Among the complexities surrounding the current conflict in Syria, the Iran factor deserves a closer look.
Since the beginning of the uprising against the government of President Bashar al-Assad over a year ago, Iran has remained a steady backer of Damascus. There are strong indications that through funding, manpower and weaponry provided by Iran, Assad has been able to effectively counter a rebellion in Homs and other parts of the country. Some might question what benefit such an investment has for Iran, given the lingering threat of an Israeli military strike against its controversial nuclear facilities. So, what’s in it for Tehran and what are some of the underlying bonds tying the two countries together?
Iranian-Syrian relations have been evolving since the Iran’s Islamic Revolution of 1979. However, it was really the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and shared fears that they could be next in line that brought Tehran and Damascus closer together.
In June of 2006, the two countries signed a mutual defense treaty pledging to protect one another if attacked. Not much is mentioned of this pact, but given the new realities in the region it takes on new significance.
Though their ideologies differ, Iran and Syria share a common trait of being “authoritarian and defiantly independent, at an economic and political cost” according to Jubin Goodarzi, of the United States Institute of Peace.
Iran is predominantly Shia, whereas Syria – although overwhelmingly Sunni – is ruled by a minority of Alawites, a sect of Shiite Islam to which Assad belongs. Also, in contrast to Iran, Syria is relatively socialist and secular. And while there have been cracks in their relationship, common geopolitical interests have kept their alliance strong for three decades.
Like a married couple, Iran and Syria have endured a lot together and are likely to continue doing so. Iran’s bond with Syria, as seen from Tehran, is integral not only to its own survival but to exporting the Islamic Revolution. Iran sees religious potential in Syria, and with somewhat of a common background found through the Alawites, Iran sees the possibility of further spreading its version of Islam, Twelver Shi’ism. With a Shi’ite-led government in Iraq, Shi’ites running the show in Lebanon, Shi’ites in the east of Saudi Arabia, and the Alawites dominating the Syrian government – Shi’ite domination in the region is becoming a growing influence by means of a Shi’ite revival as Dr. Vali Nasr of Tufts University contends.
Also, the isolation of Iran and Syria through sanctions has caused the two nations to become “partners-in-trade” in an effort to withstand international pressure. Like two rebels, they fight to survive by any means possible.
So how would the two countries behave and what would they do in the case of outside aggression? Any foreign military intervention in Syria could provoke Iran to come to Damascus’ defense, with the specter of Hezbollah joining the fray. If, on the other hand, an outside military strike were to be carried out against Iran, Syria, which borders Israel, could lash out in response. In any event, either of the scenarios underscores how easily the existing equilibrium of power in the region is tipped.
Outside military action or not, Syria is an integral part of the regional battleground. If Syria were to fall, so would Hezbollah in Lebanon. Thus, Iran is doing everything it can to help Assad’s Syria survive. A clear sign of its commitment was the reported dispatch to Syria of wild card Qassem Soleimani, the head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, to help Damascus in its efforts to subdue the current uprising against it.
Syria, no doubt, is a piece on the regional chessboard Iran is not willing to lose.
Given the realities, any outside military intervention by the international community in Syria could prove a dangerous, of not detrimental gamble. Not only would it come at a high price, it could bring with it cataclysmic consequences for the Middle East and beyond. Thus, alternative options against the Assad regime should be explored to prevent any sudden shock to the delicate equilibrium still in place. Provoking the Iranian giant should be avoided at all cost.
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Holly Dagres, an Iranian American, is a commentator on Middle East affairs with particular focus on Iran. Currently living in Egypt, she is a researcher at the Cairo Review of Global Affairs and pursuing a master’s degree in political science at American University in Cairo.