Thursday, May 7, 2009

Iran-Syria alliance in harmony


President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran and President Bashar Assad of Syria reconfirmed the close alliance between their two countries during the Iranian president's visit to Damascus this week.

Ahmadinejad's visit came on the eve of the return of two senior US officials, Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, to Damascus. Their visit is part of ongoing US efforts at engagement with Syria. The tone struck by Ahmadinejad and Assad this week, however, did not suggest a mood for compromise.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, in his address to the joint press conference held by the two presidents after their meeting, accurately summed up the Iranian-Syrian alliance as based upon both "principles and interests."

It is sometimes suggested that the Syrian-Iranian alliance is a marriage of convenience between two essentially incompatible regimes. This view is incorrect. The alliance is of long standing, is rooted in shared interests and expresses itself in a shared ideological conception - that of the idea of muqawama (resistance) to the supposed ambitions of the West and Israel in the region.

Ahmadinejad's and Assad's statements following their meeting offer evidence of the depth and nature of the alliance.

The Iranian president mocked US attempts at engagement, saying "We don't want honey from bees that sting us. Efforts must be made to rid the region of the presence of foreigners." He went on to demand US withdrawal from "Afghanistan and the borders of Pakistan."

Ahmadinejad's speech radiated the sense that Iranian defiance was bringing results. The Iranian president noted that those who once sought to put pressure on Syria and Iran were now obliged to seek the assistance of these countries.

"Harmony and steadfastness," he said, "are the secret of victory." He went on to demand reform of the United Nations, reiterating a claim he made in his recent Geneva speech that the international body failed to reflect a world in which the balance of forces was changing.

The Syrian president struck a similar tone. Assad said that Ahmadinejad's visit confirmed once more the "strategic relationship" between the two countries. He expressed the support of Syria and Iran for Palestinian "resistance."

Assad then detailed Syria and Iran's common satisfaction regarding current developments in Iraq, and noted Syria's support for the Iranian nuclear program. He also cast an eye over the history of the relationship between the two countries. He noted that Syria had supported Iran at the time of the Islamic Revolution and in the subsequent Iran-Iraq War, and that Damascus had in return benefited from Iranian support when under pressure in recent years.

The words of the two presidents, for those listening closely, are instructive in grasping both the principles and the interests underlying the Syrian-Iranian alliance.

Regarding principles - the two speeches reflect the joint adoption of a secular language of nationalist, anti-Western assertion which is reminiscent of earlier times.

These ideas may have faded from view in the West in recent years, but they retain popularity among broad populations in the Arab world. The Iranians - non-Sunnis and non-Arabs - want to enlist this appeal to their own banner, presenting themselves as the natural representative of all those countries and forces opposing the West in the region.

Syria, meanwhile, has long been the chief guardian among the Arabs of the archaic slogans of third-worldism and defiance. Iranian rhetoric of this kind sits well with the Syrians. The Assad regime, of course, is committed ultimately to its own survival, and not to any ideological path. But there is no sense that an alliance based on an appeal of this kind is in any way unnatural or uncomfortable for the Syrians. On the contrary, it fits perfectly the defiant stance that has enabled the Syrian Ba'athists to punch above their weight in the region for a generation.

Regarding interests, Assad's whistle-stop tour through the history of the relationship reminds us of its longevity. The mullahs in Teheran and the Ba'athist family dictatorship in Damascus have stuck together for a long time. The Syrian dictator's expressions of quiet satisfaction at the current turn of events in Iraq, and Ahmadinejad's characteristic tone of triumphalism confirm that the partnership continues to bear fruit.

The next arena for the meeting point of Syrian and Iranian principles and interests is Lebanon, which may shortly be added to the regional alliance headed by these countries. Next month's Lebanese elections formed the backdrop to Ahmadinejad's visit, and perhaps explain the hurried return of Feltman and Shapiro. No doubt the two US officials will reassert the need for noninterference in the upcoming polls, which the Hizbullah-led alliance is favored to win.

Lebanon has long been the ideal arena for the meeting of Iranian and Syrian principles and interests. It is worth remembering that as far back as 1982, it was Syrian facilitation of the entry of 1,500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards into the Lebanese Bekaa which made possible the subsequent foundation of Hizbullah. This long investment may be about to pay off.

In any case, the general direction of events in the region appears to the liking of the two good friends from Damascus and Teheran - offering the prospect of many good years of friendship to come.

Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, IDC, Herzliya.

In Jerusalem Post, May 6, 2009

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