm is widely viewed as an effort to keep alive a deterrence capability against Israel in the event it bombs Iran's nuclear facilities. In this context, the Syrian-Iranian partnership and Hizbullah's allegiance to it have damaged the party's domestic standing, even if it does retain much Shiite support.

Time will tell whether Assad made a good call by so publicly associating himself with Ahmadinejad. But one thing seems certain, at least in the short term: his ride will only get bumpier if the U.S. is the one driving.

Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon and a contributing editor at Reason magazine in the United States.
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1 Comment

motives
Again an excellent analysis by Mr Young. I agree with most. However, some assumptions on the motives need clarification. I don't see the Sunni-Shia division as important as the author. More important today is the position towards US. Anti-American regimes and parties co-operate happily over all religious boundaries. This is the case also in Iraq.

Moreover, although having a Sunni majority, Syria is actually led by a Shia minority regime, although the Alawites seldom portray themselves as Shias and are generally thoroughly secularized, which however doesn't make them any less hostile at the West. It is a general Western fallacy to assume that the main division line in today's ideological struggle would be between religious Muslims and "seculars". This interpretation is thoroughly erraneous and has already caused many misjudgements in handling of various crises.

Actually the true ideological fault line is the same as it was during the periods when "the West" was under the attack by fascism and communism. It is the ideological struggle between freedom, perceived as a Western value and something embedded in democracy, and autocracy, with the ideals of full control of society by a state machinery, disciplined party cadre and suppression of all dissense. America is the enemy of every political group that wishes to maintain monopoly to power and control, and extend it over its current domain. Therefore America is perceived as the ultimate "change-maker" and its perceived hegemony must be destroyed in order to gain "peace", "stability" and so on.

I think "fragmented Iraq" is also welcome to Syria, unless you mean federalism by "fragmentation". Stable federal Iraq is what a regime like Syria's fears most, since it would not only set a "dangerous" precedent, but with all the wealth and potential Iraq possesses, it would gain wide regional influence and therefore challenge Syria and many other autocratic and centralist Arab states. That's what all Arab states except Lebanon and currently Iraq are.

So, for the very reasons you mention - including the threat of virtual Kurdish independence that has already taken place in North Iraq - the regime in Damascus sees a stable, strengthening Iraq, supposedly guided by "imperialist and Zionist interests", as a far bigger threat to itself than what is posed by Sunni jihadis. After all, jihadi terrorists don't really threaten Syria under the current regime. There has been not a single successful terrorist attack against the Syrian regime, and such operations are unlikely to occur anyway, since what possible goal of the international jihadi movement would that possibly advance? There is no Syrian media to blame their own government for making the jihadis angry. Terrorism never has impact on dictatorship, except when it works as a provocation.

Moreover, I would question the author's assumption on the motives of Riyadh and Cairo to advance the Syrian regime's interests in their recent proposal to Lebanon. I don't think what these regimes really fear is "chaos in Syria", but rather, they are increasingly wary of the precarious position of their own autocratic regimes. A popular uprising in Syria would not only be bad news for anti-American autocracies, but also for those who have been backed by short-sighted US policies.

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