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Syria, Iran, and the Mideast Conflict

Author: Esther Pan
July 18, 2006
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

As the conflict in the Middle East continues, attention turns to the influence of Iran and Syria over their local proxy groupsparticularly Hezbollah. Experts say the two countries share little ideologically, yet are increasingly cooperating out of necessity. These experts see a new boldness in the way both countries are exerting their influence in the region.

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What is the current relationship between Syria and Iran?

Many experts say geopolitical realities are bringing the two nations together in an opportunistic alliance. "It's a strategic relationship, a marriage of convenience," says Scott Lasensky, senior research associate and Middle East expert at the United States Institute of Peace. Ilan Berman, vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council, says, "Syria and Iran both have a common goal, which is not to be the next Iraq." The two countries agreed to a mutual defense treaty in 2004.

"There's a clear confluence of interest between Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah," says CFR Fellow Steven A. Cook. Syria supported Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, breaking from most other Arab countries and reflecting the rivalry between its form of Baathism and that of Saddam Hussein. Damascus hosts thousands of Iranian tourists each year who make pilgrimages to Shiite holy sites in Syria; it also receives millions of dollars in Iranian donations for the upkeep and building of mosques. And Tehran | supported Damascus after the February 2005 murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri brought international censure to Assad's regime. Syria and Iran see themselves as "two states under siege, surrounded by adversarial regimes," Lasensky says. "The unified opposition against them reinforces the alliance."

Syria and Iran see themselves as "two states under siege, surrounded by adversarial regimes," Lasensky says. "The unified opposition against them reinforces the alliance."

Other experts warn the alliance between Damascus and Tehran depends heavily on external events. "They have diverging interests when things are good in the region," says Emile el-Hokayem, research associate at the Henry L. Stimson Center and an expert on Persian Gulf security. "But when things deteriorate, they have obvious reasons to come together."

How are the two nations cooperating in the current conflict?

Iran's foreign minister visited Damascus after the Hezbollah attack to express Tehran's support for Syria in a clear sign of greater coordination between the two nations. For Iran, the opportunity to strike at Israel brings regional credibility, underscores Tehran's reach, and shows the United States its power. Syria is also trying to assert its influence in the region. Hezbollah receives some $100 million per year from Tehran, and its Iranian-supplied weaponry is transported through Syria to Hezbollah's stronghold in Lebanon's southeast. Hezbollah's July 12 attack on an Israeli convoy, during which it kidnapped two Israeli soldiers, "was an opportunity for Hezbollah to further burnish its image on the Arab street," Cook says. The attack established Hezbollah as defenders of the Palestinians—already under Israeli attack for the earlier abduction of an Israeli soldier—as other Arab governments stood by helplessly, he says.

What are Iranís goals?

Some experts say Iran engineered the timing of the Hezbollah attack—which prompted a punishing Israeli campaign of air strikes against Lebanon—to deflect international censure over its nuclear program. The Iranian nuclear file had been referred back to the Security Council, and the G8 summit was preparing to debate international sanctions against Iran. Experts say Tehran took the opportunity to provoke a crisis and deflect international attention. "Iran believes that the best defense is a good offense," Berman says. "The Security Council can't walk and chew gum at the same time, so if they're passing resolutions on Lebanon, they're not passing resolutions on Iran."

But others say Iran did not play such a direct role in Hezbollah's actions. Hokayem likens the relationship between Hezbollah and Iran to the one between Israel and the United States, where the patron nation supports—but doesn't control all the actions of—the sponsored entity. "I'm very careful not to say the Iranian regime ordered Hezbollah to do this." He agrees with other experts who say Hezbollah is more of an equal partner than a proxy in the alliance with Syria and Iran. "I don't want to blame Iran or Syria" for starting the conflict, he says. "I think [Hezbollah leader Sheik Hassan] Nasrallah went on alone." Cook agrees. "It's not the case that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad called up Nasrallah and said, 'Let's do it.' I don't think the Iranians are willing to expose themselves to that extent."

"It's not the case that [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad called up Nasrallah and said, 'Let's do it,'" says Cook. "I don't think the Iranians are willing to expose themselves to that extent."

What is Syriaís role in the current crisis?

The conflict represents a way for Syria to "reassert its insidious influence in Lebanon," Cook says. The events of the last year—Syria's forced withdrawal from Lebanon after nearly thirty years of occupation, the isolation of pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, and the election of an anti-Syrian Lebanese parliament—have loosened Syria's grip on its smaller neighbor. But by supporting Hezbollah action, which it knew would invite an Israeli counterattack, Damascus is "allowing Israel to destabilize Lebanon, which allows Syrian influence to grow again," Cook says.

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been looking for ways to reassert its power in Lebanon for the last year. "All four players in this—Syria, Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah—face major Western pressure, but Syria is actually the weakest," Hokayem says. "Hezbollah is seen as the victor of 2000 [when Israel withdrew from Lebanon]. Hamas won an election. Iran is asserting its power. But Bashar is the one whose legitimacy is the most questionable at this point. For him, this is legitimacy by association."

Some experts say Iran drives the current crisis while Syria tags along for the ride. Israel's military—or that of the United States—would make quick work of Syria's antiquated forces, experts say, and the Syrian leadership is well aware of that fact. "Bashar's strategy is to wait out the Bush administration," Berman says. "He has no interest in engaging in this conflict now." But, due in large part to Iran's desire to deflect action from its nuclear program, Damascus is deeply involved in the conflict. "The Syrians are in a very sticky situation," Berman says. "The partnership with Iran is turning out to be a risky venture for Bashar."

What is the role of the United States?

U.S. involvement in the region—from Washington's support for Israel to its occupation of Iraq—implicates it deeply in this conflict. Opposition to the United States has the perverse effect of keeping disparate allies like Syria and Iran together, Hokayem says. Cook says Hezbollah has broadened its motives from fighting Israel in Lebanon to fighting Israeli and U.S. influence in the region. And the United States has led the drive to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. "Tehran knows that if the conflict comes to Iran, the fight is not between Israel and Iran, but between Iran and the United States," Berman says. Iran's response to such a confrontation will be telling, he says: "The whole negotiating track Iran has been on for the last two years is all about gaining time. Are they ready to take on the United States, or will they play for more time for their nuclear program?"

"Tehran knows that if the conflict comes to Iran, the fight is not between Israel and Iran, but between Iran and the United States," Berman says.

But the Iranian leadership could be orchestrating a clever feint. "[Tehran] wants to trade talks on this crisis for the nuclear issue," Cook says. Meanwhile, the United States is getting impatient with Tehran. "All signs point to the fact that there's going to be a confrontation with Iran sooner or later," Berman says.

Whatís the history of the link between Syria and Iran?

The alliance dates back to the early-to mid-1970s, when conflict and rivalry arose between then-Syrian President Hafez al-Assad's version of Baathism and Saddam Hussein's in Iraq, Lasensky says. In the 1990s, the relationship grew more distant as each country pursued its own interests. Syria under Hafez al-Assad was deeply engaged in the Middle East peace process as Damascus tried to regain the Golan Heights from Israel through negotiations. At the same time, Iran took a less-invested position on the peace process, saying it would support whatever outcome helped the Palestinians. "They had bigger fish to fry," Hokayem says.

The two nations kept their wary relations until the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 made them both nervous. Syria, feeling particularly vulnerable, pushed for a mutual defense pact with Iran that included parts of Lebanon, then under Syrian control. "The Syrians are the ones who started this [current relationship]," Berman says. "They were the ones who felt vulnerable, who felt that they needed protection."

How much of an issue is the divide between Syriaís Baathists and Iranís Shiites?

Syria is a secular state run by the Baath Party; Iran is a Shiite theocracy. Yet the split is not significant enough to make the two countries overlook their political goals. "Iran talks a good religious game, but it's willing to work with secular governments for a common goal," Berman says. And their association with Shiite Iran "gives Syrians the [religious] legitimacy they need," Cook says.

Hokayem points out the two countries also have different global and regional status. "Syria is a junior partner, uncertain about its future, very Levant-centered and concerned about regional dynamics. Iran is a very confident regime which deals with major powers like Russia and China and plays big-power politics," he says.

How do other Arab states feel about the Syria-Iran relationship?

Experts say the leaders of several Sunni countries in the region are worried about the rising influence of Shiite Iran. "A regional war is a losing proposition for them," Hokayem says. "Who's going to be the anti-Israel, anti-United States champion? It's going to be Iran, not them." Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia—all Sunni nations—took the unusual step of criticizing Hezbollah at a meeting of Arab League foreign ministers July 15.

However, cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shiite leader, has spoken out in support of Hezbollah. Many regional leaders fear a full-fledged sectarian war in Iraq could spark a similar conflict across the region, which could pose a quandary for Assad's secular regime. "If there was a regional military war between Sunnis and Shias, the Syrians will be hard-pressed" to choose sides, Hokayem says.

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