Syria and Iran seem like unnatural allies. Syria is a predominantly Sunni state run by Alawites, a largely secular Shiite offshoot; Iran is a mainly Shiite state, run by religious mullahs. Despite this ideological paradox, the two countries’ “special relationship,” which stretches back to the 1970s, has only strengthened since the invasion of Iraq, the U.S.-led undermining of Syrian control of Lebanon, and the election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, an anti-U.S. hardliner.
Yet then, as now, notes W. Abbas Samii of the Center for Naval Analyses in the Mideast Monitor, the leadership in Damascus “viewed cooperation with Iran as a means to an end, not an end itself.” Isolated after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (believed by Western officials to be the work of Syrian agents), Damascus increasingly glommed onto Tehran, which reciprocated its solidarity. Both oppose U.S. interests in the region (its occupation of Iraq, support for Israel, and push for tougher sanctions against Iran). Syria became a conduit through which the Islamic Republic funneled arms to Hezbollah and Hamas. In Iraq, Syria has allowed its border to be crossed with ease by Sunni insurgents, while Iran has backed Shiite militias. Despite the divergent political aims of these groups, both advocate the removal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
Iran is seeking a stronger foothold in the Middle East, and as Joshua Landis of the University of Oklahoma points out in this interview with Bernard Gwertzman, “Iran’s reach into the Arab world is through Syria.” The rest of the Arab world—and specifically Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan—is worried by what it perceives as an encroachment of Iranian influence in the region—the so-called Shiite crescent. “[L]ast summer's war between Israel and Hezbollah showed the reach of Tehran's influence,” writes CFR’s Vali R. Nasr in TIME. “Iran supported Hezbollah and supplied it with sophisticated weaponry, and not surprisingly basked in the glory of its perceived victory to overshadow the Sunni regimes that had condemned the Shiite movement.” Both regimes are further emboldened, argues Barry Rubin of the Global Research in International Affairs Center, by what they perceive as growing U.S. weakness in the region. “The Syrians and Iranians believe the United States, in [former Ayatollah] Khomeini’s terms, ‘cannot do a damn thing’,” Rubin told Global Politician.
With violence raging once again in parts of Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, some Middle East experts are eyeing the linkages among Iran, Syria, and Levant-based militant groups more closely. “The axis of Iran, Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah is a radical axis that, in many ways, is getting stronger (Reuters),” pronounced Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz. Syria, miffed by forward movement on a tribunal investigating the Hariri murder, appears to be ready for more dialogue with the United States and Israel. Syrian leaders, of course, want a return of the Golan Heights (PDF), seized by Israel four decades ago. Washington wants to wrest Damascus free from its partnership with Tehran, not to mention secure its cooperation in locking down the border with Iraq.