Anyone interested in Middle East affairs understands the power of ideologies and alliances in shaping the politics and direction of the region. Some have collapsed under the weight of their own contradictions, others have endured despite apparent adverse odds. And none of these alliances is as baffling as the one between Iran and Syria.
On the surface, what divides these two countries seems to eclipse what unites them. Iran became an Islamic republic even as Syria was fighting its own religious extremists. Iran’s theocratic character appears to clash with Syria’s secular display. Iran has democratic features and a lively internal debate while Syria is an authoritarian and opaque state. And when Iran’s president talks about wiping out Israel, Syria enters peace negotiations with the country occupying the Golan Heights that overlook its capital.
Yet the alliance appears alive and well into its third decade. So, contrary to its frequent portrayal as a marriage of convenience between two ostracised nations, we must accept the solidity of the relationship and assess whether anything should be done to loosen it – and at what price.
As a keen observer of Syrian politics has noted, there is a better interpretation: that of a carefully arranged marriage that has been more successful than either side intended. It has proven able to impact the Middle Eastern agenda in ways that have troubled not only the West, but also Arab countries unsettled by the resurgence of a self-declared rejectionist front (known in Arabic as jabhat al-mumana’) that operates successfully in the Gulf, Iraqi and Levantine arenas all at once.
So is the alliance ideological at its core, a reflection of a shared world view and values that transcend the differences listed above? For a start, Syria has little ideology to spread. Its embrace of pan-Arab nationalism and self-portrayal as the heart of the Arab world at a time when most Arab governments began an inward focus turned out to be a failed attempt to reclaim Nasserite leadership.
And when revolutionary Iran sought to export its brand of Islam, the shrewd Hafez Al Assad showed no liking for Khomeinist thought. But Iran proved a valuable ally in supporting Syrian policy in Lebanon and countering Saddam Hussein during the 1980s, then only a moderately demanding partner in the 1990s when Syria was branded a partner of the US for negotiating with Israel and Iran was recovering from a decade of war and revolutionary upheaval.
Things changed with his son, the current President Bashar Al Assad. A more gentle figure, he faced an uphill battle to assert his authority over Syria and Lebanon. He sought legitimacy by associating himself with Hezbollah, the Iran-supported Lebanese Shia militant group that pushed Israel out weeks before Assad became president, to an extent that his father had always resisted. Then, when a peaceful Lebanese uprising and international pressure forced Syrian troops out of Lebanon in 2005, Assad faced the most serious challenge to his rule and grew closer to both Hezbollah and Iran.
The timing could not have been better, with an emboldened Iran gaining influence in Iraq and elsewhere at US expense and the coming to power of the firebrand Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The more Iran scored points against the US, the better Mr Assad felt. By sticking to Iran in his hour of misery, he skilfully managed to ride out a storm that many predicted he could not survive.
And as the fortunes of Mr Ahmadinejad decline with oil prices, Assad is in a better place than ever. He is now in full control of his country, and the tactical concessions he made on Lebanon and Iraq brought him disproportionate gains, starting with intense courting by European and Arab states, with the potentially bigger prize of US engagement.
The question now is whether he is able or even willing to break an alliance that has gained him so much and brings everyone to his door. Peeling off Syria from Iran is indeed on everyone’s mind. Arab states and European nations have dangled economic and political carrots for decades. Iran was not in US and Israeli minds during the peace process of the 1990s, but it is certainly so today.
The thinking in Europe and Washington is indeed that a peace deal between Syria and Israel could significantly weaken the relationship and force tough choices on Iran and Hezbollah (which ones, these grand strategists won’t say). Syrian officials are adamant that this will not be so and that they won’t renege on their oldest, most reliable ally. And they may well be telling the truth. Syria depends greatly on Hezbollah for its influence in Lebanon and on Iran to ensure that Iraq’s new politics won’t impact it adversely. So a peace deal may not bring about a Kissingerian realignment.
For Iran, things are different. Syria is seen as a junior player in Tehran, with little influence over Iran’s designs in the Gulf and its nuclear ambitions. So seeing Damascus as a conduit for strategic dialogue with Iran is naive. But other forces are at play. For one, there is a strong sense of loyalty in Tehran to Syria, its only ally during the Iran-Iraq war. Furthermore, Syria facilitated Iran’s venture to become a Levantine power. Finally, there is a sense that the fortunes of both countries are intrinsically linked for good and for bad, and that only their alliance can help them to capitalise on US failures in the region.
However, Iran and Syria cannot provide each other with the means to become normal states focused on their development and people, and ultimately their domestic needs will require abandoning a self-defeating love for resistance. They simply don’t have the technology, talent and capital to reform and support each other’s dysfunctional economies. So their transformation into constructive states will have to go through arrangements with their Arab neighbours and the West. And that is their challenge.