An alliance of doubtful utility

Few strategic alliances in the modern Middle East have stood the test of time as long as that between Iran’s Islamic regime and Syria’s Baathist regime. In the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq and the momentous assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, solidarity between the two countries has been ostensibly bolstered. Upon further examination, however, the alliance’s durability looks increasingly uncertain, and its fate could well be determined by decisions made in Washington.

The bond between the two countries began in 1980, after Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi army invaded an Iran in the throes of revolution. Despite their Baathist roots, the mutual enmity between Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein led Syria to be the only Arab state to side with Iran during the eight-year war.

Throughout the war years and beyond, Iran has provided Syria with hundreds of millions of dollars worth of heavily discounted oil, while Syria has in turn helped facilitate Iranian patronage of Hizballah. When the war came to a halt in 1988, their strategic partnership continued, with both countries’ opposition to Israel being the uniting factor.

There are ample reasons to suggest, however, that the utility of the alliance may have run its course. For starters, given that the Tehran-Damascus pact was born of a mutual opposition toward Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the removal of the Iraqi dictator and the post-war emergence of a Shi’ite-led, Iran-friendly, democratically elected government in Baghdad strips the alliance of its initial raison d’etre.

At the moment, a tough-talking Bush administration and the presence of 140,000 US troops in Iraq provoke the same, if not greater, concern among Syrian and Iranian officials as Saddam Hussein’s army, and have seemingly caused Iran and Syria to close ranks. The eventuality of a decreased US presence in Iraq, coupled with increased Iraqi autonomy could change this, but would ironically require greater US cooperation with both Iran and Syria in an effort to help bring about stability and security in Iraq.

The assassination of Hariri has put an even greater strain on the Iran-Syria alliance. From Tehran’s perspective, the anti-Syria demonstrations in Lebanon may force the Iranian regime to make a particularly difficult decision. Iran places great importance on its standing in the Arab and Muslim world as a freedom-fighting bastion of anti-imperialism, and the Islamic regime is particularly romanticized among Lebanese Shi’ites, many of whom are grateful for Tehran’s patronage of Hizballah and speak with deference about "Sayed Ali", Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Given the fact that a majority of Lebanese–including Lebanese Shi’ites–disapprove of the Syrian role in their country, some among Iran’s political elite are increasingly aware that siding with Syria would be the equivalent of going against the popular will in Lebanon. In light of this, one senior Iranian official told me that Tehran "wouldn’t necessarily discourage Hizballah from siding with the opposition". Iranian President Mohammed Khatami issued a similar statement, saying, "what the people of Lebanon accept we will respect".

The prospect of a US-Iran rapprochement–though seemingly highly unlikely at the moment–could further compel Tehran to cease its strategic partnership with Damascus. According to one senior Iranian diplomat, in the context of an accommodation between Iran and the US, Tehran would–in return for US security and economic assurances–be willing to alter its approach toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as redefine its relationship with Hizballah. Maintaining a strategic alliance with Damascus would make little sense to Iran in this context.

The uncertainty of the relationship is not solely from Tehran’s end. Syria too understands that in the face of increasing demands from the United States, a further pronounced partnership with Iran is more likely to augment rather than assuage international pressure. When Tehran affirmed its support for Damascus immediately following the assassination of Hariri ("We are ready to help Syria on all grounds to confront threats", said Iranian Vice-President Mohammad Reza Aref), Syria’s ambassador to the US, Imad Moustapha, quickly attempted to downplay his country’s links to Tehran. "We are not the enemies of the United States", Moustapha was quoted as saying, "and we do not want to be drawn into such an enmity".

But while pressure from Washington has seemingly added strain to the Iran-Syria relationship, by simply issuing threats to Damascus and Tehran without offering commensurate behavioral incentives to each, Washington could likely push the sides closer into each other’s arms. A more nuanced approach from Washington, which couples the threat of sticks with the offer of carrots, could likely lead one or both sides to reconsider the efficacy of the relationship. This may not take place immediately or abruptly, but just as the Iraqi invasion of Iran led to the commencement of the Syria-Iran alliance, the emergence of a friendly Shi’ite-led government in post-Saddam Iraq and the assassination of Hariri may lead to its eventual dissolution.