Syria and Iran in a Middle East in Transition

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1 3118 GA Shia Power 15/1/07 3:42 PM Page 313 Syria and Iran in a Middle East in Transition LORENZO TROMBETTA Syria hopes to attract Iranian investments in support of the deep political relations which link our two countries. On 23 November 2005, Amir Husni Lufi, the Syrian minister of economics made this declaration in Damascus addressing a commercial delegation from Iran. Our doors are open to Iranian investments into our economy to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, Lufi continued. The strategic alliance with Iran has always been extremely fruitful for Syria and we are not afraid to pay the political price for Iranian investments on our territory. 1. Only a few days previously, on 19 November, it was reported that the Syrian secret services had arrested in Damascus, on the request of Tehran, a group of Arab-Iranian activists from the Khuzestan/Arabistan region of Iran. They had been accused of attacking the national security of the Islamic Republic and condemned to death in Iran. At least three of the members of this Organization for the Liberation of Ahwaz were promptly extradited to Iran by Syria. 2 These are just two of the reports broadcast almost every day by Arab news outlets and which, in the context of the Middle East today, show the extreme political, strategic and economic proximity between the Syria of Bashir Al- Assad and the Iran of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But the Syrian-Iranian axis is also often mentioned in the North American and European media. In the majority of cases, these media prefer to describe the alliance between the two countries as the principal threat to the stability of the region which extends from the Mediterranean coast of the Levant deep into Central Asia, via the Persian Gulf. The first embrace between Syria and Iran dates from 1979 and since then the two countries have entertained the closest and most stable alliance in the contemporary Middle Eastern history. 3 Throughout the turbulent events in the Middle East of the 1980s and 1990s, this mutual understanding has survived numerous tests of solidarity in different geographical scenarios.

2 3118 GA Shia Power 15/1/07 3:42 PM Page SHIA POWER: NEXT TARGET IRAN? Different Ideologies and an Iron Alliance In the post-war period and throughout the 1960s, relations between Damascus and Iran were dominated almost permanently by an attitude of mistrust. Syria, which had been governed by the nationalist pan-arab Ba ath party since 1963, and which was more and more in the Soviet orbit, was perceived by the Shah s Persia, which was by contrast closely linked to the Western powers, as a potential threat to its regional interests. For its part, Damascus regarded Tehran s policies as nothing but an instrument in the hands of the United States. With the arrival to power of Hafez Al-Assad in the autumn of 1970, and with the adoption of a more pragmatic Syrian policy, there was a period of temporary thaw which led to Assad s first visit to Tehran in Iran then wanted to use Syria to counter Iraq, while Syria wanted to use Tehran s good offices to intercede with the United States and win political points in its conflict with Israel. With the overthrow of the monarchy in Iran and the creation of the Islamic Republic, Syria was the first Arab country to recognize the new regime, on 12 February 1979, when it declared its own support for the Islamic Revolution. Since then, the Middle East has changed considerably but the understanding between the two countries has remained constant. Even today, it continues to contribute to the overall political balance in the region. In the light of the last two decades of political events in the region, and of the choices made over this long period by the leaders in Syria and Iran, it is possible to identify the principle factors which have caused this strategic alliance to be so durable. The first, as political scientists emphasize, is that this is an alliance of only two countries and, in comparison with alliances containing several members, the risk of a break-up is smaller: The smaller the alliance, the more cohesive and effective it is, and the more important the contribution of each member. 4. Secondly, the alliance has been and largely remains essentially defensive, directed against the threats from Iraq and Israel and intended to impede encirclement by the United States. This too would seem to confirm the political science model according to which alliances with set and limited objectives are more stable and durable. 5 Furthermore, the interests of the two allies lie in different geographical regions in which they can, none the less, cooperate. Iran dominates the region of the Persian Gulf, while Syria projects its power towards the control of Lebanon. Over the years, Damascus and Tehran have therefore coordinated their acts and initiatives according to their respective strategic requirements: Syria has been preoccupied mainly with the political and military conflict with Israel, while Iran was concerned more directly with the regional ambitions of Saddam Hussein s Iraq.

3 3118 GA Shia Power 15/1/07 3:42 PM Page 315 SYRIA AND IRAN IN A MIDDLE EAST IN TRANSITION 315 Finally, another extremely important factor which has contributed to the strength of these links is the fact that the two regimes have different political ideologies: on the one hand, the secular pan-arabism of the Syrian Ba athists, forged by the father of modern Syria, Hafez Al-Assad (who governed from 1970 to 2000), on the other the pan-islamic fundamentalism conceived by the leader of the Iranian Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. In a region such as the Middle East, in which authoritarian regimes use ideology as an instrument by means of which to shore up their political legitimacy, an alliance between two partners who are not in ideological competition with each other seems to be more durable. 6. Neither member of the alliance has an interest in claiming supremacy over the other. Iran, which is not an Arab country, has never aspired to be the champion of Arab nationalism in the way that Syria under Assad father and son did and does. For its part, Damascus has never wanted to guide the reawakening of Islam, leaving this to Tehran. Different Arenas, Common Enemies The relationship between Syria and Iran has developed in various phases; it has manifested itself in different geographical areas and it has been partially determined by alliances concluded between rival regional actors. Iran and Iraq, In the first phase, between 1979 to the summer of 1982, the first positive results of the understanding between the Damascus and Tehran became clear during the Iran Iraq War which broke out in September After the rapprochement of February 1979 which followed Khomeini s arrival to power in Iran, the two countries had initiated various projects for military and political cooperation at a time when both saw their relations with the United States deteriorate and their relations with the Soviet Union improve. In the same year, there was no thaw in relations between Damascus and Baghdad which continued its bitter conflict with Iran in order to try to obtain pre-eminence in the Gulf. It was inevitable, therefore, that Assad s Syria responded to the call for help from its Iranian ally which had been attacked by an expansionist Saddam. A few days after the official opening of hostilities, on 22 September 1980, Damascus opened an air bridge to supply Tehran with arms, logistical equipment and medical supplies. 7 On 8 October, Assad himself flew to Tehran to sign a pact of friendship and cooperation with the Soviet Union and in order to convince the Kremlin to supply the Iranian Army against an Iraq which was then close to the United States.

4 3118 GA Shia Power 15/1/07 3:42 PM Page SHIA POWER: NEXT TARGET IRAN? In these same years, the Syrian-Iranian alliance was reinforced by the emergence of axes of strategic rivals. Egypt under first Sadat and then Mubarak (from October 1981) allied itself ever more closely with the US and against Arab countries. The alliance between Iraq and Jordan therefore extended to Cairo in the West, threatening to encircle Syria. Syria was viewed badly by these countries, not only because of its support for Iran but also for its unpopular intervention in the Lebanese conflict ( ). At the beginning of 1982, the agreement between Damascus and Tehran was formalized by the signature of a series of economic-commercial and military agreements between the two countries. In March of that year, the then Syrian minister of foreign affairs led a delegation of fifty businessmen and high-level politicians to Tehran where he signed a protocol with the Iranian authorities which indicated that the Islamic Republic would export nine million tonnes of crude oil a year at a reduced price ($28 per barrel instead of $34) in return for four hundred thousands tonnes of Syrian phosphates used for the petrochemical industry in Iran. The agreement also provided for the exchange of large quantities of arms to be used, respectively, against Iraq in the Gulf War and in Lebanon against anti-syrian militias. Another measure which Damascus adopted in favour of its Iranian ally and against Iraq was to seal its eastern borders in April 1982 and to close the Kirkuk Baniyas Tripoli pipeline which brought crude oil from Northern Iraq to the Mediterranean coast. This caused Saddam Hussein s regime to lose $17 million per day (approximately $6 billion per year). Lebanon and Israel, With Israel s massive invasion of Lebanon in June 1982, a new phase in the relationship between Syria and Iran began. In the first three years, Damascus s support for Iran in its war with Iraq had made the Islamic Republic too dependent on aid from its Arab ally. Later, when the Syrian Air Force and Army found themselves in extreme difficulty against the supremacy of the Israel Defence Forces in the Beqaa Valley and in West Beirut, Iran s intervention on the side of Syria re-established some balance in the relationship between the two countries. After the initial losses of the Syrian military and its Lebanese allies (Palestinian militias, Amal s Shiites, Jumblatt s Druze) against the advances of the Israeli Army, Damascus started a war of attrition in Beirut and in other parts of the country which were occupied by Israeli soldiers and which were under the control of rival Christian militias. In this context, Iran s logistical, military, intelligence, economic and ideological support was decisive, especially in those parts of the country where there was already a strong local Shiite presence.

5 3118 GA Shia Power 15/1/07 3:42 PM Page 317 SYRIA AND IRAN IN A MIDDLE EAST IN TRANSITION 317 As a first emergency measure, at the beginning of June 1982, immediately after the Israeli invasion, Tehran sent numerous fighters to Damascus who were then sent into Lebanon. 8 On 17 June 1982, a delegation, led by the Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ali Akhbar Veliyati, travelled to Syria to discuss the details of the support Iran would provide and suggested sending a massive contingent of volunteers (some 40,000) and members of special units (10,000) to be used alongside the Syrian Army and the Shiite militias of Amal. But Assad preferred for the time being to decline the offer, afraid that such a generous act by the Iranians would have undermined the future sovereignty of Damascus in the Lebanese scenario, given the possible future military and ideological expansionism of Tehran. Later, from September 1982 onwards, after having suffered heavy losses in Lebanon and after having seen Syria s positions in the Beqaa Valley and West Beirut withdraw, the Syrian president turned to his Iranian ally with the idea of using a small number of Iranian combatants in a non-conventional war against Israel and its allies. At least 2,000 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard were sent to Baalbeck, the stronghold of the Beqaa Valley controlled by pro-syrian forces, while Amal s forces saw their numbers swell to 10,000 well-armed and well-trained men. In the two years from 1983 to 1985, after a series of victories in key areas of Lebanon (the Druze Shuf, the mountains to the east of Beirut, the motorway from Damascus to Beirut, the north of Mt Lebanon), 9 Syria managed to impose its rule, directly or indirectly, on large parts of Lebanon. It was against this background that the Shiite party Hezbollah emerged, born with the aim of resisting the Zionist occupation and closely linked to certain Iranian leaders. 10 But in the same period, the front of Arab countries close to the United States was reorganized around Egypt, above all in reaction to the Iranian invasion of Iraq in July Saddam Hussein s regime was very clever in asking for the support of Arab brothers at this point, and in consolidating its alliance with Washington thanks to the good offices of Saudi diplomacy. Meanwhile, Syria did not manage to take complete control of Lebanon and found itself ever more encircled by the axis of Egypt, Jordan and Arafat s PLO. This stalemate reinforced yet again the Syrian-Iranian alliance, which was again perceived as a defensive alliance against the threats of hostile actors. In the second half of the 1980s, and until the outbreak of the Gulf War in 1990, the two partners consolidated their alliances, recognizing each other s supremacy in their respective areas: once one or two tensions were resolved over the control of the Shiite Army of God, Damascus was definitely considered by Tehran to be the main power in Lebanon. Iran supplied indispensable military and ideological support to the Shiite militias of Amal and to Hezbollah. In the Gulf, meanwhile, Syria supported Iran both in its

6 3118 GA Shia Power 15/1/07 3:42 PM Page SHIA POWER: NEXT TARGET IRAN? military and economic conflict with Iraq and also by putting itself forward as a mediator, in the interests of Iran, in various crises between the Islamic Republic and other Arab countries in the region. Ahmadinejad and Assad in a Middle East in transition Since then, the Middle Eastern political landscape has changed, as have the dynamics in the region. This is partly a reflection of the changes which have occurred in the wider world. After the collapse of the USSR, the US became the only superpower and arbiter in the region and, from the autumn of 2001, the interventionism of the Bush administration in Afghanistan and Iraq, together with the diplomatic initiatives by Washington and Paris in Lebanon, isolated Syria and Iran from the Western bloc. Today, however, their alliance is reinforced by the direct and indirect support of diplomatic and energy powers like China and Russia, but also by Venezuela and North Korea. Both the Iranian and the Syrian presidents, whose images appear side by side to illustrate the alliance, have declared themselves keen to pursue their relations and to emphasize the solidity of their alliance. This was recently strengthened by the signature of an agreement in October 2006 between Iran, Syria and Hugo Chavez s Venezuela for the creation of a tripartite consortium which will manage the new refinery of crude oil on the outskirts of Damascus. 11 The economic and commercial links between the two countries is only one aspect of the strategic relationship which is destined to keep Syria and Iran united, at least in the short and medium term. The two points of reference, the Gulf and the Levant, continue to preoccupy the leaders in Tehran and Damascus even if matters there are less volatile than in the past. Syria-Iran and Iraqi temptations In post-saddam Iraq, which has been subject to more than three years of foreign occupation and which is ever more torn to pieces by internal violence in a territory now divided along ethnic-confessional lines, Ahmadinejad s Iran and Assad s Syria are trying to play their own cards with different objectives in mind. On the one hand, they want to accredit themselves, directly or indirectly, with the United States as stabilizing forces in certain sensitive regions of Iraq (the Shiite south of Iraq for Iran, the central area inhabited by Shiite tribes for Syria); on the other, they want to prevent hostile elements from operating within Iraq to threaten Syrian or Iranian territory. This is the sense of the recent report by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in the US on possible solutions to the Iraqi crisis. The wise men of the committee speak of the need to establish a constructive dialogue with Syria

7 3118 GA Shia Power 15/1/07 3:42 PM Page 319 SYRIA AND IRAN IN A MIDDLE EAST IN TRANSITION 319 and Iran, thereby giving each country the role of firemen called to put out the flames in Mesopotamia. Here the relationship between Damascus and Tehran become more delicate. The Shiite tribes in the centre of Iraq have for centuries maintained blood links ( asabiyya) with their Syrian relatives beyond borders drawn up only eighty years ago, but no one can be sure that they will allow themselves to be subject, directly or indirectly, to the regime in Damascus. By analogy, the inhabitants of Southern Iraq share their Shiite religion with the Iranians but this does not mean that Tehran can impose its own protectorate there, even an informal one. Presented as theoretical zones of influence for Syria and Iran, these two regions of Iraq could instead turn out to be dangerous traps, both for Assad and for Ahmadinejad. In the vacuum created by the dislocation of the Iraqi state, the Sunni tribes in the centre of the country and the Shiite populations in the South, which for decades were controlled by the regime of Saddam Hussein (the former favoured, the latter repressed), could well now decide that they do not want to lose their autonomy by becoming instruments in the regional power game. In addition, there is another traditional factor of instability in the region, namely the Kurdish presence in territory divided between Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. Since the creation of the autonomous Kurdish zone in Northern Iraq in 1991, but especially since the fall of Saddam in April 2003, the Iranian and, even more so, the Syrian Kurds have been watching the Iraqi solution with extreme interest, in which their brothers over the borders are now living. In Lebanon it is now Tehran which dominates From the Gulf to the Mediterranean, the other front of the Syrian-Iranian alliance continues, even today, to be Lebanon. Here Damascus and Tehran seek to maintain their respective influence manoeuvring against the United States and France. From the summer of 2004 the clash between the two blocks has become ever sharper with a series of victories and defeats for both formations. Damascus replied to UN Resolution 1559 initiated by Paris and Washington in September 2004 but extending the mandate of its faithful lieutenant, Emile Lahoud, until the end of the autumn of After the massive street protests and the strong international pressures brought to bear after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, Syria was forced to withdraw its troops after fifteen years in Lebanon. However, hopes have not been fulfilled that the international commission of enquiry into Hariri s murder would turn into a battering ram with which to destroy the Syrian regime. For the time being, the enquiries are continuing without any senior official from Syria having to answer for the crime, while

8 3118 GA Shia Power 15/1/07 3:42 PM Page SHIA POWER: NEXT TARGET IRAN? the war in the summer of 2006 between Israel and Hezbollah has, de facto, reinforced the Lebanese parties supported by Syria and Iran and weakened those supported by the United States and France which are today represented by the precarious government of Fouad Siniora. The current crisis in Lebanon which sees the opposition to the anti-syrian government coalesce around the Party of God should in fact been seen as the umpteenth manifestation of a far greater clash which extends over time and place. In this context, the Syrian-Iranian relationship is currently without any doubt in favour of the Islamic Republic. Its principal ally in Lebanon, the Party of God (Hezbollah) led by Sayid Hassan Nasrallah, while being a Lebanese party, does maintain the closest links with the upper echelons of the Iranian regime. Damascus role is limited to providing its own logistical support to Hezbollah s armed wing, allowing major arms supplies to transit its own territory in order to reach the Beqaa Valley. In the past, Syria seemed to be able to influence decisions made by Hezbollah using it as an instrument of pressure against Israel; today, by contrast, it seems that it is Syria s own decisions which are secondary to the agenda set by Tehran and Nasrallah. In the war between Hezbollah and Israel, Bashir Al-Assad expressed his own support for the Islamic resistance of Nasrallah s men 12 and recently senior officers in the Lebanese Army have implicitly confirmed that arms were supplied directly to the Shiite militias in Lebanon via Syrian territory. 13 But Damascus role seems to be limited to these aspects, while it is the emissaries of Tehran in Lebanon who coordinate Hezbollah s actions against Israel. 14 It is in this context that Syria s effort to keep open the possibility of dialogue with the United States and the European Union should be understood as an attempt to avoid Syria s foreign policy becoming subject to that of its ally, Iran. From the middle of September 2006, there have been intense efforts by Damascus to reopen contacts with the principal European countries and with the Bush administration. Recalling the agreement reached in 1990 with President George Bush Senior, when Syria gave military support to the Western anti-saddam coalition in return for acceptance of the Syrian presence in Lebanon, Syria today might hope once again to count for something in Lebanon by finding a compromise with Washington. This might be why on 27 November 2006 Bashir Al-Assad, together with his Iraqi opposite number Jalal Talabani, declined an Iranian invitation to visit Tehran. A week previously, when the first leaks from the Baker-Hamilton report suggested that Iran and Syria be involved in solving the Iraqi crisis, President Ahmadinejad invited both Assad and Talabani to Tehran in order to try to stop the spiral of violence in Iraq. Analysts interpreted his gesture as an attempt by Ahmadinejad to prevent the United States from regaining control of Iraq by using the good offices of Damascus. At the end of November 2006,

9 3118 GA Shia Power 15/1/07 3:42 PM Page 321 SYRIA AND IRAN IN A MIDDLE EAST IN TRANSITION 321 with the visit to Baghdad of Syrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Walid Al- Mu allim, a historic rapprochement occurred, after a quarter-century of tensions, between Syria and Iraq. In any case, the lasting image of the relationship between Syria and Iran surely remains the warm handshake between Ahmadinejad and Assad on 1 December 2006 at the Olympic stadium in Doha at the opening of the 15th Asian Games. In a Middle East in transition, the balance of power in this alliance, which has lasted nearly three decades, might undergo changes in the short term. However, the strategic bases of the Damascus-Tehran axis seem destined to remain unchanged. The longest bilateral alliance in the modern history of the region seems set to last. Lorenzo Trombetta is the author of Siria. Nel Nuovo Medioriente (Syria in the New Middle East) (Rome:Editori Riuniti, 2004). He is writing a thesis on modern Syria at the Sorbonne and at La Sapienza in Rome. NOTES 1 Tishrin, 24 November 2006, Damascus, p. 1. The daily explained that the new Iranian investments were in industry, public transport, construction and agriculture. According to the Chamber of Commerce in Damascus, quoted by the London-based pan-arabic daily, Al Hayat, on 19 November 2006, in 2004 Iran exported goods to Syria to a total value of $56 million, while every year some 200,000 Iranian businessmen go to Syria on business. 2 Levant News Akhbar ash-sharq, Damascus extradites to Iran a group of Ahwaz Arabs, 19 November 2006, London < Since uprisings started again in April 2005 among the Ahwaz of Khuzestan, according to Irin, the humanitarian information service of the United Nations, Iran has intensified its repressive campaign against its citizens of Arabic ethnicity in the region. The Ahwazi Human Rights Organization, based in the United States, claims that from April 2005 more than 25,000 people have been arrested, at least 131 executed and some 150 disappeared. The Syrian authories claim that no prisoner of conscience has been extradited from Syria to Iran. They claim that for other crimes there exist extradition agreements between the two countries. See Irin, Syria: Ahwazis in fear after news of deportation and death sentence, 11 December 2006). 3 M. Goodarzi Jubin, Syria and Iran Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East, London, 2006, p. 2. This is the most comprehensive and most up-to-date account of the alliance between the two countries, and it has an excellent bibliography. The quotations from specialists below come from Goodarzi. 4 E.H. Fedder, The concept of alliance, International Studies Quarterly, No. 12, 1968, pp.65 86, p.83; O.R. Holsti, P.T. Hopmann and J.D. Sullivan, Unity and disintegration in international alliances, Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1985, p H. Dinerstein, The transformation of alliance systems in American Political Science Review, No. 59, 1965, pp , p One thinks for example of the fierce ideological war fought between the two Ba athist regimes in Syria and Iraq throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, and of the battle between the leaders in Damascus and Cairo for the leadership of the pan-arab movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

10 3118 GA Shia Power 15/1/07 3:42 PM Page SHIA POWER: NEXT TARGET IRAN? 7 Syria supplied Iran with Sam-7 ground-to-air missiles, Sagger anti-tank missiles and RPG rockets. 8 Damascus spoke of 400 men, European diplomatic sources claimed at the time that the true figure was about 3, The Western press and Western commentators attribute numerous attacks in these years to the Syrian-Iranian connection. Among the most famous are: the attack against Lebanese President Bashir Gemayel, in September 1982 in East Beirut, who had only recently been elected and who was supported by Israel; and the attacks of 18 April and 23 October 1983, respectively against the US embassy in Beirut and against French and American barracks near the Lebanese capital. A total of 361 persons died in these three attacks. 10 There is a large bibliography of Hezbollah, the Party of God. See for instance Judith Palmer Harik, Hezbollah: The Changing Face of Terrorism, London: I.B. Tauris, 2006; Naim Qassem, Hizbullah: The Story from Within, London: Saqi Books, 2005; Ahmad Nizar Hamzeh, In The Path Of Hizbullah, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2004; Amal Saad-Ghorayeb, Hizbu llah: Politics and Religion, London: Pluto Press, Arabicnews, Iran, Venezuela, Syria oil refinery project, 31 October According to press sources, the project would cost $1.5 billion but the parties still have to agree on their respective investment quotas. The refinery could produce 140,000 barrels per day. < news.com/ansub/daily/day/061031/ html>. 12 Ansa (Italian press agency), Israele-Libano: Assad, Hezbollah ha vinto battaglia militare, Cairo, 14 August Ansa, Libano: capo esercito smentisce Nasrallah su blocco armi, Beirut, 8 December In the communiqué of the armed forces of Beirut, it was stated that, Throughout the war sufficient measures were taken to prevent the transfer of weapons and munitions from abroad, with the exception of those delivered directly to the resistance in the South. 14 Ansa, Libano-Iran: Tehran apre ufficio a Tiro per ricostruzione Un centro studi e ricerche per potenziare il sostegno iraniano, Beirut, 16 November At the inauguration of the office in Tyre were present, among others, Husam Khoshnovest, the personal representative in Lebanon of the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Abd al-majid Salih, a Hezbollah deputy elected by a local college. This office, Khoshnovest said, will serve as a centre for study and research to assist the Republic of Iran s reconstruction programme in the south of Lebanon.

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