The Bush administration’s strategy of treating Syria and Iran as if they are evil twins is fundamentally flawed. Although Damascus and Tehran have many common interests in addition to their grievances against the United States, they differ dramatically in their assessment of their regional roles and strategic objectives.
To foster a more peaceful Middle East, Washington must take these into account and pursue a different strategy, one that seeks to further separate Syria’s interests from those of Iran.
Syria’s and Iran’s long-term alliance is based more on circumstance than common strategic interests. Although both fear the US policy of regime change, Washington’s hostility provides a greater incentive for them to cooperate. While Syria has embraced Iran to avoid isolation, Iran has used Syria as an “assistant” in building Hizbullah into a tool to promote the Islamic revolution.
Their common interest in Lebanon has also led Iran to embrace Syria’s Alawites ruling elite, who are viewed disfavorably by the Sunnis. In addition, both nations, which previously considered Saddam Hussein as a threat, are now concerned that the turmoil in Iraq could spill across their borders.
Finally, whereas Israel is seen as a common enemy, both Tehran and Damascus boast few allies inside and outside the region, making each other’s support critical.
Entirely different agendaEven a cursory look at what both nations share suggests that their enduring alliance has little to do with strategic objectives. Iran, which espouses revolutionary Islam, finds itself, as a Shiite country, frequently at odds with the Arab world, and in fact criticizes Arab leaders for turning away from Islam. In addition, Iran's nuclear ambitions arise not only from the desire to neutralize Israel's presumed nuclear power, but because it wants to establish regional hegemony, including over Syria.
With the rise of Hamas to power, made possible in no small measure through Iran’s direct support, Tehran is determined to take over the Palestinian agenda from the Arab states. And, with the election of the Shiites in Iraq, Iran sees an historic opportunity to consolidate the Shiite crescent, extending it, under its own leadership, from the Persian Gulf to Lebanon, thereby fulfilling an historic quest to dominate the region.
Finally, Iran’s interest in Western financial incentives has dramatically diminished due to the rise in the price of oil, which has nearly quadrupled Iran’s earnings in the past few years allowing Tehran to amass close to US 100 billion in foreign currency reserves.
In contrast, Syria, in its role of secular Arab nationalist state, has an entirely different agenda. This agenda is based on four main principles or goals. The first is for the United States to abandon its desire to change the regime in Damascus. The second is to ensure that the Golan Heights must be returned to Syrian sovereignty in exchange for peace with Israel. The third is that the United States and Israel must recognize that Syria has a special relationship with Lebanon. The fourth is to normalize relations with the United States because this would bring great benefits to Syria, such as the possibility of critically needed economic development.
Mischievous and dangerous conduct
Certainly the United States has many grievances against Syria, including that it offers refuge to several extreme terrorist groups, mostly Palestinians, sworn to undermine US and Israeli regional interests.
Among the other sticking points are Syria’s alleged support of the insurgency in Iraq, which contributes to the instability and bloodshed there, its being behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and its colluding with Iran to provide Hizbullah with arms to stir up trouble for Israel, all of which led to the recent war in Lebanon.
These are obviously serious charges, and Damascus needs to address them in one form or another, but they pale compared to the mischievous and dangerous conduct of Iran toward the West and Israel in particular, which, if unchecked, could precipitate a major regional war involving weapons of mass destruction.
Nothing more will undermine Iran’s strategic interests and bring Tehran down to size than breaking the so-called Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. Although separating Iran and Syria’s tactical interests is itself important, engaging Syria now could yield many other benefits. These include changing the dynamic of the Arab-Israeli peace process, disarming Hizbullah, stabilizing Lebanon, strengthening the Sunni camp against the growing power of the Shiites, diminishing Iran’s influence in the Mediterranean, weakening Hamas’ resolve and slowing the rising tide of Islamism everywhere.
A change in American policy toward Syria is especially vital at this point because just about every initiative of the Bush administration seems to have backfired, creating an unprecedented Arab and Muslim backlash. Promoting democratic reform in the Middle East has failed, Iraq has plunged into civil war, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has worsened, the war in Lebanon has left half the country in ruins, and the anger and hatred of Arabs and Muslims toward the United States has reached new heights.
The future danger to the region will come from Iran, not Syria. Yes, Syria may have played a dangerous game by supporting Hizbullah’s reckless provocation of Israel. No one is saying that Syria is entitled to a special treatment.
Rather, the suggestion is that the growing regional danger demands urgently a new strategy toward Syria that addresses Damascus’s special national requirements and in so doing distancing the Assad government from that of Iran with its own very different agenda.
Such a strategy will call Syria to task while offering Damascus clear incentives to separate from Iran. Bullying Damascus will not lead to submission: it will simply force Syria to seek ever-closer relations with Iran and that is where the greater danger lies.
Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches International Negotiation and Middle Eastern Studies. He can be reached at: Alon@alonben-meir.com. Website: www.alonben-meir.com