- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2006

DAMASCUS, Syria

Iran and Syria are forging a closer alliance that includes military and intelligence cooperation to face the gathering regional and international isolation they find themselves in, say Syrian officials and analysts.

“It’s strategic relations, free of charge,” said Ibrahim Hamidi, the Damascus bureau chief of the pan-Arab Al Hayat newspaper. “The Iranians are giving full support, full protection, full financial and technical assistance to Syria without seeking anything in return.”

Such has been the bloom in ties in recent months that two or three Iranian delegations reportedly pass through Damascus in an average week. Syria’s state-controlled news media have mostly ceased to report their comings and goings. Damascus has shut down Al Jazeera’s bureau, but it keeps open the one for Al Alam — Iran’s Arabic-language 24-hour television news channel.

“Syria and Iran are two friendly countries that are brought together by Muslim issues and common interests,” Syrian Minister of Information Mohsen Bilal told The Washington Times. “There are many relationships that bring us together. But before anything else, Syria and Iran don’t have any aggressive intentions.”

Their warmth is not a new development, but the continuation of a quarter-century alliance considered by international-relations analysts to be a triumph of realism over ideology.

During the 1980s, the two countries had a brisk trade in arms and oil between them. Syria was the only Arab country to stand up for Iran after it was attacked by Iraq in their dispute over the Shatt al-Arab waterway separating the two countries.

Damascus cut off the pipeline terminating at Lattakia that exported Iraq’s oil to the West, funneled Soviet and other weapons to Tehran, pledged to supply weapons to Iraqi Kurdish leader Jalal Talabani, and massed its army near Iraq’s western border.

In the days after the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February last year, the two allies announced the formation of a united front to face common threats. A high-level Syrian delegation signed the agreement in Tehran, prompting warnings of a Tehran-Damascus axis stretching from Iran and the Persian Gulf across Iraq to Syria and the Mediterranean.

“Syria turned towards Iran because Europe closed towards Syria. There was no other option but Iran,” said Samir Seifan, a Syrian economist.

‘Alliance of necessity’

“It’s more an alliance of necessity rather than a strategic choice. Syria will not sell itself to Iran. It will ally with it for common interests; but in the end, its national interests are its primary concern.”

Ties have grown closer since the election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as Iranian president and the acceleration of the confrontation between Tehran and the West. At the same time, Mr. Hariri’s assassination and Syria’s suspected role in it, further put Damascus under the spotlight of reform.

Mahmoud Rezaei, former chief of Iran’s Republican Guards, declared in April that Iran “will not be neutral if the U.S. attacks Syria.”

Iranian diplomats said Iran could not extend anything but diplomatic support to a beleaguered Damascus, but with Iran’s power structure as fractured as it is, analysts think the Revolutionary Guards would covertly resupply the Syrian army as they reportedly did for Hezbollah.

“The main goal of the agreement is to bolster Syria’s arsenal with Iranian weapons, which have been improving in terms of technology,” said Meir Javedanfar, an Iran analyst at MEEPAS, a Middle East analysis firm.

“Unlike the Russians, Iran offers much better payment terms, and its weapons are not as expensive. Furthermore, in contrast to Russia’s case, Iran’s military supplies to Syria would not be susceptible to pressure from the West.”

It has not always been plain sailing between Tehran and Damascus.

In the 1980s, a reluctant Syria allowed a contingent of 300 to 500 Revolutionary Guards to establish themselves in the Lebanese city of Baalbek, where they set about founding Hezbollah.

But Damascus insisted that the Revolutionary Guards come via Syria, and this condition continues today as a means of exerting some control over Iranian activity in Syria’s strategic back yard.

Even today, Iranian arms to Hezbollah continue to enter through Syria. Despite this, Iran established itself more successfully in south Lebanon, where posters of Iranian ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei are ubiquitous, while images of President Bashar Assad or his late father and presidential predecessor, Hafez Assad, are nonexistent.

After the 2006 war, oil-rich Iran provided much of the rent and furniture money that Hezbollah is distributing among those made destitute by Israeli bombardments, while Syria’s political elite watched from the sidelines, worried that their influence in Lebanon was being sidelined.

‘Portrayal of unity’

“Both sides have come to the realization that they need to increase their outward portrayal of unity in the face of increasing threats,” said Ali Ghezelbash, a Middle East analyst for a European oil company.

“It is unlikely that Damascus would give up the chance to have fully normalized relations with Washington for the sake of Tehran, or that Tehran would jeopardize ultimate peace and security to intervene on Syria’s behalf in case of an imminent Israeli or U.S. threat.”

Last year, Jane’s Intelligence Digest reported that Iranian intelligence planned to use assets they had cultivated in Syria’s Mukhabarat intelligence service to unseat Mr. Assad if he continued following pro-Western policies that did not suit Tehran’s regional strategies.

“Syrian officials say these relations will not be hurtful to the Syrian interests,” said Mr. Hamidi, the bureau chief.

“I hope that they’re right. I hope that the Iranians will be committed to their promises to the Syrian government. I hope Syria will not be sacrificed in any possible deal between Iran and the West.”

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