The Syrians Don’t and Won’t Toe the Iranian Line: Explaining a Most Curious Alliance
The war in Syria has played up all the classic clichés that have defined the Middle East for the last many decades: democracy versus authoritarianism, imperialism or post colonialism versus freedom fighters, the United States versus Russia, and last, but by no means least, Sunni versus Shia. It is the last category that has defined the narrative for much of the ongoing war in the Levant. The Syria-Iran relationship has come to be seen as the very definition of what King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein of Jordan first described as the “Shia crescent.” Vali Nasr’s brilliant book, The Shia Revival, further entrenched the simplistic debate that all conflicts from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf are driven by these sectarian fault-lines. A few days ago, amidst reports that the United States was pressuring the Gulf States against a full normalization with Damascus, the Arab League hinted that Syria’s return to its fold was imminent. The United Arab Emirates made it repeatedly clear that Syria must return to the Arab world immediately and cannot be left to the Turks and Iranians. But what is the exact nature of the Syrian and Iranian alliance that has bedeviled policymakers in the region, the West, and beyond? Syria, under the Assad family, has been far from an easy bedfellow with the “mad mullahs” in Lebanon and Iraq, and it is not just the West that Damascus defies, but Tehran as well.
More than Meets the Eye
Jubin Goodarzi has written the most comprehensive book to date on the relationship between Syria and Iran. In Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East, Goodarzi, a former consultant on Middle East political affairs at the United Nations, provides an in-depth analysis on the relationship between the two countries. From its beginning, the alliance has bemused many observers given the contradictory ideologies of the two states after 1979. The countries were initially drawn together primarily because of their shared disdain of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, and the relationship, Goodarzi argues, developed far before the establishment of Hizballah or the so-called Shia crescent. Indeed, in the beginning it was Syria that was the senior partner and provided vital support to Iran during the Iraq-Iran War. To this day, this has informed the crux of Iranian support to Syria. Holly Dagres, a non-resident Atlantic Council Fellow who runs the weekly Iran Source Blog, argues that almost all of Tehran’s foreign and security policy starts from its understanding of the Iraq-Iran War.
It is here that there is more to understand how pivotal Syrian support to Iran was during the 1980s that goes far beyond the simplistic Shia versus Sunni debate. Goodarzi talks about how then President Hafez al Assad convinced the Algerians and Libyans to support Iran over Iraq during the early days of the Iran-Iraq War. This split the Arab world in two but, more importantly, goes against conventional wisdom that it was only Syria that stood against the Arab bloc with Iran. The Syrians provided bases and flights for Algerian arms to Tehran. Algeria has continued to be a constant supporter of President Bashar al Assad in the current war in Syria and, along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, is the loudest proponent of Syria’s return to the Arab League. The vital arms artery that the Libyans and Algerians provided to Tehran via Syria provided crucial relief and strategic depth that helped Iran overturn the tide in the face of overwhelming weapons support that much of the West and the Saudis provided to Saddam during the war. To this day, most Iranians remember how Syria helped them in that critical time.
After helping Iran against Saddam, Hafez al Assad never allowed Tehran to dictate terms to Damascus once the war against Iraq ended. In Lebanon, the Syrians still favored the Amal Movement over Hizballah through most of the 1980s and the peak of the civil war in Beirut. Towards the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was clear tension between Damascus and Tehran and their respective proxies, Amal and Hizballah. An in-depth survey of the 2006 war between Israel and Hizballah looked at the tensions between Tehran and Damascus. It could be argued that Syria and Hizballah have only been allies at times of war and chaos. In peacetime, they are not just competitors but also at odds on how to rule Lebanon. It was Syria who brought Hizballah’s enemy and former Lebanese Army chief, Michel Aoun, to power as the president of Lebanon in 2016, much to Iran’s dismay. Of course, it cannot be denied that without Syria, Hizballah would not exist today. And before the current war it was Syria and not Iran that ran their leadership. However, this war has turned the tables and made Iran the senior partner in controlling Hizballah once again. Without Hizballah’s support on the battlefield, Assad may not have survived.
Still, as the war in Syria winds down, Syrian influence over Lebanon shall return slowly but surely, and many believe the government in Beirut is already compliant to Damascus. A prominent Lebanese politician and former member of parliament recently wrote on how Syria will look to take back momentum from Iran in Lebanon going forward. His central argument is that as Syria stabilizes or comes out of survival mode it will look to reassert itself in Lebanon at Iran’s expense. Syria has different ideas as to how Lebanon should be run than Iran. Damascus does not want Lebanon to be an outright theocracy like Iran, and would like a balance with Amal, the more secular minded Shia party. Barak Barfi has also written on how the Syrians have defied the Iranians even during the current upheaval, most notably in the decisions on whom to support in Iraq and Lebanon. Similarly, Emma Sky, in her book The Unravelling, talks about how the Iraqis and Iranians fumed at how Damascus supported Sunni and ex-Baathist groups opposed to Shia dominance in Baghdad.
Not as Sectarian as it Seems
Former Dutch special envoy to Syria, Nikolaos van Dam who has written two bestselling books on the power dynamics within Damascus, believes that there has never been a direct sectarian link between the Shias and the Alawi leadership of Syria. Moreover van Dam believes Syria has never been ruled by the ‘Alawi’ community as such. The former British ambassador to Syria from 2000 to 2003, Henry Hogger – who witnessed the transfer of power from Hafez al Assad to Bashar al Assad and also arranged Bashar’s visit to meet Queen Elizabeth II and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair – told me the following over several conversations over the last year:
I suspect, without direct evidence, that Syrians remain suspicious of Iranian ambitions to dominate Syria itself. There will be scope for this once Russia pulls back to its newly acquired air and naval bases on the Syrian coast, leaving Assad to cope with the internal conflict in the rest of the country. That may be the moment when, I hope, we see a Syria/Iran falling-out. The Iran threat and alliance is exaggerated much more about doing down Saddam. Not much in common even now – between the secular Arab nationalists and Iranian mullahs. It has always been a pragmatic relationship and Syria is only an honorary unpaid member of axis of evil. There are prominent Sunnis in government and Alawis in opposition. [A] lot of the Sunni were not poverty stricken and Allawi were regarded as poor. It has not been an all-out sectarian war.
Charles Kestenbaum, a former U.S. State and Commerce Department Iran watcher who served in the Middle East for over a decade and subsequently became NBC’s bureau chief in Beirut, reached out to me over the last few months by email to talk about Syrian-Iranian relations. He told me:
Simplifying the conflict in Syria into a Sunni vs Shia internecine Muslim battle is completely wrong. Just as portraying Iran as a distant invader newly introduced into the area to aid the Assad regime battle against its extreme Sunni citizenry. The Assad (Baath Party) regime has worked closely with the vast Sunni Muslim majority, empowering them and ensuring that their interests were always central.
Will Assad Be His Own Man?
Indeed, the pseudonymous Cyrus has echoed these thoughts at War on the Rocks before with more references to Iraq as well as Syria. The Iran relationship and the sectarian nature of the conflict are important strands of the argument although for the scope of this article it is the Iran relevance that matters more than the sectarian argument. In Iraq and Lebanon, the Syrians have defied the Iranians for decades, and being the long-time senior partner in the Iran relationship is a key factor that has been missing in the analysis of Syrian-Iranian relations. In the coming months, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, two of Iran’s foremost enemies in the region, will forge closer ties with Damascus thereby proving again that Assad can be close to Iran’s enemies and still manage to balance the pressure and his relationship with Tehran.
In Beirut and Baghdad, Syria has always preferred secular Shias and, across Iraq, supported the Sunnis against Iranian-backed militias. Writing in 2006, Daniel Byman noted that the Syrian-Iranian alliance “is not akin to the United States relationship with close allies such as the United Kingdom.” Alliances in general can be seen either as natural relationships forged through shared ideologies or strategic objectives that have similar outcomes. In comparison, Iran gets little out of Syria in the region. When I asked senior Syrian officials if they could drop Iran in their balance with the Gulf countries, they answered that before 2011, Turkey, the European Union, and the Gulf Cooperation Council had become the biggest trading partners and allies of Damascus in place of Tehran. The current war, however, left them no choice but to turn to Iran once Syria was abandoned by its former partners, and it will take time to reach pre-war levels of trust with the rest of the Gulf. Iran shall always be important to Syria and the alliance will endure, but essentially Syria and Assad are free to walk down other paths even if they diverge from Tehran.
Kamal Alam is an adviser on Syrian affairs to former Chief of Defence Staff of the British Armed Forces Gen. The Lord David Richards of Herstmonceux. Previously he was a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and currently teaches Syrian military history at several army colleges.
Image: Wikimedia Commons