Iran’s support for the Syrian regime is one of the key elements safeguarding the survival of Syria’s embattled president Bashar al-Assad, who has been fighting a fierce anti-government uprising since Spring 2011.
The relationship between Iran and Syria is based on a unique convergence of interests. Iran and Syria resent the US influence in the Middle East, both have supported Palestinian resistance against Israel, and both had shared a bitter common enemy in the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
1. The “Axis of Resistance”
The US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq in the years after the 9/11 attacks greatly sharpened the regional fault-lines, drawing Syria and Iran even closer together. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and most of the Gulf Arab states belonged to the so-called “moderate camp”, allied to the West.
Syria and Iran, on the other hand, formed the backbone of the “axis of the resistance”, as it was known in Tehran and Damascus, an alliance of regional forces that was to counter Western hegemony (and ensure the survival of both regimes). Though not always identical, the interests of Syria and Iran were close enough to allow for coordination on a number of issues:
- Support for radical Palestinian groups: Both allies backed Palestinian groups opposed to negotiations with Israel, such as Hamas. Syria has long insisted that any deal between Palestinians and Israel must also resolve the issue of Israeli-occupied Syrian territory (the Golan Heights). Iran’s interests in Palestine are less vital, but Tehran has used its support for Palestinians to boost its reputation among Arabs and in the wider Muslim world, with varying success.
- Support for Hezbollah: Syria acts as a conduit for the flow of weapons from Iran to Hezbollah, a Lebanese Shiite movement whose armed wing is the strongest military force in Lebanon. Hezbollah’s presence in Lebanon acts as a bulwark against a possible Israeli land invasion of neighboring Syria, whiling equipping Iran with some retaliatory capability in case of an Israeli attack on its nuclear facilities.
- Iraq: After the US invasion of Iraq, Iran and Syria worked to prevent the emergence of a US-dependent regime in Baghdad that could pose a threat. While Syria’s influence in its traditionally hostile neighbor remained limited, Iran developed a close relationship with Iraq’s Shiite political parties. To counter Saudi Arabia, the Shiite-dominated Iraqi government followed Iran’s lead by opposing calls for regime change in Syria following the outbreak of the anti-government uprising in the country.
2. Is Syria-Iran Alliance Based on Religious Kinship?
No. Some people erroneously assume that because Assad’s family belongs to Syria’s Alawite minority, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, its relationship with Shiite Iran must be founded on solidarity between the two religious groups.
Rather, the partnership between Iran and Syria grew out of the geopolitical earthquake unleashed by the 1979 revolution in Iran that brought down the US-backed monarchy of Shah Reza Pahlavi. Before that, there was little affinity between the two countries:
- Syria’s Alawites are a distinct, historically isolated community which is largely limited to Syria and has no historical links to the Twelver Shiites – the mainstream Shiite groups with followers in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
- Iranians are ethnic Persians belonging to the Shiite branch of Islam, while Syria is a majority Sunni Arab country.
- The new Islamic Republic of Iran sought to subordinate the state to clerical authority and recreate the society by enforcing a religiously inspired legal code. Syria, on the other hand, was ruled by Hafez al-Assad, a staunch secularist whose ideological underpinnings mixed socialism and pan-Arab nationalism.
3. The Unlikely Allies
But any ideological incompatibility was set aside by proximity on geopolitical issues that over time grew into a remarkably resilient alliance. When Saddam attacked Iran in 1980, backed by the Gulf Arab states who feared the expansion of Iran’s Islamic revolution into the region, Syria was the sole Arab country to side with Iran.
For the isolated regime in Tehran, a friendly government in Syria became a vital strategic asset, a springboard for Iran’s expansion into the Arab world and a counterweight to Iran’s chief regional foe, the US-backed Saudi Arabia.
However, because of its strident support for the Assad family during the uprising, Iran’s reputation among large numbers of Syrians plummeted dramatically since 2011 (as did that of Hezbollah), and Tehran is unlikely ever to regain its influence in Syria if Assad’s regime falls.
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