Syria and Iran: What’s Behind the Enduring Alliance?

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

July 19, 2006

The Middle East is home to many unusual alliances, but one of the oddest is the enduring partnership between Syria and Iran. Syria portrays itself as a champion of secular Arab nationalism, although in practice it is a minority-dominated military dictatorship. Iran, in contrast, rides under the banner of revolutionary Islam, although as a Persian country, it is often at odds with the Arab world, particularly since the vast majority of Iranians are Shiites, while most Arabs are Sunnis. Syrian President Bashar Assad’s father and predecessor, Hafez Assad, gunned down thousands of revolutionary Islamists in the 1970s and early ’80s to prevent an Islamic revolution in Syria. Iran’s religious elite has often criticized Arab leaders as despots who have turned away from true Islam—a description that could easily apply to Assad’s Syria.

But geopolitics has brought Iran and Syria together despite these many differences. In a strategic partnership that would have made Metternich proud, the two nations banded together against Saddam’s Iraq, which both saw as an immediate threat to their security. Israel, too, provided a common foe. Iran’s revolutionary ideology saw Israel as anathema; Syria also opposed the Jewish state, especially after its humiliating defeat in the 1967 war, since when it has strived to regain the Golan Heights. The United States is hostile to both regimes, producing further incentive to cooperate. Both countries worry that the chaos in Iraq will creep across their borders, but they’re also keen for the United States to suffer a bloody nose to dampen its enthusiasm for regime change. Finally, both nations have few allies, making the other’s support especially valuable.

Iran provides a strange sort of legitimacy for the Baathist regime in Damascus. Syria is dominated by Alawites, a minority sect of Islam that is even more hated and even less accepted by militant Sunnis than is Shiism. Some Shiite religious leaders have bolstered the Damascus regime by claiming that the Alawites are simply part of the larger Shiite family—a claim that does little to appease highly chauvinistic Sunnis but appeals to those with a wider view of Islam.

These many common interests have come together in Lebanon. Initially, Syria was wary of revolutionary Islam. However, after Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, Damascus welcomed Iranian help. Iranian officials nurtured Hezbollah, helping to unite various Shiite factions and providing the movement with training, money, and ideological support. Syria also backed the new movement, and with their help, Hezbollah became the edge of the sword against the Israeli invaders. In 1985, Hezbollah attacks led Israel to withdraw from all but a sliver of Lebanon. Fifteen years later, Israel left completely.

During this time, Iran used Hezbollah to keep its hand in the Israeli-Arab struggle. For Tehran, being a player in this game was vital to maintaining its self-image as the world’s defender of Muslims. Iran wanted to undermine the peace process by supporting terrorism—Tehran opposed peace on ideological grounds and also believed, correctly, that a comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace would further isolate the clerical regime. Hezbollah became a key proxy, conducting attacks and training Palestinian groups to make them more effective. Tehran also worked with Hezbollah operatives around the world to attack dissidents, supporters of Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and Israeli targets. Even today, Tehran and Hezbollah work together to maintain a deterrent capability to dissuade the United States from attacking targets in Iran. So, for example, if the United States were to conduct a major attack on Iran, Hezbollah might respond by attacking U.S. targets abroad on Tehran’s behalf.

Syria’s goals are more local. Like Iran, Syria wanted Hezbollah to pose a threat to Israel that Damascus could calibrate according to its needs. This served as an inducement for Israel to agree to Syrian demands at the bargaining table. As Middle East expert Michael Doran has noted, “Syria has played this game of being both the arsonist and the fire department.” This double role has had mixed results. Although continued attacks did contribute to Israel’s decision to negotiate with Syria during the 1990s, they also led to lasting Israeli hostility toward Damascus, which in turn doomed hopes for peace.

Hezbollah’s importance to Syria has, if anything, grown in recent years. Bashar Assad, Syria’s callow ruler, is said to admire Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Even more important, when the “cedar revolution” forced the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005, Hezbollah became the most important champion of Syrian interests in the country.

Hezbollah is increasingly growing out of its role as a proxy and becoming more of a partner with both Tehran and Damascus. The organization has a strong Lebanese base, and Iran’s and Syria’s influence are waning there. Hezbollah still looks to Iran for ideological and strategic guidance, and it would not cross Damascus on important issues such as attacking Israel, but it is increasingly capable of asserting its independence.

Hezbollah’s foreign backers may be the key to ending the current crisis. President Bush’s private aside to British Prime Minister Tony Blair at the G8 summit captured an essential truth. Not realizing a microphone was turned on, Bush remarked, “See the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit and it’s over.” As Bush noted, Hezbollah is often more responsive to the needs of its foreign patrons than to those of its Lebanese supporters. Western pressure on Damascus and Tehran, while difficult to assert, may eventually lead to a settlement.

Driving Damascus and Tehran apart in a more fundamental way, however, will be extremely difficult. Syria and Iran continue to share strategic concerns regarding Israel, Iraq, and the United States. Moreover, Washington has little leverage with either regime. Both have proved resilient against internal foes, and the United States is militarily and diplomatically stretched in Iraq and elsewhere. The friendship between Iran and Syria is not akin to the United States’ relationship with close allies such as the United Kingdom, but their common interests are more than enough to keep these strange bedfellows close and cuddly.