Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Iran's role in Syria

Written by: BÜLENT KENEŞ
Source: Today's Zaman

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad delivered a long speech on Monday, asking for more time for at least part of the reforms he is expected to implement.
Many found his explanations unsatisfactory, mainly done to buy himself time. But the Syrian people have neither time to lose nor need of empty promises. Their sole demand is for concrete reforms to be urgently implemented in line with democratic principles. This demand was felt once again during the new protests that erupted in various cities across Syria even before Assad's unsatisfactory speech ended.

Apparently, Syria will not be able to attain peace for some time to come and it will continue to form part of the agenda of Turkey and of the world. Therefore, we should continue to analyze and try to make sense of the incidents in Syria. For instance, we may start, first of all, by underlining that Syria cannot be understood by just focusing on Syria. This is because today's Syria also means Iran and Lebanon to a certain extent. Any policy implemented without understanding Syria's ties with Iran and Lebanon as well as with Russia and China does not have any chance of success. Syria's extraordinary ties with Iran must be specifically assessed. In this article, I will try to explain the reason why.

Having been able to maintain an alliance for an extended period of time on the volatile grounds of the Middle East, which is typically characterized by extremely short-lived alliances, Iran and Syria represent an exception. I am talking about a strategic alliance that has been going on uninterruptedly for 32 years since the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Although they started with an Islamist ideology, Khomeini-led mullahs have always entertained a close relationship with Syria's Baath regime that pursues an Arab nationalist/socialist line of thought and that does not like the mention of Islam. These relations went beyond the limits of a normal strategic partnership and evolved into one that led to the two to share a common fate, particularly during the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988. During this war, Iraq tried to secure the support of Arab countries by portraying it as an Arab-Persian war, but its efforts were always undermined by Syria's support of Iran. Syria has been the greatest advocate and supporter of Iran's mullah regime in all inter-Arab platforms, including the Arab League. Libya and Sudan, too, made similar contributions, but these cannot be comparable to Syria's advocacy for Iran.

The odd alliance between the so-called Islamic revolution regime in Tehran and the staunchly secular and socialist Baathist regime in Damascus was not short-lived, as some had expected in the beginning, but survived up to our day. Despite its Islamist claims, Iran never tried to export its revolution to Syria, and it did not voice a single objection to the massive massacre the Hafez al-Assad regime conducted against the Islamist opposition in Hama in 1982. During its war against Iraq, Iran secured unwavering support from Syrian Baathists, who saw the Baathist regime in Baghdad as a threat to themselves during the war, and Iran amply paid for it. For instance, with a view to support Iran, Syria had shut down the pipeline passing through its territories and carrying the majority of the oil exported by Iraq, and in return, Iran provided Damascus with millions of barrels of free or very cheap oil. Whenever Syria faced economic difficulties, Tehran sent substantial economic aid that would enable it to survive.

After Iran was excluded from the international system in the aftermath of the revolution of 1979, Syria was undoubtedly among the top countries that lent Iran support. And Syria was the first to come to the rescue of Iran when it needed all sorts of weapons but could not obtain them because of the Western embargo during its war against Iraq. At that time, Russia -- or the USSR -- had invaded Afghanistan and did not in any way want Iran, as a neighbor of Afghanistan, to become stronger, so it refrained from directly selling arms to Iran, and it was even arming Iraq. However, thanks to Russia's close ally in the region, Syria, Iran could obtain all the Russian weapons it needed without much difficulty. Furthermore, Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards, formed after the revolution, were trained in Libya and Syria before being deployed against Iraqi forces, and during these trainings, these guards would learn how to use the weapons, tanks and warplanes made in the Eastern Bloc. Given the fact that the shah's regime was a close ally of the US and that all weapons used by the Iranian army were made by the US, the critical role Syria played by providing Iran with the Eastern Bloc's weapons, as well as training on how to use them, can be better understood.

Despite other Arab countries' pressures on Damascus and despite the ideological gap between the regimes of Tehran and Damascus, the alliance between Iran and Syria was never shaken. Instead of seeing this unusual relationship as a purely pragmatic one, I believe it is more reasonable to seek more fundamental reasons behind it. Support lent to the Baathist Syrian regime steered by an Alawite/Nusairi minority accounting for only 7 percent of the population and known to be close to the Jafari Shiism of Iran emerges as a necessity preached by Iran's Shiite ideology. The depth of the sectarian and strategic partnership between the two countries is also visible in their solidarity for manipulating Lebanese politics. Although there are small conflicts of interests or nuances in their approach to Lebanon, it would have been unimaginable for Hezbollah to attain the level of activism it enjoys today without the facilitating logistical support provided by Syria.

In order to understand why any mention of Syria should bring Iran to mind, we need to have a look at Syria's strategic position in the formidable Shiite Crescent, which came into being as a result of unwise US interventions and occupations. This Shiite Crescent, which stretches from Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, through the Shiite population in the Gulf countries, Iran and Shiite-dominated Iraq to Syria and Lebanon, is strategically very important for Iran and it will never let it be disrupted. Indeed, thanks to this Shiite sphere of influence, Iran has obtained a level of effectiveness that will allow it to influence the developments in a vast and strategic region ranging from the Indian Ocean to the Caspian Sea and from the Persian Gulf to the Eastern Mediterranean. Given the fact that this region has 70 percent of the world's oil reserves and about 40 percent of its natural gas reserves, the strategic significance of Iran's influence can be better understood.

Therefore, those who analyze Syria or those who make policies about this country must refrain from seeing Syria as consisting only of Syria. Without realizing that Syria consists also of Iran, Lebanon, Hezbollah and even Hamas and that it is under the protective shields of Russia and China, any word to be used or any step to be taken with respect to this country will be misguided.
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