Drafted By: Brian Maher
Syria and Iran share a history of strategic coordination based on intersecting regional interests. These interests matched perfectly when Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party governed Iraq. They also aligned near perfectly in opposition to Israel’s forays into Lebanon, which gave rise to their creation of Hezbollah as a counterweight to Israeli power. Iran and Syria continue to share common interests in Iraq where they have cooperated due to their mutual antipathy toward the United States. It is in Lebanon that their interests most directly converge; Beirut figures prominently in both Syrian and Iranian strategic calculations.
The Syrian-Iranian Axis
Damascus is the junior partner in this relationship since it has less to offer and has chosen to cast its lot with Iran. Tehran wields greater geopolitical heft. With Iranian assistance, Damascus believes it can stave off international pressure while expanding its freedom of action in Lebanon. This is a deal its Sunni-dominated Arab neighbors, which are troubled by Tehran’s influence over Damascus, will not offer.
For its part, Tehran counts on Syria to facilitate the continued primacy of Hezbollah in Lebanon in order to advance its own interests in the region and beyond. For Tehran, Hezbollah represents an effective threat to Israel and is a central pillar of Iranian grand strategy. A strong Syrian-Iranian axis only fortifies Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon and, therefore, Tehran’s position.
In late January of 2006, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to Damascus in order to cement ties between the two increasingly isolated countries. Both states are closing ranks in an effort to allay mounting international pressure.
Tehran maintains a keen interest in keeping the foundering Assad regime afloat, lest it lose a key facilitator of its regional strategy. Tehran harbors concerns about Damascus’ straitened position in the face of the U.N. investigation into the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in Lebanon and the defection of former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam, who is openly advocating regime change in Syria. Present at this meeting were high-ranking officials closely linked to Hezbollah, possibly including Imad Mughniyahits, the group’s operational commander. Perhaps not so coincidentally, a suicide bomber carried out a successful attack in Tel Aviv around the time of the meeting.
Reports also indicate that the two countries reached an accord whereby Syria would agree to store Iranian "materials" and weapons should Tehran come under U.N. sanctions. Reports also suggest that Syria may already be storing Iranian WMDs. Tehran also allegedly resolved to provide safe haven to any Syrian intelligence official indicted over the Hariri assassination. Tehran would also provide further military aid to Damascus and financial aid to offset Western sanctions.
Veiled Threats from Syria and Iran
The recent upheaval surrounding the Danish cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad was a windfall for Damascus and Tehran, which almost certainly played a joint role in orchestrating some of the more spirited protests. The Danish and Norwegian embassies were put to the torch in Damascus and Beirut as masses of enraged demonstrators ran amok in the streets.
It goes without saying that Syrian security forces would not have acted so munificently if the protests were directed against the regime. Those same security forces, however, prevented the protesters from storming the U.S. and French embassies for fairly obvious reasons. In Beirut, it is alleged that Syrian security forces, dressed like civilians, played an instigative role in the protests.
Both Tehran and Damascus planned to exploit the cartoon imbroglio to demonstrate the underlying Muslim rage in the region, and to provide a foretaste of what would ensue if the West pursues action against either of the governments. The message, put none too subtly, is that any such actions could potentially convulse the entire region and set in train a cascade of destabilizing events. It is, therefore, not in American interests to place undue pressure on Tehran or Damascus, or any of their regional proxies — such as Hezbollah — for that matter.
The Assad regime’s message conveys a particular clarity. Damascus is telling the United States that if its government is removed from power, Islamists will be waiting to take power. In fact, Damascus has feverishly attempted to depict itself as a victim of radical Islamic militancy to counter charges that it promotes such activity, and has more or less staged clashes between Syrian security forces and militants to prove the point.
Damascus is also exploiting the cartoon flap to foment sectarian strife in Lebanon in order to reclaim its influence over that country. Its still considerable intelligence presence in Lebanon affords it the ability to aggravate the sectarian tensions that have divided the country. Reports suggest that Damascus has recently covertly moved radical Islamists into Lebanon to stir the pot, which has not gone unnoticed in Beirut. It has focused its efforts on the Christian dominated neighborhoods of Beirut, the focus of the recent riots.
By sowing this sort of discord, Damascus hopes, rather transparently for those who care to notice, to maintain Lebanon in an ongoing state of instability. It is a state to which Lebanon is certainly accustomed. In so doing, it plans to poignantly remind Washington and, to a lesser extent, Paris that Syria’s presence in Lebanon was a sedative one and that Syrian interests cannot be ignored.
Damascus is not averse to destabilizing its neighbors if doing so will diffuse Western pressure. These neighbors most notably include Saudi Arabia and Egypt. While they harbor little goodwill toward Syria’s Alawite government, they share a powerful interest in maintaining stability in Syria at the present time, especially in light of the situation in Lebanon. They simply see no attractive alternative to the status quo at present and fear the instability that a cornered Damascus could visit upon them should its gloves come off.
Saudi Arabia, which anxiously seeks the restoration to power of Syria’s Sunni majority, fears that Damascus may attempt to destabilize the Saudi peninsula if pushed too far. For its part, Egypt has little interest in seeing the Assad regime collapse given the potential fallout. In the face of its own troubles with the Muslim Brotherhood, Mubarak finds little virtue in an Islamist rise in Syria, even if Syrian Islamists tend to be more moderate than Egypt’s. Additionally, it would not enhance his son’s prospects of succession.
Arab Regimes Concerned over Shi’a Influence in Region
The Sunni-dominated Arab regimes are deeply concerned about the specter of burgeoning Iranian influence in the region, which makes them especially keen to pry Damascus away from Tehran’s tightening embrace. Riyadh and Cairo have sought to convince Damascus that its long-term interests are best secured through their partnership; that their influence with Washington will protect Syrian interests; and that Tehran is ultimately a weak reed upon which to lean, given its increasing isolation.
These attempts have failed and will likely continue to do so, however, as an alliance with Tehran affords Damascus the greatest opportunity to reassert its most cherished desideratum — control over Lebanon. Riyadh and Cairo, which have, for their own reasons, tried to persuade Damascus to fully quit Lebanon, cannot provide that.
The Sunni Arab regimes are particularly fearful of the emergence of a notional "Shi’a Crescent" sitting athwart the Middle East should Iranian influence grow unchecked, encompassing Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Their fear is compounded several fold by the prospect of a nuclear-armed Tehran in the vanguard. Accordingly, they seek to check Iranian influence where the opportunity arises.
They have seen one such opportunity in Lebanon, although they recently suffered a setback when Arab sponsorship of a Lebanese-Syrian accord failed. This was not especially surprising, given the obstacles in place and the local advantages their opponents enjoy.
Riyadh in particular seeks to counter Iranian influence in Lebanon so it can establish its own leadership of the Arab Middle East and the greater Muslim world. It must first undermine Shi’a influence, which it hopes will throw a net around the Alawite regime in Damascus. In this manner, Sunni rule will be restored in Syria and the Syrian-Iranian axis will be severed, thus ending Iranian dreams of regional hegemony. Tehran is naturally working equally hard to prevent such a development.
Damascus and Tehran are currently fellow travelers that will extract what they can from one another. Their relationship does not rise to the level of a full-fledged alliance, however, and it is a partnership that has its limitations. In the first place, Tehran is not concerned, ultimately, with the fate of Syria. Tehran is concerned about Syrian weakness inasmuch as it affects Tehran’s ambitions in the region and beyond. Accordingly, it appears to be acting to cover its bases in Lebanon by carving out a strong Shi’a bloc for itself at Damascus’ expense.
Of course, part of this effort is also due to Tehran’s fear of Saudi machinations in Lebanon. Tehran is seeking to establish ties with the Lebanese government by cementing ties with Shi’a leaders in Beirut, a process begun under Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, Mohammad Khatami.
Reports also indicate that Tehran is beginning to question the fealty of Hezbollah’s current leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and may be looking for a successor to consolidate Iranian support within the organization. This may prefigure a major rift within the organization and bears watching.
In addition, Damascus is the much weaker partner and must fear for its future if Tehran ends up cutting a deal with the West over its nuclear program that may set Damascus adrift, calling to mind the Thucydidean maxim that the strong do what they can while the weak suffer what they must. Although not likely in the near future, the possibility exists that Tehran will use its influence over Hezbollah to broker the party’s ultimate disarmament as a bargaining chip within the framework of a broad international agreement.
Ironically, it was Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez, who had held out the possibility of disarming Hezbollah as part of a comprehensive peace settlement that would have secured Syrian influence in Lebanon, sanctioned by Washington. It is now Tehran that sits in a position to broker such an arrangement, which would marginalize Damascus and leave it to the mercy of others.