Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

Syria Is Gaining The Upper-Hand In Its Alliance With Iran

Posted in Iran by Dan on August 25, 2009

Asad-Khamenei1

Behind the well-documented news reports of Afghanistan’s election, as well as the violence continuing to plague Iraqi society, is an event that has been ignored by Middle East watchers as a rather routine development:  Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s trip to the Islamic Republic of Iran.  While it is already widely-known that Syria and Iran are steadfast allies in the region, namely due to the two country’s unified stance against American and Israeli influence, Assad’s most recent visit to Iran demonstrates the extent of his personal embrace towards Tehran’s “rejectionist front.”  This should be viewed with some suspicion by security analysts across the globe, considering that Mr. Assad has also vowed to participate in direct talks with Washington on the all-too-frustrating Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Only Assad would be able to mastermind this “two-faced” phenomenon, supporting America’s endeavors for peace in the Holy Land while strengthening his military ties to a regime that threatens to “wipe Israel off the face of the earth.”

However unethical and questionable his demeanor seems to be to the ordinary observer, I can fully understand why the Syrian president is willing to sacrifice his character and integrity on such a “duality of man” approach.  Whatever flaws the autocrat has in his regime, Mr. Assad is able to exploit his current position as a man who is intent on standing up for the rights of Arabs:  whether or not this concerns Palestinian oppression in the West Bank/Gaza Strip territories or resisting the intervention of western imperialism.  Syria is in a strategic location- in the very heart of the Middle East- possessing an extraordinary amount of ties to issues that the United States and Israel are expected to deal with as a superpower.  Lebanon, however independent and democratic the small state has been in the last few months, is still susceptible to Syrian interference…thanks to Assad’s financial contributions to the Hezbollah militia in the southern half of the country.  In a similar vein, any prospective peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians will be heavily influenced by Syria, in large part to the enormous amount of respect that ordinary Palestinians have for Bashar’s Alawite regime.  And of course, this is not even taking into account Hamas, an Islamic proxy that receives a majority of its funding from the Iranian-Syrian partnership.

As is expected, Ayatollah Khamenei and Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad have continued to benefit from Assad’s popularity within the Arab community.  For a country that is commonly viewed with suspicion by tens of millions of Arabs in the Middle East, having an Arab partner joined at the hip is essential if Persians are to successfully pursue their national interests in a antagonistic region.  Khamenei’s public praise and commendation towards Damascus shows the Supreme Leader’s desperation for friends…all at a time when his rule is increasingly being questioned and challenged by Iran’s moderate camp.  One only needs to take a look at some of Khamenei’s most notable quotations during his meeting with Assad:

“Syria’s most important characteristic among Arab countries is its steadfastness and resistance.”

“The unity between Iran and Syria is the embodiment of resistance in the region.”

“America’s blade has become blunter in the region.”

Each declaration could simply be an attempt to show the international community how invigorated Iran and Syria’s alliance has become.  Perhaps this language is Khamenei’s way of convincing President Obama that his efforts to accomplish a Mideast peace accord on Washington’s terms is a futile journey.  Perhaps it is a combination of the two.  While all of these predictions are viable explanations, each fails to grasp Iran’s hidden motivation…that is the powerful iceberg below the surface.  At a period when Tehran is on the verge of international isolation over its nuclear program, and at a time when the Islamic Republic is forced to confront a wave of domestic insecurity that was virtually absent since the regime’s inception, Syria is Iran’s only true ally.  Combine this with Egypt and Saudi Arabia’s anti-Iranian sentiment, and the importance of Damascus is even more significant for the survival of Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and Islamic hard-liners in general.

In the past, analysts have portrayed the Iranian-Syrian alliance as one between a parent and a child, where Tehran is pulling the strings behind the scenes and Damascus is but a puppet of the tenants of the Islamic Revolution.  Policymakers perceive Syria’s inferior status as basic knowledge, only confirmed by Bashar al-Assad’s dependency on Iranian oil reserves.  It was argued that the very survival of Assad’s political career was directly linked to his beleaguered acceptance of a rising Persian power…for if he withdrew support, Iran would limit oil exports and cross-border trade (further declining Syria’s already abysmal economy).  What appears to be occurring now is exactly the opposite:  an Iran gambling all of its chips on the expectation that Syria will continue its cooperation in the military, economic, and political spheres.  Although Assad seems willing to permit this course in the coming days, as is apparent based on his meeting with Ayatollah Khamenei, the balance-of-power formula that used to categorize Iranian-Syrian relations is slowly but radically changing.  The United States, Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Iraq should take note of this reality, not dismissing it as yet another insignificant event in the wider Middle East.

-Daniel R. DePetris

-Information from the AFP contributed to this blog.  The full news story can be accessed at: http://news.yahoo.com/s/afp/20090819/wl_afp/iransyriadiplomacy_20090819172025;_ylt=AnCbEEbBzU17FECQhsu5T0z6SpZ4

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