Don’t Worry…the Syrian-Iranian Axis is Alive and Well!

Tuesday 12 October 2010
By Adel Al Toraifi

This was the message of the Syrian-Iranian summit that took place in Tehran last Saturday between President Bashar al-Assad and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and in which the Supreme Leader of Iran Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei also participated. President al-Assad’s fifth visit to Iran since Ahmadinejad came to office took place at a time that the Lebanese and Iraqi arenas, as well as the Palestinian, are witnessing a number of complications. It was notable that only 20 days separated this visit and President Ahmadinejad’s visit to Damascus, which itself came less than a week after the meetings that took place between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Syrian counterpart, and the Syrian President’s meeting with the US Mideast Peace Envoy George Mitchell and the Iraqiya bloc leader Iyad Allawi. This shows that Syria remains active in playing the role of mediator between Iran and the outside world, and that it is the Arab country with the most influence on Iran.
President al-Assad described the relations between the two allies as being “close and continuing” adding that Syria and Iran “are in the same trench and have common aims.” The Syrian President did not miss the opportunity to comment on the failure of the US-sponsored negotiations between the Palestinians and Israelis, saying that this is “nothing new.” As for President Ahmadinejad, he confirmed the success of the “resistance” project, and called for the foreign occupation forces – the US, of course – to leave, welcoming any nation that wants to join the “resistance.”
Perhaps someone observing what is happening in the region would ask; why do some believe that it is possible to separate Syria from Iran, or that Syria is willing to sacrifice its historic alliance with Iran? And in return for what?
In late 2003, the Americans accused Syria of allowing terrorists and arms to enter Iraq in order to undermine the US presence in Baghdad. As a result of this, the US issued sanctions against Syria and succeeded in convincing a number of Lebanese politicians to support UN Resolution 1559 in September 2004, which called for the withdrawal of foreign forces – Syrian troops – from Lebanon, and the disarming of Lebanese militias – Hezbollah. Only a few months later, Rafik Hariri was assassinated and Syria was publicly accused by a number of Lebanese parties of being responsible for this, complicating relations between Syria and a number of major Arab countries. Following pressure from the UN Security Council, Syria was forced to withdraw from Lebanon. At the time, the US, Britain, France and a number of major Arab countries decided to isolate Syria and Iran, especially in the aftermath of Iran’s nuclear project and Ahmadinejad’s election by the conservatives in Tehran.
In the following five years, Hezbollah started a war with Israel in 2006 that greatly affected Lebanese stability, and which was followed by protests and strikes in Beirut until this ended in 2008 with Hezbollah forces occupying Lebanon. As for Palestine, Hamas has been split apart by an internal war over government unity with the Fatah movement in 2007, and it also fought a war with Israel at the end of 2008.
During this phase, Iran and Syria committed to their alliance and were able to support their allies everywhere; from Lebanon to Iraq to the occupied territories. However the policy of isolating Syria and Iran by some Arab and European countries began to change since 2008; Syrian-Arab relations began to reconcile, and this included US and European rapprochement with Syria, under the pretext that it was possible to separate, or distance, Syria from Iran.
At the present time, it does not seem that this policy is bearing the desired fruit. It is true that rapprochement with Syria has succeed in restoring the (Syrian) channel of communication with Iran and the groups affiliated to it in the region, however nothing more than this. In other words, the region has returned to the state that it was in prior to late 2003, without any increase or decrease.
The American belief, for example, that it could distance Syria from Iran has been confirmed as being a delusion based upon pragmatic considerations that are not in line with the nature of the alliances in the region.
In his book, “Syria and Iran: the Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East” (2006) Jubin M. Goodarzi clarifies that many people are not aware of the extent of the deep ties that exist between the strategic interests of Syria and Iran, and that both regimes have begun to rely upon one another with regards to guaranteeing their stability. Goodarzi writes that despite their ideological differences, the two regimes have been allies for more than thirty years, and this despite the fact that Syria is “Arab Baathist” and Iran is a republic of religious clerics. Syria stood side by side with Iran during the Iraq-Iran war, and at the time Iran supported the Syrian presence in Lebanon, giving Syria the upper hand in policy-making there.
Therefore it is unlikely that Syria will accept the idea of concluding a peace agreement with Israel and abandoning Iran; this is because the Syrian regime – after the collapse of its alliance with Egypt following the 1973 war – relies upon Tehran for survival in the face of any potential foreign interference, not to mention the fact that Iran benefits from its alliance with Damascus, as Syria represents its primary transit route to the Levant and Lebanon with regards to supporting its allies there. Iran protected Syria from the threat of Iraqi aggression in the 1980s and 1990s, and were it not for Iran standing behind them; the US would have been able to compel Damascus to throw in its hand in the region. Hezbollah – which is affiliated to Iran – was able to maintain Syria’s interests in Lebanon, defending Syria during the tensest of moments. In fact, we can say that without Hezbollah, Syria would never have been able to return to Lebanon and extract an apology from the Lebanese politicians. The same applies to the Hamas movements that succeeded in giving Syria the deciding vote with regards to the peace process and negotiations with America.
This does not mean that the Syrian-Iranian axis has succeeded, and that others have failed, but it does reveal that the “resistance” axis – as it is called – is still capable of overcoming the difficulties that it faces and undermining the opportunity for genuine peace and stability in the region. Many of those who bet on the emergence of a real axis to oppose the Syrian-Iranian axis are now facing disappointment.
Professor Daniel Bymen of the Brookings Institute in Washington said that despite their ideological differences, the Syrian-Iranian alliance is one that would make [Klemens Von] Metternich proud of the correctness of his theory that the balance of power – not ideology – is the secret to lasting relations between countries. In my opinion, the Syrian-Iranian alliance will continue so long as the diagram of regional alliances with America remains constant without change. We are not going to see a Syrian-Iranian divorce anytime soon so long as the internal situation in both countries remains the same. Until that time, don’t worry, the Syrian-Iranian axis is alive and well!

About altoraifi
Al Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla, the leading Arab magazine. A specialist on Saudi foreign policy, he is recognized as a commentator and participant in televised programs for CNN, NBC, BBC and Al-Arabia TV. Awarded the post-graduate International Conflict Prize 2008 from Kingston University for outstanding work, Mr Al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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