Syria-Iran Strategic Understandings: Alliance or Cover-up?

Despite the apparent strengthening of Iran’s expansionism in the Middle East, gaps exist between Iranian objectives and the national interests of Syria. Israel, with proper help from international actors, should use this as an opportunity to block Iranian expansionism.

The alleged strategic arms deal between Iran and Syria, along with the publications of Saudi Arabia's withdrawal from its peace initiative, reinforces concerns of Iranian expansionism in the Middle East. (Ha'aretz and Yediot, 7/22/07).

The Reut Institute contends that despite the apparent strengthening of Iran's expansionism in the Middle East, gaps exist between Iranian objectives and the national interests of Syria. Israel, with proper help from international actors, should use this as an opportunity to block Iranian expansionism.

What is the Issue?

  • Iranian Expansionism - Even the mere allegation of a Syria-Iran strategic military deal serves an Iranian interest to show that Syria is still a key member in Iran's expanding orbit of influence (despite recent hints by Syrian President Bashar Assad of willingness to enter negotiations with Israel).

  • Decline of the ‘Moderate Axis' - The Iran-Syria agreement joins recent events that apparently indicate a trend of victories for Iran's expansionism, including: the Hamas takeover of Gaza; the Saudi Peace Initiative's apparent loss of momentum; political checkmate in Lebanon and France's overtures to Iran seeking its resolution; direct US-Iran talks regarding the future of Iraq; the Turkey-Iran gas deal and Iran's nuclear technological progress.

Why is this Important? Why Now?

  • Iran seeks immunity for its nuclear hegemony - Iran seeks to protect itself from international sanctions or a potential military strike against its nuclear program, by adopting a two-track strategy:

    • "Economic immunity" through trade agreements with key international actors, such as China, India, Turkey and Russia;

    • "Political immunity" through involvement in regional conflicts, such that resolution requires Iranian consent, as in Lebanon and Iraq.

  • Iran-Syria alliance: part of the "political immunity" track - The Iran-Syria alliance positions Iran as central to the resolution of both the Israeli-Syrian dispute and Syria's rapprochement with the US.

However,

  • Gaps exist between Iran and Syria - Although Iran and Syria try to present a united front, a number of potential gaps exist in their respective national interests, for example:

    • Vis-à-vis Israel - Syria is interested in negotiating the return of the Golan Heights, while Iran seeks to prevent any political process with Israel;

    • Vis-à-vis Iraq - Syria seeks Arab inclusiveness in Iraq's political process, while Iran promotes Shiite dominance.

Policy Options

Removing Syria from Iran's orbit of influence would be a significant blow to Iran's regional hegemony aspirations and attempt to develop "political immunity". Conflicts between Iranian and Syrian interests may present Israel with the following policy options:

  • The Road from Damascus to Washington can pass through Jerusalem - Assad has repeatedly requested US support, seeking carrots beyond that which Israel can give. The US is primarily interested in the stabilization of Iraq - an objective which Syria can help achieve. Israel should explore the option of a tripartite US-Israel-Syria deal, in which Israel brings the US to the table.

  • Regional peace initiatives as opportunities - The future peace conference called for by US President George Bush (7/07) - the content of which has not yet been determined - should provide concrete steps to contain Iranian expansionism, and include key actors such as Syria and Saudi Arabia.

  • Leverage international actors to block Iran's expansionism - Several key international actors enable Iran to expand its influence. Israel should seek to expand leverages it has over actors, such as the EU and Russia, to influence them to reduce Iran's political and economic ability to involve itself with Syria and other regional actors.