Syrian-Iranian relations — through the lens of alliance theory

An overview of some of the theoretical frameworks on alliances in the context of the Syrian-Iranian relations, can be a useful tool for the analysis of these complex relations.

A true alliance?

Fred Lawson’s alliance dilemma

While the approaches to the Syrian-Iranian alliance formation differ, they offer interesting insights into the actual nature of this alliance. Fred H. Lawson hypothesizes that the Syrian-Iranian relations are shaped by an adaptation of the so-called alliance dilemma [1]. He theorizes that there are different degrees of playing this alliance game. Depending on the strategic bargaining position one country has over the other; the following approaches will be adapted towards their strategic allies (from the relatively strongest bargaining position to the weakest): extreme hostility, moderate hostility, moderate conciliatory actions, or extreme conciliatory actions.

Analysing Lawson’s approach sheds light on the tactics of both parties to try and gain the upper-hand in the alliance game. In the years 1998-2002 Syria had been strengthening ties with Turkey and Iraq’s Baath party. Iran took no action against the Syrian-Turkish rapprochement, however, it did take indirect action to undermine the Iraqi regime, by meeting with the militant Kurdish group in Iraq, the PUK (moderate hostility). Beyond that, Iran tacitly supported the U.S. invasion to overthrow Saddam Hussein, at the expense of Syria who was forced to support UNSC resolution 1441 on the Iraqi government requirement to provide access to weapon production facilities.[7] Iran’s successful strengthening of ties with Iraq’s post-war provisional government and Syria’s unsuccessful steps towards the U.S. caused Syria to redouble its efforts to let the Syria-Iran alliance flourish again. Since Syria saw its relative position weaken and feared that it was losing its relevance for Iran, it undertook extreme conciliatory actions, in the form of unconditional support for Iran’s nuclear program, encouraging Hezbollah’s direct ties with Iran and mediating negotiations between Tehran and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.[8] The efforts bore fruit and brought about a period of very cordial relations between the two.

A remarkable evaluation and concluding insightful example by Lawson shows the delicate and complex nature of the Syrian-Iranian alliance: “Syria’s moderate hostility toward Israel in early 2006 elicited a response from Iran that was very different from the one that Tehran adopted after hostility between Syria and Israel spiked that summer. Tehran reacted to moderate hostility by carrying out a variety of provocative initiatives, which threatened to draw Syria into further regional conflict. But the Iranian leadership drastically curtailed these initiatives in the face of severe hostility between Syria and Israel, and only resumed a more provocative course of action when the crisis passed.”[9] This shows that Iran prioritises its own interests to the potential detriment of its ally.

Degang Sun’s quasi-alliance

A very different approach to alliance politics is adopted by Degang Sun. He sees the Syrian-Iranian cooperation is not strictly as an alliance, but rather a as quasi-alliance — an “informal security cooperation arrangement, based not on formal collective defense pacts, but on tacit agreements between two or among more international regimes.”[2]

Regarding the formative phase of the Syria-Iran alliance, Sun distinguishes between two dimensions — the regional dimension and the inter-state dimension.[3] The former highlights the rivalry between blocs of influence in Middle Eastern balance-of-power politics. The most recent of these rivalries is between the Iran-Syria-Hamas-Hezbollah bloc on the one hand, and the Israel-U.S. bloc on the other. In relation to the inter-state dimension, the Iran-Syria alliance has previously been inspired by a common security threat — Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Syria provided Iran with diplomatic and military support after Iraq’s invasion of Iran in 1980.[4] As such, the quasi-alliance is driven by common security interests rather than common values or religious beliefs. That would imply that maintaining the alliance manifests itself through a mutual assistance in conflicts with other international actors, complemented by a series of state visits by the respective elites, and an informal security agreement.[5] Sun summarises the advantages of quasi-alliances, in that they are secret, temporary, expedient and flexible. However, they also have numerous disadvantages as well, they are too loose to stand in the face of serious crises and due to the vagueness and instability of the agreement confidence and swiftness of action lacks.[6]

All in all, alliance theory offers interesting insights into the Syrian-Iranian relations. Moreover, the diverse approaches to alliance theory of Sun and Lawson do not necessarily contradict each other, they rather have different takes on alliances. Where Lawson sees the Syrian-Iranian relations as a proper alliance and highlights the different tactics of alliance partners, Sun perceives the relations not to constitute an actual alliance but rather an informal agreement against a common security threat.

One has to take note of the complexity of the relations — both Iran and Syria are very conscious of the need to evaluate their strategic position/relevance, particularly, in the Middle East. However, in the current setting, this appears to hold slightly less true than it was earlier, especially for Syria.

In a later post, I will look into the rationality behind the Syrian-Iranian relations, and discuss the feasibility of the relations in the current political situation.

This post and the coming one form a (loose) connection to these earlier posts.

— Syria’s Foreign Policy principles, Iran’s Foreign Policy principles and the development of Syrian-Iranian relations


[1]    Lawson’s take on Snyder’s alliance dilemma in the Syrian-Iranian context: “When Damascus takes firm steps to confront one of its adversaries, Iran can be expected to grow more confident and assertive. The leadership in Tehran is then likely to carry out risky foreign policy initiatives that have the potential to draw Syria into conflicts in which it has no intrinsic interest. On the other hand, whenever the Syrian government moves to conciliate a major adversary, Iran is apt to worry that Damascus is preparing to abandon it. The leadership in Tehran then will refrain from pursuing dangerous foreign policy initiatives and may even make overtures of its own to the adversary.”

[2]    Sun, “Brother’s Indeed: Syria-Iran Quasi-alliance Revisited,” p. 68

[3]    Ibid., pp. 69-70

[4]    Goodarzi, “Iran and Syria,” United States Institute of Peace. The Iran Primer, (2011)

[5]    Sun, “Brother’s Indeed: Syria-Iran Quasi-alliance Revisited,” pp. 72-75

[6]    Ibid., p. 80

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2 thoughts on “Syrian-Iranian relations — through the lens of alliance theory

  1. Pingback: The Syrian-Iranian relations and the rationale behind it « Thinking politics

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