The opening American policy toward Syria is encouraging Syria to rebuff American requests to dissolve its regional alliances without worry of consequences from the United States. Warming relations with Syria is based on the idea that Damascus would break away from the Iranians and Hezbollah in return for American ties and a Golan-conceding peace agreement. The idea is naive and could force Israel to take unpopular action against Hezbollah or Syria sooner rather than later.
Deep Syrian-Iranian Ties
Syria is too well-entrenched with Iran to disengage. For years, Syria has depended heavily on Iranian security cooperation and diplomatic strength. Syria has long fallen out with other Arab powers, always on the outs with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (that Syrian-Iraqi hostility has not ceased with the new government).
During the Iran-Iraq War, Syria supported the Iranian position in the Arab world, and even supported Tehran logistically. Occasionally, Syrian airspace was used to conduct bombing runs on bases in Western Iraq, a total affront to the massive Arab financial and logistical support given to Iraq during the war. Unfortunately, too many Middle Eastern experts view the alliance as a “marriage of convenience” to put it in the words of Scott Lasensky of the United States Institute of Peace. That view reflects an immediate reality of 1979, when an isolated Syria was itching to find new allies in the region and rushed to support Ayatollah Khomeini’s revolution. But most importantly, this alliance is not simply diplomatic or strategic.
The Syrian regime is dominated by one ethnoreligious group in particular, Alawites. This offshoot of Islam has classically been considered beyond the pale by most Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and outright heresy among today’s many fundamentalist groups. Hafez al-Assad’s rise to power in 1970 clashed openly with the Syrian constitution that required the president to be a Muslim. But a 1974 declaration by the late Shiite authority living in Lebanon, Musa al-Sadr, recognized the group as members of his sect. The regime in Iran, including Ayatollah Khomeini, have continued to support that understanding. Despite the clash between Sunnis and Shiites in today’s antagonistic Muslim world, this status is enough to keep political opponents at bay.
But a political break with the regime in Tehran would also expose the Syrian regime’s social clout. The Muslim Brotherhood, emboldened by a break in the Iranian relationship and sudden reciprocal hostility from Hezbollah and Tehran, would be able to pressure the regime in Damascus.
A break would also deprive Syria of its arm inside Lebanon – Hezbollah. By abandoning Iran, Damascus would have abandoned the Islamic Revolution, a staple movement in the official ideology of Hezbollah. Hezbollah would begin to counter Syrian influence in Lebanon.
Syrian Control of Lebanon
In addition to this facet of Lebanon, Syria has managed to consolidate its hold on the country’s leadership since the implementation of the Obama Administration’s warming policies. Saad Hariri, who publicly accused Bashar al-Assad of orchestrating his father’s infamous assassination in 2005, has felt compelled to actually visit the Syrian president in Damascus. The same awkward, patronizing trip will soon be made by long-time Druze leader Walid Jumblatt. That visit is being propagated by Hezbollah.
Current Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri Meeting Syria’s Bashar al-Assad in Syria
After several high profile assassinations, including that of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri’s mentioned above, Hezbollah occupied large swathes of Beirut and forced the government to invite militia to have ministers in the cabinet. Jumblatt’s visit is likely to include a stark warning from Assad about his political position and physical safety. As Jumblatt alleged that Assad had threatened to “break Lebanon” in his and the elder Hariri’s presence in August 2004, the Syrian dictator is not averse at all to threats.
These developments from furiously anti-Syrian politicians deviates from Hilary Clinton’s pledge last year the US “will never make any deal with Syria that sells out Lebanon and the Lebanese people.” US policies are implicitly making that declaration heartless.
What the Obama Administration is doing is compelling an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and the Golan while simultaneously strengthening Syria’s stranglehold on Lebanon, in return for a hardly timid alliance with Tehran.
The best course of action is to continue tightening the screws on Damascus. The Syrian regime is hardly a buoy of importance to the “Arab street” or “Muslim world” for whom he is so desperately seeking to enhance his credibility. The administration’s policies have emboldened Syria to strengthen its ties with Iran and Hezbollah, in spite of the announcement of a new ambassador and continued public urging by Hilary Clinton to cut off arms shipments to Hezbollah and roll back ties with Iran.
Hindsight and Foresight
After Syrian withdrew from Lebanon, the country was euphoric and Hezbollah’s political position substantially weakened. In the wake of the emboldened new government’s pressure on the militia to give up its weapons, Hezbollah capitalized on Operation Summer Rains to coax Israel into a war on its northern front. It gave Hezbollah fodder to use politically and a pretext to assert itself against the government in Beirut. With the US alleviating pressure on Syria, the country has slipped from the Western orbit.
Continued threats against Lebanese politicians, arrest of Kurdish and human rights activists, and shipping of weapons to Hezbollah do not warrant a new ambassador for Damascus and will not persuade Syria in anyway to end its military alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. The administration would be better off isolating Iran’s economy and pressure Syria in the way the Bush Administration did in the early 2000s, lest an emboldened Syria wreak havoc on Lebanon’s political echelon an instigate a new war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Joshua Reback has a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from Rutgers University