Syrian-Iranian Ties: Deterioration or Activation?
A few weeks ago, Syrian President Bashar al Assad told a delegation made up of members of the US Congress visiting Damascus that he realized that having close ties with America would cost Syria its ties with Hezbollah and Hamas in particular. But it was clear that the new US administration or Israel would not raise the ceiling of expectations to include Syria’s relationship with Iran.
In reference to Iran, US Vice-President Joe Biden said during the 45th Munich Security Conference that was held last week, “Continue down your current course and there will be pressure and isolation; abandon your illicit nuclear program and support for terrorism and there will be meaningful incentives.”
In response, Iranian Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani said that Iran is prepared to negotiate with the United States “but this depends on whether Washington is prepared to change its strategy. We have to know what its objectives are.”
Therefore, each party is requesting that the other changes its strategy. US President Barack Obama expressed flexibility in openness towards Iran but if neither of the two sides takes the first step, nothing will change.
Obama is facing many problems that need solving before the political price is paid for talks with Iran, especially that this is not considered an urgent issue and best left to the Iranians.
Presidential elections are scheduled to take place in Iran next June. Openness towards the United States could harm a candidate’s reputation just as openness towards Iran will bear a heavy price for Obama. Moreover, the Supreme Guide of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, will not allow there to be any kind of openness towards the US administration as long as the new administration relies upon the same policies as the former Bush administration but through new people.
Because US-Iranian ties will remain frozen for now, as neither of the two sides believes that it is crucial to melt the ice quickly, there has been an increase in Western and Arab voices calling for pushing Syria to cut its ties with Iran.
But if Obama’s priorities are to rescue the American and international economies, to withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible, to deal with the problems in Afghanistan and tension with Russia, which all come before improving America’s ties with Iran, then the same should also apply to Syria. Whilst alll these voices are keen to convince Syria [to cut ties with Iran], it is not certain that Syria’s priorities would change if it cut ties.
Most political analysts assume that in return for peace with Israel, Syria wants to regain the Golan Heights and the Sea of Galilee, and an improvement in its economic situation. It also wants to normalise ties with the West, the United States in particular. These analysts believe that America, Israel, and Western states are able to meet these Syrian demands in return for a change in its behaviour and relations. However they failed to ask whether this is what Syria really wants.
I asked an Arab official about the reasons behind the Saudi-Syrian dispute. “Lebanon,” he answered. “Who said that Syria would be satisfied with the Golan Heights in return for leaving Lebanon? Syria does not need complete peace – it is happy with a Syrian-Israeli ceasefire,” he said.
In 1982, when Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon immediately after the Israeli invasion, Iran rushed to help Syria by forming Hezbollah. After that, Syria returned to transform Lebanon into a battlefield where it could settle its own accounts with Israel. Israel did not consider using the Golan Heights to pressure Syria and Syria remained content that its back (the Golan Heights) was protected whilst at the same time it continued to justify its presence in Lebanon on the basis that it is its “soft underbelly.” In 2005, Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon after one million and a half Lebanese protested against Syria’s presence and eclipsed the March 8 Alliance that called for Syria to remain in Lebanon. Syria also withdrew as a result of international pressure.
Iran and Syria formed a strategic alliance in 1980 when Damascus chose to side with Tehran in the Iraq-Iran war. At the time, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was Syria’s archenemy because of the conflict between the two Baath wings in Damascus and Baghdad.
The relationship with Iran gave the Syrian regime strength as well as military, economic and trade support. A relationship with United States or Europe, however, might impose restrictive conditions upon it.
A British politician said that Syrian President Bashar al Assad is keen on maintaining the relationship that Syria has with Iran and will not be lured by promises. He wants to see real action before he makes a decision. He saw what happened to Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi after he abandoned his nuclear programme; despite that Libya has oil, the Colonel became marginal. “There is no doubt that Syria admires the role that Qatar is playing – it is a small Gulf state that is mediating between Iran, the Arabs and the West and Damascus knows that the role of mediator would give it power. For example, between Gaddafi and Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa al Thani, al Assad would choose to follow the example of Sheikh Hamad,” said the politician.
But the problem is that Syria is not rich like Qatar – it has very little to offer as a mediator. Its role, and Qatar’s role, might come to an end when the US administration decides that it is time for direct negotiations with the Iranians. Syria will no longer be a threat to US interests; this appeared to be the case when American forces in Iraq carried out a military operation within Syrian borders last year, just as Israel has invaded sites in Syria on numerous occasions without being met by any confrontation. Syria is yet to respond despite its claim that it is waiting for the right time to do so.
On their part, the Iraqis have not allowed Syria to interfere in Iraqi politics. Moreover, what Iran is doing in Iraq is not in coordination with Syria.
Syrian “power” remains in Lebanon and now it is trying to exploit the Palestinian cause in Lebanon through its Lebanese allies especially as the parliamentary elections draw near. But what is interesting is that Iran and Hezbollah are consolidating their positions in Lebanon without Syria’s participation, even if it is not possible for both of them to do without Syria’s “approval.” Damascus was forced to deny that President Bashar al Assad had played a role in influencing Hezbollah not to intervene in helping Hamas in the Gaza war, as claimed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s envoy Phillipe Marini. Hezbollah or Iran cannot afford to upset Syria as Iranian military support goes through Syria before it reaches Hezbollah-controlled areas in Lebanon and Syria could make Iran pay for what it has suffered for the sake of Iranian-Syrian ties such as being exposed to Israeli invasions within Syria, and the success of Israeli intelligence in destroying its security apparatus, which led to the assassination of Hezbollah’s military leader Imad Mughniyeh.
The success of the recent Iraqi elections has reflected badly upon Syria and also Iran. Syria is no longer a concern for the Americans in Iraq and the Iraqis will not accept any interference from the Syrians; this reduced a lot of Washington’s concerns regarding Syria. But there is still Iran; this issue will be settled by Washington and Tehran.
Some officials in the Israeli military believe that the collapse of the current Syrian regime would harm Israel. They prefer the idea of achieving peace with the regime, not out of fear of Iran, but rather so that fundamentalists would not reach a position of power in Syria. Israel and Turkey got over the anger of Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan and a Turkish delegation arrived in Damascus to talk to Hamas about releasing the kidnapped Israeli soldier.
Syrian-Iranian ties are no longer a priority; the reason, according to a Western diplomat, is that everyday, President Obama reads the intelligence reports that used to reach the office of former president George W. Bush who prevented Israel from carrying out a military strike against Iran. With Obama, even dialogue about rushing towards negotiations has died down and this casts doubt as to whether Iran is capable of producing a nuclear weapon. This is not the case even though Iran did launch a rocket into space.
It seems that many factors will change, numerous houses of cards will fall and the elections in Israel and in Iran, after what happened in Iraq, will determine the value of bilateral ties and the threats that it faces, including Iranian-Syrian ties. The two countries might be forced to cling to their relations and to stimulate ties in reaction to America’s new lack of concern!