Syria and Iran: Decoding the Signals

Is Damascus inching towards Washington at the expense of Tehran?

Syria and Iran: Decoding the Signals

Is Damascus inching towards Washington at the expense of Tehran?

Tuesday, 1 September, 2009
The solid ties between Syria and Iran of the past few years are likely to loosen as Damascus attempts to win the favours of the West, especially Washington, which recently shifted from a policy of isolation to one of engagement with Syria, local analysts say.

Nevertheless, they say that Damascus seems to remain the strongest and most strategic regional ally of the Islamic Republic, which has come under international criticism in recent months for cracking down violently on political dissidents in the aftermath of a controversial presidential election in June.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad made a landmark visit to Tehran on August 19 to congratulate his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, on his re-election, the state-run Syrian news agency SANA reported, referring to “solid, friendly relations” between the two countries.

The visit was mainly aimed at affirming that efforts by the West to break the ties between Damascus and Tehran have not succeeded so far, some observers say.

"As yet, there is no change in Syrian-Iranian relations. They are still strong and deep, especially when it comes to bilateral coordination on regional policies in Lebanon, Iraq and Palestine," said the Damascus-based political analyst Faeq al-Mir.

The timing of the visit seems sensitive since it comes as Washington multiplies diplomatic efforts to court Syria.

United States president Barack Obama has made it one of his main foreign policy pillars to open the door cautiously to dialogue with Damascus in contrast to the hawkish strategies of his predecessor, George W. Bush.

In recent months, several high-profile US military and political delegations were dispatched to Damascus to discuss security in Iraq and the prospects for peace talks with Israel.

Mir did not exclude the possibility that ties between Iran and Syria will diverge in the near future with each nation adopting “different policies and making different choices” regarding several regional issues, like the situation in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.

He argued that Tehran under the leadership of Ahmadinejad was moving towards more tense relations with the West over its alleged development of nuclear arms.

Syria, on the other hand, was trying to have a regional role based on partnerships with the US and the European Union.

Iranian and Syrian official media made notably different comments regarding Assad’s visit to Tehran.

While the Syrian news agency SANA issued a general statement asserting the continuing “coordination and consultations” between the two nations, the official Iranian media reported that Assad criticised the West and condemned foreign intervention in Iran’s internal affairs.

Iranian media reports insisted that the West “feared” the success of Syria and Iran and so the two nations must persist with the policies of the past.

Another political expert believes that Syria might not be able to part company with Iran easily.

"Syria is the weak side in the bilateral relationship and it's unlikely that Iran would allow it to drift away just like that," said the analyst, who preferred to remain anonymous.

He said that the time was past when Damascus could afford to hold good ties with both the US and Iran as it had done under the late Syrian President Hafez al-Assad.

He said that Iran based its policy in the region on its support for militant groups around Syria, a reference to Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

For Tehran, therefore, efforts to draw Syria into a peace process in the Middle East conflicted with its policies in the region, he said.

Syria knows that for the moment it cannot afford to jeopardise its special relationship with Iran, especially as the West has not so far offered Damascus any substantial price in return, he said.

He said recent weeks had shown that Syria has not been willing to improve the regional situation, a reference to the spike in deadly bombings in Iraq, the obstacles preventing the formation of a new Lebanese government and the continuing divisions between the Palestinian factions, Hamas and Fatah.

Some suggest that Syria is trying to guarantee itself good relations with both Iran and the West by playing the role of mediator between the two parties, which have reached deadlock over Tehran’s controversial nuclear activities.

Assad’s meetings with Iranian officials were preceded by several media reports that the Syrian president was mediating on France’s behalf the release of the French researcher Clotilde Reiss, who was freed from jail in Tehran on bail just few days before the visit.

But the analyst who requested anonymity said that it was too early to see Damascus as an intermediary between the West and Iran.

"Syria is barely able to handle its own problems with the West. Besides, why would Iran allow Syria to play the role of a mediator?” he said.

He said that Syria was trying to exploit the Iranian crisis to its advantage by hinting that it could be the middleman in the current regional confrontation so as to improve its relations with the west while Tehran wants to be reassured that Damascus remains its unquestionable ally.

“There are differences in the agendas of two countries,” he said.
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