Syria and Iran: strained relations in a changed environment By Haytham Mouzahem and Anders Strindberg

Syria and Iran: strained relations in a changed environment
 By Haytham Mouzahem and Anders Strindberg


While Syria and Iran remain committed to the retention of a strategic role in the new Middle East, a developing discord between them threatens to unpick their co-operation in pursuit of this goal. Haytham Mouzahem and Anders Strindberg report - Published in Jane's Intelligence Review, December 2003

Following two military campaigns in the region and the continuing war against terrorism, US relations with many or most Middle Eastern governments are presently best described as strained.

Relations with Syria and Iran stand out as particular points of tension. US officials have repeatedly pointed out that the war in Iraq has served, among other purposes, to put these ‘rogue states’ on notice. Washington accuses both countries of engaging in similar misconduct, including sponsorship of Palestinian and Lebanese militancy, obstruction of the Israel-Palestinian peace process and development of weapons of mass destruction. Washington is also concerned that both Damascus and Tehran may seek to interfere with the political reconstruction of Iraq.

Syrian and Iranian interests in the region do indeed converge on several key points. Particularly, both Damascus and Tehran are determined to retain their political independence and room for tactical and strategic manoeuvering within the region’s new strategic environment and are aware that they need each other to have any chance to achieve that goal. Even so, Syrian-Iranian bilateral relations are far from harmonious and are built, to a large extent, on the parties’ ability to surmount significant discord.

Joint support for Hizbullah
Syrian-Iranian relations have been continuously improving since Iran’s Islamic revolution in 1979. The two countries have formed several tactical and strategic alliances — against Iraq during its war with Iran; against Israel in support of the Palestinians and Lebanon; and against US hegemony in the region more generally. Syria was Iran’s only Arab ally in the war against Iraq, while Iran supported Syria by supplying free oil and Iranian troops following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in June 1982.

However, Damascus and Tehran have tended to enter into these alliances with widely divergent views of their specific rationales and utilities and their joint support for the Lebanese Hizbullah organisation illustrates the case. There are significant differences in the nature of Syrian and Iranian support for Hizbullah and its armed wing, the Islamic Resistance. While Iran has no political, tactical or strategic need for Hizbullah to continue to function as a resistance movement, Syria does. Consequently, Iran has shown far less interest than Syria in supporting the Islamic Resistance in its struggle against Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms area. In the two years preceding Israel’s withdrawal from southern Lebanon in May 2000, Iranian officials repeatedly stated that Tehran would accept the transformation of Hizbullah into a political party and the demobilisation of its military forces if only Israel were to withdraw from occupied land.

Such signals of Iranian disinclination to support Hizbullah have alarmed, and continue to alarm, Syria for several reasons. Most members of the Syrian political elite have great respect for the achievements of Hizbullah and the movement is hugely popular throughout Syria. Regardless of religious doctrinal differences, a majority of the predominantly Sunni Syrian population seems to feel a general sense of solidarity with the Lebanese Shi’a movement and its agenda, and supporting Hizbullah is a source of political legitimacy for the Syrian government.

There are several other reasons for Syrian concern. Prior to the Israeli withdrawal, Damascus worried that a unilateral Israeli pull-out from Lebanon would prevent it from using its influence over Hizbullah as a bargaining tool in its negotiations with Israel for the return of the occupied Golan Heights. Damascus was also concerned that an Israeli pull-out and subsequent weakening of Hizbullah would strengthen the hand of the Lebanese Maronite opposition, which was, and is, calling on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, or at least redeploy them according to the Taif Agreement. The Syrians would like to avoid this scenario because, on the level of military strategy, the collapse or disbandment of Hizbullah in Lebanon, combined with the withdrawal of Syrian troops would expose Syria’s highly vulnerable western flank directly to Israeli attack. “It would be militarily unwise,” said one Syrian political analyst, “it would be somewhat like the US removing all radar and defense systems from the Pacific Rim while North Korea threatens war… There is still no peace treaty with Israel. To Syria, Israel is still an enemy and Syria has serious national security concerns here, just like any other country would have.”

Iran has none of these particular tactical, political and strategic concerns yet it pays a large part of the political price — including looming confrontation with the USA — because of its support for Hizbullah. Iranian support seems predicated on two main factors: widespread support for Hizbullah among the Iranian population and an ideological determination within the Iranian leadership to not 'sell out' their Lebanese allies, especially not as a result of US pressure. The Syrian political analyst remarked: “For Syria it is about ideology, solidarity and strategy while for Iran these days support for the Hizbullah is all about ideological solidarity.” Thus, Tehran’s acceptance of Hizbullah’s right to choose to demobilise does not mean that its support is about to ebb away. Iran remains Hizbullah’s main financial and material backer while Syria is not known to have supplied the movement with either funds or military ordnance in the last decade, but merely facilitates Iranian support.

Even so, Hizbullah needs the political cover and military buffer provided by Syria to the extent that its main strategic partner is Damascus rather than Tehran. The continued backing of Syria gives Hizbullah increased political clout even in its dealings with Iran. A particularly clear example of this tripartite dynamic was provided by the reaction to then Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s 'Lebanon first' proposal in 1998, the idea of a unilateral Israeli withdrawal from the south of the country. Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharazi responded by declaring that Hizbullah’s resistance is a response to Israel’s occupation and that the party will end its military activities when Israel ends its occupation. Syria immediately communicated to Iran its extreme displeasure with the statement and two days later, Kharazi visited Damascus from whence he asserted that the Iran continued to support the union of the Syrian and Lebanese tracks in negotiations with Israel and affirmed his country’s commitment to a just and comprehensive peace between Israel and its neighbours or no peace at all.

Friction over Iraq
The build-up to war in Iraq affected not only Syria and Iran’s relations with the USA but also with each other. While both have vehemently opposed the break-up of Iraq along ethnic or religious lines and have been fundamentally wary of the increased presence of US troops on their borders, their respective approaches to dealing with the war have been markedly different. Before the outbreak of the war, divergent opinions caused a real, although not irreparable, rift between Damascus and Tehran.

Syria took a strong, public and active position against the war. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was the first Arab head of state (other than Saddam Hussein) to publicly side against the US-UK invasion once it was underway, and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa stated that his country had a “strategic interest” in the failure of the invasion. President Assad approvingly predicted popular Iraqi resistance in the event the invasion were to succeed and volunteer fighters from various parts of the Arab and Muslim world entered Iraq across Syria’s eastern borders. Syria was careful not to align itself with Saddam's regime, however, consistently referring to its support for the Iraqi people rather than its government.

The underlying reasons for Syria’s position were complex. On a strategic level, Damascus feared that the overthrow of Saddam's regime would impact detrimentally on Syria’s strategic situation in its conflict with Israel, believing that a US-appointed regime in Baghdad would inevitably be tacitly or openly pro-Israeli. On a political level, the persistent attempts by US officialdom at criminalising and vilifying Ba‘athist ideology alarmed the Syrians. Until the fall of Saddam, two different branches of the Ba’ath Arab Socialist Party — severely at odds throughout their history — had ruled in Damascus and Baghdad. At an early stage in its public relations preparations for the war, Washington began to treat the rule of Saddam as conterminous with the Arab nationalist principles of the Ba’ath. This suggested to the Syrians that, in the words of a senior Syrian government official, “the Americans are involved in an ideological battle to put an end to Arab nationalism and Arab independence.”

In addition, there were compelling economic reasons for the Syrians to side with Iraq. Since Assad’s accession in June 2000, Syrian-Iraqi trade relations had improved significantly despite ideological differences. The import of Iraqi oil for domestic consumption had allowed the Syrians to sell their own product on the international market, thereby accruing significant and desperately needed revenue for the state. This revenue stood to be lost in the eventuality of a US invasion and occupation of Iraq.

“Also it would simply be a bad precedence to have the Americans topple a regime that is structurally so similar to this one,” said a Syrian academic, referring to the narrow Tikriti tribal base of the Iraqi regime and its similarity with the privileged position of the Alawite sect in Syria, which has supplied a significant portion of the political and military elite for the past several decades. In all, Syria saw no reason to support the US effort and every reason to oppose it.

Iran, meanwhile, was cautiously positive in relation to the invasion — in favour of 'regime change' in Baghdad but also concerned that Tehran could be the next target. Unlike Syria’s consistent line, there was a major difference between the Iranian leadership’s public declarations and their actual positions. Statements from high-ranking Iranian officials, both conservative and reformist, in the lead-up to the war asserted Iran’s refusal to back any attack on Iraq despite the many conflicts between the two countries, and regardless of Tehran’s deep-seated and well-known hatred for the Saddam regime. Iranian officialdom categorically rejected ‘regime change’ through foreign military intervention and lined up next to Syria as a committed regional opponent of the war.

However, the wounds of the long-standing conflict between Iran and Iraq ran much deeper than the official position admitted and Iran did not rule out limited military co-operation with the USA to topple Saddam's regime. Tehran sent a series of 'goodwill messages' to Washington throughout the build-up to the war. Importantly, despite the dramatic deterioration of its relations with Washington on other issues, Tehran continued to send such signals throughout the spring and summer, culminating with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei's direct and personal authorisation for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) — led by the Tehran-based Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al-Hakim — to send a high-ranking delegation to Washington in early August to participate in meetings with the US government. Prior to and during the war, Tehran and Washington also kept up a back-channel dialogue using the British government as an intermediary. When the war began, Iranian troops intervened directly by attacking the bases of Mujahideen e-Khalq, an Iranian opposition movement based in and supported by Iraq and designated a terrorist organisation by the US Department of State. Iran also backed its allies in the Iraqi Islamic opposition — mainly SCIRI and its armed wing, the Badr Brigades.

In the weeks before the war, Syria mistakenly came to believe that Iranian-US co-operation went much further and that it included, among other things, an agreement to allow US warplanes the use of Iranian airspace for attacks on Iraq. This was apparently never on the cards but the misunderstanding caused a rift that became public when President Assad delayed a visit to Iran originally scheduled for January. When Assad eventually did travel for talks with President Muhammad Khatami and Ayatollah Khamenei in mid-March, he sought unsuccessfully to convince the Iranians to adopt a position similar to that of Syria in both word and deed. Sources close to the Iranian government claim that the Iranian leaders responded by advising Assad not to get involved in any venture that could be perceived as backing Saddam’s regime. Even so, the Iranian new agency IRNA reported at the time that Assad and Khatami had "voiced their opposition to any military interference", "called on US officials to pay attention to public opinion" and "emphasised that a reconciliatory solution to the Iraq crisis be sought within the framework of UN resolutions". This unified façade was for public consumption, however, and concealed very real differences on substantive issues. “They had to agree to disagree,” said a source close to the Syrian government, “there was real acrimony but they were not about to let on.”

US recriminations
After its occupation of Iraq, the USA brought a barrage of accusations against both Iran and Syria, which highlighted the strategic need to transcend their bilateral discord. Syria’s anti-war stance clearly angered Washington, which immediately responded by applying intense diplomatic pressure in order to make Syria comply with a number of demands: to seal its borders with Iraq and give no sanctuary to wanted Iraqi fugitives; to not interfere in the Palestinian road map; to disarm Hizbullah in Lebanon, withdraw its troops and deploy the regular Lebanese army to the south of the country; to close the Damascus offices of militant Palestinian factions and expel their leadership.

Iran ran into similar troubles with the USA as Washington raised concerns about Iran’s nuclear power programme and also alleged Iranian support for Al-Qaeda. Tehran was clearly puzzled by the force and suddenness of the US accusations. In July, Iran publicly acknowledged that it was holding senior Al-Qaeda cadres in custody. Government spokesmen explained that those members of Al-Qaeda who had committed crimes in Iran would be prosecuted in Iranian courts while others would be extradited to “friendly countries” with which Iran has extradition treaties — which rules out the USA. Iran has thus far denied US authorities access to the prisoners, signalling Iranian irritation with US policy.

As for US accusations that Iran is running a clandestine nuclear weapons programme, Iran insists that its nuclear programme is for peaceful, electrical power purposes and has said that it would agree to unfettered inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) provided that it is granted access to advanced nuclear technology as provided for under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Tehran also claims that Washington is using its influence to block such technology transfer.

In this context, Syrian officialdom has called on the USA to end its “harassment” and “victimisation” of Iran, giving absolute credence to Iranian claims. In the spirit of reciprocity, Mohsen Rida’i, a senior Iranian official and former commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has remarked that “Iran should support Syria if the United States attacks it,” pointing to Syrian support for Iran during its war with Iraq. Other Iranian officials have made similar — if less boldly formulated — statements.

The Syrians have gone to some lengths to placate the USA on all points other than the disarming of Hizbullah, which is politically impossible. Syrian troops have redeployed from northern Lebanon and the outskirts of Beirut and the political activities of those Palestinian groups designated foreign terrorist organisations by the US Department of State have been terminated. Syria has not interfered in the road map, but, rather, has signalled that it wishes to be included. On the issue of Iraq, “Syria has done everything we have asked them”, according to a US embassy official in Damascus.

Syria has urged Hizbullah to exercise restraint for the past year, but cannot and will not seek to disarm it. “In terms of military capabilities, sure Syria can disarm the Hizbullah,” according to an officer serving with UN peacekeeping forces in the area. “In the present political climate, however, it is absolutely impossible. They can’t do it.” Despite these measures, the USA remains deeply dissatisfied with Syria’s performance and continues to threaten Damascus with various forms of retribution, including oblique references to the possibility of military attack.

While Washington and Tehran held secret talks in Geneva in April 2003 in order to ease the tension between them, sources close to the Iranians reported that the US delegation did not want to negotiate or discuss issues with their Iranian counterparts. Instead, these sources claim, the US delegation simply expected its demands to be met, the most important of which was that Iran should not attempt to intervene in Iraq. This is similar to the treatment meted out to Syria. “Secretary Powell did not come here to make demands,” remarked a US embassy official in Damascus in reference to US Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit in early May, “but to find out whether the Syrians were complying or not. They knew already what we expected of them.”

Recovery possible
Drawing on their political tradition of overcoming discord, Syrian-Iranian relations are likely to recover from the tension created by recent misunderstandings. Indeed, when Khatami visited Damascus for talks with Assad in mid-May, they had already drawn up a political vision for the region and announced an agreement to co-operate for the continued territorial integrity of Iraq; an end to the US occupation; the formation of an Iraqi government for and by the Iraqi people; and a just and comprehensive settlement to the conflict with Israel.

Since then, however, further high-level talks and visits appear to have been suspended as both are hard at work seeking to formulate responses to their own specific new problems and challenges. Since both claim not to interfere in Iraqi or Palestinian affairs, and since Iran is presently unwilling to intervene in Lebanese affairs, co-ordination between Damascus and Tehran on these issues of common interests is presently a low priority. Even so, both are aware that they are very much in the same political boat and that co-ordination of positions is necessary if either is to be able to retain a degree of political independence in the new regional environment. According to the Syrian political analyst: “Syria and Iran need each other more than ever and we need to be smart about it… How to remain independent but not isolated, steadfast but not provocative… are the issues that we and Iran need to figure out together… .”


Haytham Mouzahem is a Lebanon-based researcher and journalist specialising in Middle Eastern and Islamic affairs. Anders Strindberg is JIR’s UN correspondent and a Visiting Fellow in the Transregional Institute, Princeton University.

PULL QUOTE IDEAS

“Syria and Iran need each other more than ever and we need to be smart about it… How to remain independent but not isolated, steadfast but not provocative… are the issues that we and Iran need to figure out together… .”
“In terms of military capabilities, sure Syria can disarm the Hizbullah,” according to an officer serving with UN peacekeeping forces in the area. “In the present political climate, however, it is absolutely impossible. They can’t do it.”

There are significant differences in the nature of Syrian and Iranian support for Hizbullah and its armed wing, the Islamic Resistance. While Iran has no political, tactical or strategic need for Hizbullah to continue to function as a resistance movement, Syria does.

While both have vehemently opposed the break-up of Iraq along ethnic or religious lines and have been fundamentally wary of the increased presence of US troops on their borders, their respective approaches to dealing with the war have been markedly different. Before the outbreak of the war, divergent opinions caused a real, although not irreparable, rift between Damascus and Tehran.

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