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Syria and Iran

Bashar al-Assad's position is best described by a pure Persian word: satrap, a provincial governor. He is satrap of Syria, with Khamenei playing the Shahanshah, the King of Kings. There is nothing new there; for almost 1,000 years Syria was an Iranian satrapy.

Former US Ambassador Dennis Ross said 17 April 2019 that “I think that Bashar al-Assad is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Iranians, more of the Iranians than the Russians because the Iranians are embedding themselves,” Ross told Al Arabiya’s Washington Bureau Chief, Nadia Bilbassy, in an exclusive interview. “They [Iranians] are embedding themselves physically on the ground at different places. They are changing certain parts of the country demographically,” he said. Ross said that the idea that you could have peace with Syria as long as Iran is increasingly dominant in Syria is an illusion. “Given everything that Iran invested in Syria, I see very little likelihood that anybody gets Iran out of Syria,” he said.

Using the same methods it used in Iraq, Iran could maintain Syria as a client state. This would include strong Iranian influence over political decision making. It could also mean that IRGC commanders, advisers and doctrines along with foreign and local Shiite militias would be incorporated into the state's security architecture and apparatus. Finally, the linking of the Syrian territory with Iran's economy through trade, industry, acquisition of assets, reconstruction projects and tourism would make Syria almost irreversibly dependent on Iran for survival and ensure that Iranian influence is preserved for the foreseeable future.

Whether Assad remains in power or a different Alawite ruler takes control, Iran will likely try to incorporate its numerous of militias into a paramilitary structure under Iranian control. These militias will be tasked with preserving the pro-Iranian government in Syria; maintaining its land corridors; supporting the "Resistance Axis"; and creating an additional military threat to Israel.

Iranian presence in Syria is expansive and include almost all aspects of life in the war-torn country, including political, military, economic and social affairs. In post-war era, Iran will have the foundations and networks in Syria further expand its influence over the country.

The Iranian government needed Syria and Hizballah to threaten Israel, which Iran feared may strike Iranian nuclear facilities. Syria needs Hizballah and Iran to keep Israel from moving into Lebanon and as leverage in future negotiations over the Golan Heights. Syria-Iran relations resemble a strong, long-time marriage, albeit one of convenience, with Syria being the junior partner. There are said to be two opposing views within the Syrian Government about a decision to strengthen Syria-Iran relations: one camp sees Syria under threat with little room to pick and choose its friends; the other camp sees Iran as a much stronger force that could drag Syria into further disagreements with the U.S. and the West. Iran is the more powerful partner in this alliance and Syria may get dragged into Iran's fights with the West.

The Syrian-Iranian alliance had been cemented with a March 1982 economic accord that provided for shipments of subsidized Iranian oil to Syria, at which time Syria closed Iraq's oil pipeline through Syrian territory. Syria's support for Iran was not a reflection of any ideological affinity between Assad's regime and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's Islamic fundamentalism but rather an instance of pragmatic politics. It seemed to illustrate the Arab saying that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Syria supported Iran because Iraq had been Syria's implacable foe for decades. Moreover, Syria's alliance with Iran allowed it to exert control over pro-Iranian Shia forces in Lebanon and use them as a proxy force to impose Syrian designs there. In supporting Iran, Syria broke ranks once again with a nearly unanimous Arab opinion favoring Iraq.

However, although Syria wanted Iraq weakened and neutralized, it did not envision the installation in Baghdad of a pro-Iranian fundamentalist Shia regime. Syrian support of Iran in the Iran-Iraq War and its enmity toward Iraq was modified in 1986. As the beleaguered Iraqi regime lost ground to advancing Iranian forces, Assad stated in October 1986 that Syria could not accept the occupation of Iraqi land by anyone. Subsequently, Syrian and Iraqi officials met to explore the possibility of restoring relations. Assad's statement may have prompted the temporary kidnapping, the following day, of the Syrian chargé d'affaires in Tehran. Later in October, Assad met in Damascus with Iranian minister of the Revolutionary Guards Muhsin Rafiq-Dost to repair Syrian-Iranian relations. Rafiq-Dost stated that the Syrians had announced their resolute support of Iran until the downfall of the Iraqi regime and the "liberation of Iraq." However, Syria did not affirm the Iranian statement, and by the late 1980s, Syrian support for Iran appeared to be qualified.

In the 1980's, Iran and Syria negotiated a deal to fund pilgrimages from Iran to Syria to visit Seit Zeinab, the third holiest site in Shi'a Islam. Syria paid for the pilgrims' travel and lodging expenses, and the Government of Iran gives each pilgrim $100 from a martyrs fund for the families who lost children in the Iran-Iraq war to cover their expenses. By 2006, 700-1000 Iranian pilgrims travelled to Syria each week. This constituted a significant drop from the 1980's when two 747's brought approximately twice that number each week to Syria.

Despite the continued Iran-Syria-Hizballah cooperation, Syria and Iran see the long-term value of their Lebanese allies quite differently. Iran is seeking a long-term expansion of its influence over Lebanese Shiites and needs Syria, which is secular and ethnically diverse, to legitimize the Iran-Hizballah relationship in the eyes of Lebanese minorities. For the Syrian government, Hizballah and Lebanese Shiites are tools that could be discarded once the Golan Heights are regained.

Both countries are firmly committed to support for Palestinian rejectionist groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Syrian-backed Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. In the long-term, Iran sees the Palestinians as essential for regional acceptance of Iran's Middle East presence, while Syria sees the rejectionists as an essential tool to regain the Golan Heights.

In December 2005 it was reported the Syrian PM and the Iranian FM signed on 14 November 2005 an accord guaranteeing mutual cooperation and aid in the event of international sanctions or military confrontation with the West. On 06 June 2006 in Damascus, visiting Commander of the Iranian Army's Air Forces Gen. Karim Qawami met with Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Hassan Turkmani to discuss "current developments in the region and cooperative relations between the two friendly Syrian and Iranian armies and ways of developing them," according to SANA. Syria's Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Ali Habib also met Qawami and his delegation. There were unconfirmed reports that Iran had requested Syrian permission to station Iranian missile batteries and their crews on Syrian territory (presumably as part of increased air defense protection for Iran). Syria was said to have responded that Iran could either station unmanned surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missile batteries here and train Syrians to operate them or that Iran could send them through Syria to Hizballah.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived 19 January 2006 in Damascus for a two-day visit. He traveled to the Presidential Palace where he met in a short session with Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and then in an expanded session with Asad and Syrian and Iranian officials. While Syria and Iran both used the visit to demonstrate their solidarity against Western pressures, the two countries differed somewhat in their long-term goals. Ahmadinejad used the visit as a public relations stunt to conceal his inability to deliver domestically. The Iranian President was betting that the US was too preoccupied with Iraq and fearful of Iranian influence there to press the Iranians too hard. Meanwhile, Syria used the visit and the optic of a burgeoning alliance with the "Shiites" to serve notice on the Saudis, who are afraid of rising Shiite power in the region, not to pressure Syria too hard on Syrian-Lebanese relations. Syria also wanted to remind the US that it has dangerous friends and that it still had cards to play to regain the Golan Heights and retain its interests in Lebanon.

At their press conference the next day, the two leaders emphasized progress in the development of bilateral relations and said they had discussed mechanisms for accelerating this progress. They did not announce any major bilateral economic or political agreements, however. Ahmadinajad mentioned that the higher joint committee of the two countries would meet in February 2006 in Damascus, led by the Syrian PM and the Iranian VP, to follow up on possibilities for cooperation that had been raised in his talks with Asad. Asad voiced his support for "Iran's right to obtain peaceful nuclear technology and welcomed the continuation of the dialogue on this issue between Iran and the concerned international parties."

Both men made remarks on Iraq, the Palestinian issue, and Lebanon. Asad stressed "our support for stability in Lebanon and the need to support the resistance" and "prevent interference in Lebanon's internal affairs or any attempts toward internationalization." Both men voiced support for the Palestinian right to resistance "against repressive Israeli actions" and the right of return of the Palestinian refugees. They also voiced support for the stability and the political process in Iraq and the withdrawal of foreign forces ("foreign occupiers," according to Ahmadinajad) in accordance with a set timetable.

Ahmadinejad's desire for stability in Iraq reflected a belief that this would hasten a US withdrawal and provide the basis for tightening its already powerful grip on Iraq, Hamidi said. Asad was more reticent in his public statements on Iraq, possibly reflecting Syrian government discomfort over the notion of greater Persian and Shiite influence in Iraq and a desire to see its non-Iranian, Sunni allies exert more control. Evidence of this includes the Syrian government's traditional alliance with Sunni tribes on the border and with Moqtada al-Sadr, who had taken political positions at odds with Iranian-supported Iraqi Shiite leaders.

Asad seemed to take care in his public statements to avoid comments that might exacerbate concerns in the West about a strategic partnership between Damascus and Tehran. His remarks at the press conference were substantially shorter and more tempered than Ahmadinajad's. Nevertheless, the visit underscored that the countries' long-standing bilateral relationship, developed over the previous two and half decades, appeared to have grown somewhat warmer during Bashar al-Asad's tenure in office, especially in the preceeding 18 months.

The enthusiastic public embrace that Asad offered to Ahmadinejad was based on the Syrian regime's appreciation of the isolation it faces and its fears of confronting US and international pressure alone. In terms of Syria's foreign policy, Syrian goals appear short term and reflexive, further shoring up the impression that Damascus needs Tehran more than Tehran needs Damascus.

By 2006 General Intelligence Directorate [GID] Deputy Director, Mohammed Nassif Khairbek, the architect of Syria's Iran policy, was at the height of his influence. Khairbek was one of the key thinkers behind Hafez al-Asad's foreign policy, especially his "Shiite policies," over a two-decade period, and it is a role he has regularly reprised for Bashar al-Asad. Khairbek met regularly, up to once a week, with Hizballah chief Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, coordinating Syrian and Hizballah positions.

Iran was making great inroads influencing Syria, having succeeded in inserting military advisors, including for special forces, as well as civilians at key Syrian research centers focused on technology and weapons. Bashar al-Asad was schizophrenic in his approach to foreign policy - the president does not like to listen and take advice (as he used to), feeling that he knows everything. On Iran policy, it was not clear that the president fully understands what he is doing. Walid Mu'allim's appointment as FM would not temper any excesses in Syria's Iranian policy, since the security services (led by Khairbek) -- and not the MFA -- have control over Syria's relation with Iran.

By official Syrian accounts, the country's relationship with Iran flourished since the January 19-20 visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Damascus. Official Syrian media in the months immediately after the Ahmadinejad visit produced headlines highlighting political, economic and cultural exchanges, including the Iranian VP's February visit to Damascus as head of his side's representation of the Syrian-Iranian Higher Economic Commission and the March visit to Tehran by Syrian Assistant FM (the number three official at the Foreign Ministry) Ahmad Arnous.

The Iranians have taken relatively aggressive economic and cultural approaches in Syria, and the two approaches have often combined in ways that have irritated sensibilities in Syria. A sustained Iranian effort in Raqqah, a relatively small provincial townin northeastern Syria, included Iranian-financed construction of a huge mosque complex, a large hotel, and an airport. Raqqah receives this level of attention -- and is a major site for Shia pilgrims from Iran and elsewhere -- because an important Shia religious figure, dating back to the original schism between Sunnis and Shias, is buried there. This Iranian effort to build up the prominence of the a-Raqqah as a pilgrimage site is also being used further "Shia-ization" in the area.

Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammed Najjar arrived in Damascus 10 March 2007 to meet with Syrian counterpart MinDef General Hassan Turkmani. The primary topic of discussion, according to local media, was the transfer of Iranian arms manufacturing to Syria. An-Nahar, a Lebanese daily, quoted Najjar as saying, "what Iran possesses in terms of defense capabilities is Syria's too." Other topics discussed included regional political developments and expansion of cooperation between the Syrian and Iranian armies, according to local media.

Iranian president Mahmud Ahmedinejad arrived in Damascus on 19 July 2007 for a day-long state visit with a delegation that included Iran's ministers for foreign affairs and for housing and urban development. The scheduling of Iranian president Mahmud Ahmedinejad's visit to Damascus two days after president Bashar al-Asad took his second oath of office prompted observers of Syrian politics to interpret the visit in terms of the most notable element of Asad's inauguration speech: his comments on resuming peace negotiations with Israel. There were rumors that Iran's defense minister and army chief of staff had quietly accompanied Ahmedinejad to Damascus, perhaps to discuss armament deals and Iranian financing of Syrian weapons purchases. A 21 July 2007 Sharq al-Awsat article outlined an agreement for Iran to finance Syrian purchase of Russian weapons, supply Syria with Iranian weaponry, and build weapons factories inside Syria. The next day, Iran's news agency reported an Iranian government denial that a secret arms deal existed.

Iranian-Syrian economic cooperation is overstated by both Syrian and Iranian governments in an attempt to create the public perception that a mutually beneficial economic relationship has resulted from their political alliance. Reported non-military trade between the two countries in 2007 amounted to US$157 million, just 33 percent of Syria's total US$472 million in sanctions-compliant trade with the US. Syrian exports to Iran primarily include cotton, lamb meat, detergents, and olive oil. The majority of Iranian exports to Syria consist of pistachios, hydrocarbons, engines, industrial tools, auto parts and audio systems. Although Syria had free trade agreements with Turkey and many of its Arab neighbors, the Syria had yet to ratify a free trade agreement with Iran. Many Syrians assumed that Iran was providing Syria economic assistance in the form of crude oil, although local experts doubt that Iranian crude is destined for domestic Syrian consumption. In the experts' opinion, the most significant potential Syrian-Iranian petroleum trade is the 2007 Iranian agreement to sell Syria natural gas routed through Turkey.

By mid-2008 Syria had hinted broadly that it was seeking alternatives to its strategic relationship with Iran. While tensions between Damascus and Tehran had surfaced over Iraq, the assassination of Hizballah leader Imad Mugniyeh in Damascus, and Syria's indirect negotiations with Israel, there had been no public change in relations between the two countries. In fact the record showed that Syria sent the Syrian Minister of Defense to sign a defense cooperation MOU with Tehran on 27 May 2008. Syria and Iran continued to coordinate strategic positions through regular high-level contacts. Both governments support deepening of economic, cultural, and trade ties with Iran, as evinced by the recent telecommunications MOU on 02 July 2008 and planned mid-July meetings of the Syrian-Iranian Supreme Commission.

The successive visits of three high-level Iranian officials to Damascus in early December 2009 appeared at first glance to reaffirm strong Iranian-Syrian security ties and other forms of bilateral cooperation, but they may, in fact, mask deepening rifts over Iraq, Yemen, and the possibility of war with Israel. Syrian observers suggest the a shifting balance of power between Iran and Syria. The Iranian government, challenged domestically by anti-regime protests and abroad by building pressure over its nuclear program, has sought Syria's help just when Syria has begun to enjoy other strategic options, such as its relations with Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Syria used its burgeoning alliance with Iran to undermine the perception of the international isolation of Syria, contacts say. Iran indirectly helped ensure the Syrian regime's No. 1 domestic goal, which is survival. Iran's long-standing support for Syria's special ally in Lebanon, Hizballah, helped Syria reassert its influence there, after withdrawing its troops in April 2005. Iran's efforts in Iraq, while more sustained and nuanced than the Syrian government's, have mirrored Syrian government efforts to prevent any quick realization of an American "project" for Iraqi democratization and stability. If Lebanon and Iraq had already undergone democratic elections and a quick, smooth transition to Western-style democracy, leaving Syria in the middle, the Syrian regime would have collapsed under the political pressure. Syria used Iran to force Saudi re-engagement, despite Saudi anger over the assassination of former Lebanese PM Rafik Hariri. When it became clear that Syria and Iran were getting closer, the Saudis reached out to the Syrians with an offer to help them patch up the Syrian government's relations with Lebanon.

While Iran was relying on Syria to expand its long-term strategic influence in the region, the Syrian government is using Iran (as it uses Hizballah) primarily as tactical leverage to achieve US engagement leading to a Middle East peace agreement, which would include the return of the Golan Heights to Syria. Once there is such a deal, Iran's political usefulness to the Syrian government diminishes and the two countries' enormous religious and sectarian differences have room to emerge.

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Page last modified: 18-07-2019 18:41:37 ZULU