May 7, 2009

Syria's alliance with Iran - a force for stability?

Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

After a May 5 meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad declared that the strategic relationship between the two countries was a stabilizing force in the region. I am sure he views it that way, but the reality is quite the opposite.

The relationship between Arab Syria and Persian Iran goes back decades - during the 1980 war between Iraq and Iran, Syria was the only Arab country not to stand with the Iraqis. Instead, Syria openly supported the Iranians, even to the point of allowing Iran to use Syrian airfields to strike targets in Iraq.

That close relationship was responsible for the creation of one of the world's most notorious terrorist groups - Hizballah. In 1982, responding to the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps created the IRGC Syria and Lebanon contingent. The contingent deployed to the Biqa' Valley and created the Lebanese Resistance under the banner of hizb allah (The Party of God).

The Israeli incursion turned into an occupation that lasted for 18 years. The IRGC's Syria and Lebanon contingent was one of the organizations that became the Qods Force, the special operations agency of the Iranian government.

The Iran-Hizballah relationship continues to this day - see the graphic above. It is augmented by expanding Iranian support for other terrorist groups in the region, notably Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Virtually all of Hizballah's money, weapons and training are funneled through the international airport in Damascus. Earlier support for Hamas that was routed via Damascus is now sent via Sudan and the Sinai Peninsula, although recent Israeli air and naval attacks on that supply line may cause Tehran to reassess that option.

Iran and Syria continue to be part of the problem in the region, not part of the solution. I disagreed with President Bush's characterization of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as the "axis of evil." I have always maintained that the real axis of evil was, and remains, Syria, Iran and North Korea. (See my earlier The real axis of evil.) The Iraqis had no dealings with North Korea - North Korea was one of Iran's key suppliers in the Iran-Iraq War.

Syria, on the other hand, has had close dealings with North Korea for decades. One could make the case that the three countries have been involved in nuclear programs in all of their countries - North Korea may have nuclear weapons, Iran is trying to develop them, and Syria was caught building an undeclared reactor in a remote area of the country. Both Iran and Syria have either used North Korean technology in their indigenous ballistic missile programs, or have purchased outright complete missile systems from Pyongyang. (See my earlier North Korea names ambassador to Syria - nothing new.)

When you look up "stability in the Middle East" in any dictionary, encyclopedia or lexicon, neither "Syria" nor "Iran" pop up. Being the primary supporters of Hizballah and Hamas does not contribute to stability in the region. When there are problems in the Levant (the area comprising Lebanon, Israel, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinian areas), one need only look to Damascus. (See my earlier Hamas - The Iranian Connection and Damascus - Nexus of Terrorism.

One of the goals of the Obama administration is to break the ties between Iran and Syria. That is a laudable aim, and is the essential factor in any progress on the Syria-Israel track of the moribund Middle East peace process. That said, it will not be easy. Iran and Syria have a formal mutual defense pact and are involved in joint intelligence operations. (See my earlier Syria and Iran Increase Signals Intelligence Cooperation for an example.)

As long as Hamas overall leader Khalid Mish'al lives in Damascus, as long as weapons are moved via Damascus into Lebanon for Hizballah, as long as Iran threatens to destroy Israel and continues to enrich uranium as part of a nuclear weapons program, the strategic relationship between these two countries will never be a "stabilizing force in the region."

It is interesting to note that Ahmadinejad flew to Damascus just two days before Obama's envoys are scheduled to meet with Asad. No doubt the Iranian president was there to warn Asad against any warming of relations with the United States. Stability on American terms is not in Iran's interest.