Global Security Series: The Syrian-Iranian Link and Its Impact on the Region

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

Our Global Security Series offers background and analysis on issues related to U.S. national and global security. In Dr. Morag’s fourth post covering Syria, he continues to provide insight into the history and key players in Middle-Eastern conflict.

Syrian FlagIn Part 3 of this series, we looked at Syria’s role as a bastion for pan-Arabism, acknowledging the idea that uniting all the Arab countries into one nation-state had lost its mass appeal by the end of the 1960s. Syria held on to an official ideology that favored pan-Arabism longer than most, but by the end of the 1970s, Syria was an isolated country. Egypt’s president, Anwar Sadat, visited Israel in 1977 and the country launched peace talks with Israel; creating a bitter rift between Cairo and the rest of the Arab World. Like Jordan’s, Iraq’s leadership was also hostile to Syria and the Saudis were not particularly friendly to the Syrian regime. When revolution broke out in Iran in 1979, Iraq’s new dictator, Saddam Hussein, decided he would take advantage of the confusion resulting from the Islamic revolution. In doing so, he invaded Iran and attempted to reclaim areas in the country that housed Iran’s Arab minority. These areas were, not coincidentally, also rich in oil resources. The Iraqi invasion, which began in September of 1980, actually united the Iranians behind their new leadership. It also began a war known as the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted for eight years. The Iran-Iraq War involved a great deal of trench warfare with minimal military gains and extensive loss of life – ultimately ending in stalemate. Since the Syrian leadership feared that a clear Iraqi victory over Iran might embolden Saddam to foster a revolt in Syria or invade the country, Syria allied itself to Iran – an alliance which has remained in place ever since.

For Iran, the alliance with Syria became increasingly important because Iran was determined to export its revolutionary ideology. This ideology was based on the principle that Islamic societies should be ruled by religious scholars (Islam does not have clerics), as well as increase Iran’s influence and power within the Middle East. Then, as today, Iran aspired to be the major regional power in the Middle East. As the premier Shi’a country (Shi’a constitute 10%-15% of the world’s Muslims, with the vast majority being Sunni Muslims), Iran also saw its role to be that of protecting Shi’a outside its borders and of encouraging Sunni Muslims to adopt Shi’a beliefs and practices. Iranians were viewed with suspicion because they were not Arab or Sunni Muslim, so an alliance to an Arab state like Syria could suggest to others in the region that Iran had friendly intentions towards the Arabs. Iran also took up the Palestinian cause and began exhibiting implacable opposition to Israel; which served as an effective way to appeal to the Arab masses. For Syria, the alliance with Iran provided access to subsidized Iranian oil and other economic benefits. Syria looked for Iranian victory over Iraq that would neutralize their enemy, Saddam Hussein.

Syria and Iran also found a profitable venue for cooperation in Lebanon. Syria’s troops had been deployed to Lebanon in the wake of the Lebanese civil war in 1975 and occupied about two-thirds of the country. After Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon, Syria’s troops provided increasing support to two Lebanese Shi’a organizations that were fighting the Israeli army in southern Lebanon. Of these, the most prominent organization quickly became Hizballah. Hizballah was dependent on Iranian arms, training, and funding; and therefore acted as Iran’s “long arm” in the struggle against Israel. This enabled Iran to “prove” to the Arabs that it had the region’s best interests in mind and could be a loyal ally to the Palestinian cause. Through waging an ongoing and ultimately successful insurgency campaign against Israeli forces in Lebanon, Hizballah also served Syrian interests by forcing the Israeli army to withdraw from Lebanese territory in stages and over the course of eighteen years. This served to deepen Syria’s influence over Lebanon. Syria served as a lynchpin in Iran’s regional strategy, as Iran and Hizballah both needed Syria as a conduit for Iranian arms and money. After the Syrian army’s withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005, Hizballah’s role as the primary military and political force in Lebanon made it even more important for the Syrians to be closely allied to that organization. Since they no longer directly controlled Lebanese territory, and Hizballah, as noted earlier, was very closely aligned to Iran and dependent on Iranian support.

For Syria, the downside of receiving Iran’s warm embrace was that the country came to be even more isolated and viewed with even greater suspicion by the rest of the Arab World. Far from ending its isolation, the alliance with Iran acted to further increase it. When large-scale instability emerged in Syria in March 2011, many Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Jordan began supporting the Syrian insurgents because they sought the overthrow of the Assad regime. This would, of course, bring the Syrian-Iranian alliance crashing down and thwart what they viewed as Iran’s increasingly threatening footprint in the region.

Next week, we will conclude this series with a look at the current state of affairs in Syria; including how the collapse of the Assad government could impact the future of Syria and the Middle East.

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