The Iranian-Syrian relationship has been the bulwark of the foreign policies of both countries since 1980. The constant visits by Iranian and Syrian officials between Tehran and Damascus, their shared hostility towards Israel and the US, animosity towards Saddam Hussein (which stopped for the Syrians in 2000) and common interests in Lebanon were the pillars of the strategic relationship which has kept bilateral relations at a high level.
Since the strengthening of relations in 1980, Iran has benefited from its relationship with Syria. On at least one occasion during the Iraq imposed war on Iran, Syrian MiG 21 and 23s provided protection for attacking Iranian F-4s. On a number of other sorties Iranian fighter aircraft flying over Kurdish areas of northern Iraq crossed into Syrian airspace for protection before re-entering Iraqi airspace for attacks on Iraqi bases in Western Iraq.
Furthermore Syria’s political and military dominance in Lebanon in the 1980s allowed Iran to establish and strengthen its political and military relationship with Hezbollah. Meanwhile the presence of Palestinian extremist groups in Damascus and Lebanon provided Iran with the opportunity to influence their political and military operations. The relationship has also had economic benefits for Iran as Syria became a destination for Iranian industrial products which due to sanctions and low quality had problems finding other markets. Meanwhile the presence and impact of Iranian industrial exports to Syria will be felt in greater numbers on Syria’s roads soon as thousands of Samand automobiles produced by Iran Khodro in Syria are about to enter service.
At the same time Syria has also benefited greatly from its relationship with Iran. The hotels of Damascus for the last 10 years have been functioning mainly thanks to the throngs of Iranian tourists visiting the shrines of prophet Zeinab (Imam Ali’s daughter and also Imam Hussein’s sister).
Meanwhile for more than five years during the Iraqi invasion of Iran Syria received free oil shipments from Iran. This was done as a gesture of gratitude to Syria for shutting down the Iraqi oil pipelines which ran through its territory and for not siding with its Arab neighbour Iraq.
Furthermore Iran became one of the major purchasers Syrian goods – which due to their low quality and sanctions also had problems finding other export markets. Furthermore Iran’s relative superiority in engineering and heavy industries compared to Syria enabled Damascus to service important parts of its economy, all at lower market prices. This has recently included the reparation of Syria’s power plants at Banias, plus construction of cement factories in Homs to fulfil the growing demands of Syria’s construction industry. Demand for Syrian produced Iranian cement is about to grow even more as the UAE conglomerate Emaar properties is about to sign two massive property deals totalling $4.7 billion in Syria.
Yet despite the positive improvements in economic relations, the political relationship between Iran and Syria is facing problems. According to unconfirmed reports, Iran has expressed its acute displeasure with the Syrians for not doing more to convince the insurgents who enter Iraq through Syrian territory not to attack Iraqi Shiites. This problem has become more acute recently as more and more Iraqi Shiites who are Iran’s allies are getting slaughtered in attacks by insurgents themselves or by insurgent supported Sunni Baathists. Such attacks pose a direct political and military threat to Iran’s interests. So far Iran’s pleas in Damascus have fallen on deaf ears.
It is the opinion of meepas that more bad news is in store for President Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei regarding Iran’s standing in Damascus.
Currently Syria’s President Bashar Al Assad finds himself in one of the most diplomatically isolated positions in Syria’s modern history. With no USSR to turn to as before, the West headed by the US is after him for having helped Iraqi insurgents and for his yet unconfirmed assistance in the assassination of Lebanon’s ex-Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
Feeling internationally cornered and with an economy which is heading fast towards the doldrums, Assad needs to makes a sacrifice and fast. 150,000 jobs need to be created every year for Syria’s growing population, yet with oil exports forecasted to run out in five year Bashar Al Assad does not have a lot of room to manoeuvre. He either makes a decision, or a decision will be made for him, either by the US or by the growing number of poor and unemployed Syrians.
One of the most talked about choices is for Assad to remove the Syrian old guard who are the main people responsible for the rampant corruption in Syria’s politics and economy. However to do that would be extremely dangerous for the young Assad as the stability of his regime depends on the support of Syria’s intelligence agency – which is run by the old guard.
Therefore in a bid to get out of the mire, it is very likely that Assad will pay two prices demanded by the West, which to him will be the most cost effective. Unfortunately for Tehran these decisions will place Iran’s interests on the sacrificial altar as they are most likely to be serious reduction in Syrian support to Iran’s ally Hezbollah and extremist Palestinian groups in Damascus.
Such a expected decision by Damascus will hurt Tehran diplomatically as it is about to enter a sensitive stage in its negotiations with EU regarding its nuclear programme and thus it needs all the diplomatic support it can get.
However lack of Syrian support may not be all bad news. With Syria’s forecasted rapprochement with the West, policy makers in Tehran will face the question that if Iran before the bomb can not even count on the Syrians to be at its side, who can Iran count on in a post atomic bomb era? The answer to this question is most likely to start replacing ideology with pragmatism as the focal point of Iran’s nuclear negotiation formula.
About Meir Javedanfar is a Middle East Analyst and the Director or the Middle East Economic and Political Analysis Company — Meepas.com which is based in Israel. He has been quoted and interviewed by the BBC, Radio Holland International, Haaretz Newspaper, Boston Globe, TV Catalunya, Radio Espectador, Radio KNX1070 and other newspapers and Radio stations. To contact Meir send an email to Javedanfar@meepas.com.