The Syrian-Iranian relations and the rationale behind it

On the basis of the previous analysis of Iran’s and Syria’s individual foreign policy principles/behaviors and the development of the Syrian-Iranian relations, has the Syrian-Iranian alliance made sense in the past and does it make sense in the context of the 2011 Syrian uprising?

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Preventing isolation

There are good reasons to argue in favour of the cordial relations prior to 2011 — they were facing common security threats, common enemies and economic trade benefits. Strategically speaking, the alliance was a way to prevent being isolated in world politics in times of unpopular policies. Syria as well as Iran have experienced periods of international isolation. Iran had suffered from having very little support during the Iran-Iraq war, but it received Syria’s. On the other hand, Syria had become increasingly isolated after the assassination of Lebanese president Hariri in 2005, yet Iran continued to support al-Assad[1].  Also during the violent crackdown by the Syrian regime since 2011, Iran offered financial, diplomatic, and military support.

Common principles and situations

Syria and Iran have common foreign policy principles and attitudes. They are both very hostile towards the presence of foreign actors in the region, from 1979 up until today. The keyword is security. Also, both utter anti-Zionist statements; though, the underlying causes seem to differ slightly. In Syria, these sentiments originate from the loss of the Golan Heights, whereas Iran tended to use its anti-Israel rhetoric as an extension of their anti-American feelings to gain popular support in the Arab world. Nonetheless, also Syria used it to gain support domestically and abroad.

Furthermore, Syria and Iran both had dire economic situations in the 1980s-1990s, which persuaded them to seek support from abroad. In Iran’s case, in the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war, President Rafsanjani successfully followed a policy of rapprochement with the West, gaining access to foreign aid and loans to ease the economic burdens. And Syria, similarly found aid from the Soviet Union and the Arab oil producing states “by virtue of Syria’s front line status against Israel.”[2] This last point characterises, to some extent at least, the smart use of politics to serve national interests — through pragmatism.

Ayatollah Khamenei, the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran

A delicate accord 

However, at the same time both also realise that the alliance is a delicate accord which could collapse if one party has too little to benefit from the other. Be that as it may, for the last three decades the alliance has been maintained and, one could argue, has been successful in achieving its goals. For instance, the Syrians were crucial in providing Iran with diplomatic and military support during the Iran-Iraq war, while the Iranians were essential for Syria’s energy needs during the same period, and military needs after the Cold War. At the same time, they had been balancing their ability to engage with other international actors on ground of their relative bargaining position.

“Syria’s support for Iran was not a reflection of any ideological affinity between Assad’s regime and Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s Islamic fundamentalism but rather an instance of pragmatic politics. Syria supported Iran because Iraq had been Syria’s implacable foe for decades. Moreover, Syria’s alliance with Iran allowed it to exert control over pro-Iranian Shia forces in Lebanon and use them as a proxy force to impose Syrian designs there. In supporting Iran, Syria broke ranks once again with a nearly unanimous Arab opinion favoring Iraq.”[3]

The above quote is from the Library of Congress and stresses the pragmatic nature of Syrian leadership. However, it wrongly emphasises any ties other than pragmatic politics. The mutual trust that flows from the connection between the Alawite elite in Syria and the Shia Ayatollah and Presidents in Iran is neglected. Nonetheless, it is illustrative of the practical take Syria has on foreign policy, a principle the Iranians similarly embrace.

Is the alliance losing its rationale?

Much more questionable is whether the Iranian alliance with the Baath regime will remain sensible in the time to come. The main reason is the existential threat the al-Assad regime has been facing since March 2011. The wide international condemnation of Syria’s violent crackdown and negligence of its people’s demands, and the subsequent rounds of sanctions that have been and are being imposed are a heavy burden on Syria’s Baath party.

Since Iran must be aware of the ‘very difficult’ situation Bashar is facing at home and abroad, coupled with their generally pragmatic approach to foreign policy, it would be to the benefit of the Iranians themselves to engaged into dialogue with the opposition. However, this is a delicate field to find oneself in. On the one hand, Bashar is still in power, so denouncing him now, would, for Iran, mean a waste of resources and the fall of a long-time ally. On the other hand, if Iran would be convinced that al-Assad is on his way out, then trying to engage with the opposition can only sensibly be done by not adding the al-Assad family in the same equation with a solution to the conflict. On the basis of this, I would argue that Iran is not convinced that Bashar al-Assad is on his way out.

Concluding, the Syrian-Iranian alliance is in fact losing its rationale. But Iran has shown to be a pragmatic actor in foreign policy before, so it will change its policy when it sees the time is right. The 2013 elections will prove relevant, as to when the Iranian leadership feels this point is reached. Ahmadinejad, one of Iran’s most conversative Presidents, has been sticking to al-Assad. It will now depend on Ayatollah Khamenei who he allows to run for elections, and who he will exclude. A more moderate candidate, with the consent of the Supreme Leader, would probably distance itself quicker from al-Assad then Ahmadinejad.


[1]    Foreign Office confirms Iranian support for Syria. Iran is helping the Syrian regime in its crackdown on pro-democracy protests, according to British intelligence reports. – Telegraph.co.uk, June 6, 2011

[2]    Hinnebusch, “Syrian Foreign Policy under Bashar al-Asad,” p. 10

[3]    Library of Congress Country Studies:  Syria. Iran and Iraq, from  http://lcweb2.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?frd/cstdy:@field(DOCID+sy0103)

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