Syria and Iran: Bros Before Foes
According to Syrian lore, former President Hafez al-Assad often told his young son Bashar that he could always rely on the Iranians, but never other Arab leaders. Indeed, almost all of Syria’s Arab neighbors have now deserted it. Egypt has withdrawn its ambassador, while a UN General Assembly resolution introduced by Saudi Arabia supporting the Arab League plan for a transfer of power passed with an overwhelming 137-12 vote.
Yet Iranian support appears to be unwavering. After rejecting the General Assembly resolution, Tehran sent an Iranian warship through the Red Sea this week, which docked at the Syrian port city of Tartus, although the Pentagon disputes the actual docking. This is not the first instance of Iranian military might being flexed in Syria: Iran signed a deal with Damascus in August 2011 to fund a multi-million-dollar military base in the coastal town of Latakia. More recently, Syrian rebel fighters have accused Iran of sending these captured men to fight on the side of the Assad regime. Amidst the seeming endless carnage, most apparent in the besieged city of Homs, Tehran has positioned its Syria policy around issues of regional and global influence. While Iran has continued to decry the violence in Bahrain, Tehran is clearly concerned that the ongoing uprising in Syria is harmful to their regional standing. The Iranian foreign Minister was quoted by the Syrian state news agency Tuesday as noting that “what is happening in Syria serves the best interests of Israel and weakens the Resistance.” Indeed, the Syrian blind spot on Iran’s framing of the regional protests as the “Islamic Awakening” was brought to the forefront at a recent conference in Tehran.
For the US and Israel, the Iranian nuclear program appears to loom over any proposed Syria policy. US Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain announced their support this week for arming the Syrian rebels. Their justification for doing so? Not the end of the violence, but the downfall of an Iranian proxy: “Breaking Syria apart from Iran could be as important to containing a nuclear Iran as sanctions,” Graham said. While Israel is afraid of the possibility of its northern neighbor becoming a hotbed of terrorist activity, in the words of Dan Meridor, Israel’s intelligence minister, “if the unholy alliance of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah can be broken, that is very positive.” Doing so could also force the regime to suspend its nuclear program, other Israelis argue. Hovering on the minds of officials from D.C. to Damascus is the possibility of an Israeli strike on Iranian nuclear targets. Some have noted that the political window of opportunity for a strike is rapidly closing, and could be shut by the November US presidential election (never mind the intelligence about the status of the Iranian program itself). In an effort to quell the war fever, President Obama will host Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House on March 5th to discuss Iran. Many have wondered whether the message will be “do not attack Iran,” or “do not attack Iran now.” Meanwhile, residents of Homs continue to die without an end in sight.