Across the Bay

Friday, August 24, 2007

Voop! Nonsense About the Syria-Iran Alliance

NPR has a segment on the Iran-Syria alliance that totally misunderstands, mischaracterizes, and misrepresents the nature of the alliance.

I'm going to glance over Robert Malley's comments for now (I might come back to them later).

The segment quotes the Syrian regime's favorite academic, Joshua Landis, who, as usual, lies through his teeth and contradicts stuff he himself had written before.

First off, Landis misrepresents the raison d'être of the alliance, painting it as a result of Saddam Hussein's war. To put it mildly, that's an incomplete and thus inaccurate revisionist picture -- one that is designed to serve the Syrian regime's current propaganda purposes.

Landis presents the alliance as purely reactive; a result of both Syria and Iran feeling "threatened." It's not an innocent characterization. This is part of the Syrian official propaganda: to always present itself as under attack and threat and besieged by hostile forces in order to justify its own subversive policies and expansionist and regional hegemonic ambitions (just like Landis, again following the regime's memo, justifies the murder of Hariri and Syria's subversive terrorist policy in Lebanon along the exact same lines, e.g., "we cannot tolerate a 'hostile' government in Lebanon," etc.).

First of all, the Assad regime's openness to the Iranian Islamic revolution predated the Iraq-Iran war and was thus independent of it. Furthermore, Landis, as noted above, presents Syria, as per the regime's propaganda, as the perpetual victim who only reacts to aggression, in this case, Saddam's support of Syrian elements opposed to the Assad regime.

But let me quote from the most recent work on the Syrian-Iranian alliance, Jubin Goodarzi's Syria and Iran:

[W]hen the Shah was deposed in February 1979, Assad saw the change in government as a positive development and deemed it necessary to establish cordial ties with the new revolutionary government, which seemed sympathetic to the Arab cause and the plight of the Palestinians.

Syria's motive for establishing close links with the new clerical regime can be partially understood in the context of inter-Arab and internal Syrian politics.
...
Between October 1978 and July 1979 a rapprochement between Syria and Iraq seemed a distinct possibility. ... A Syrian-Iraqi partnership did not, however, materialize. Mutual distrust and irreconcilable differences eventually brought the bilateral negotiations to a screeching halt in the summer of 1979 when Iraq accused Syria of involvement in a coup attempt to topple the Ba'thist regime in Baghdad, despite Syrian denials. ... Assad subsequently continued to cultivate even closer relations with the new revolutionary government in Tehran and watched events unravel in Iran with great interest. (Pp. 16-17. Emphasis mine.)

All this, I remind you, is before the Iraq-Iran war. Let's continue with Goodarzi's book:

Immediately after the collapse of the monarchy, on 12 February 1979, Assad sent Khomeini a telegram congratulating him for his triumph over the Shah. In his message, he praised the 'Iranian people's victory', and went on to say: 'we proclaim our support for the new regime created by the revolution in Iran. This regime is inspired by the great principles of Islam [Ed.'s note: this is the "very secular" regime!]. The creation of this regime is in the Iranian people's greatest interest, as well as that of the Arabs and Muslims.' In fact, Syria was the first Arab country to recognize the new regime in Iran...

Straight after the revolution, Hafez Assad's brother, Rif'at, sent envoys to Tehran to discuss ways of cooperating between the two countries, particularly against Iraq. [Ed.'s note: again, this is before the war.] Tehran followed up on these contacts by dispatching emissaries to Damascus to explore various options to lend support to the Iraqi opposition, particularly in the Shiite south. Rif'at, who served as commander of the Syrian defence brigades (Saraya al-Difa'), apparently opposed the Syrian-Iraqi unity talks, for he feared that they might benefit his leading rival for succession to his brother, former air force and intelligence chief, Na'ji [sic] Jamil, who had close ties with the Iraqi Ba'thists.

In March, the first senior Syrian official, information minister Ahmad Iskandar Ahmad, visited Iran where he met Ayatollah Khomeini in Qom and presented him with an illuminated Quran as a gift from Hafez Assad. Apart from bilateral relations between the two states starting on the right footing, the regional foreign policies of both were strikingly similar. Damascus and Tehran perceived and interpreted various regional developments in the same manner. This trend reinforced the growing cooperation between the two states.
...
[B]y April 1979, it had become clear that the leadership in the two rival wings of the Ba'th Party had incongruent visions about what unification would entail. As progress in the negotiations became painfully slow and finally grinded to a halt, Assad began to give careful consideration to the next viable option -- an alliance with Iran to outflank Iraq, bolster his position vis-à-vis the Gulf Arab sheikhdoms and strengthen his hand among the Lebanese Shiites.
...
Their rapprochement in the spring and summer of 1979 coincided with the marked deterioration in Iran's relations with Iraq and the Gulf Arab states. While Tehran encouraged the Iraqi Shiites to defy the government in Baghdad, Iraq also conducted a wide range of activities to support centrifugal forces on the periphery of Iran, including Kurdish and Arab movements that demanded autonomy or independence from the Iranian state.
...
One should note that Iraq's campaign was not totally offensive: it was partially a defensive attempt to neutralize and deter Iranian interference in Iraq's domestic affairs by levelling the playing field. (Pp. 17-19. Emphasis mine.)

What was Syria's response to Iran's foreign policy?

Assad welcomed the Shiite awakening in the Middle East after the Iranian revolution, while Baghdad feared that Iran would incite the restive Shiite population in southern Iraq to rebel against it. (P. 22)

Assad had used Shiite legitimation prior to that. Martin Kramer explains:

If Musa al-Sadr would throw his weight behind the argument that Alawis were Twelver Shi'ites, this would undermine at least one pillar of the Sunni indictment of the regime. Since the Alawis of Lebanon did not differ in belief from those of Syria, their formal inclusion in the Twelver Shi'ite community would constitute implicit recognition of all Alawis. For his part, Musa al-Sadr may have begun to realize that his recognition of the Alawis might bring political advantages which he had not previously imagined. The regime of Hafiz al-Asad needed quick religious legitimacy; the Shi'ites of Lebanon, Musa al-Sadr had decided, needed a powerful patron. Interests busily converged from every direction.

And so we see that Assad's calculations in making the strategic decision to ally with Iran were far more complex than the propagandistic and crudely simplistic notion that the alliance was a tactical response to Iraqi aggression. Iran (with Syrian support) was itself threatening and seeking to subvert the Iraqi regime.

In fact, Goodarzi goes on to say that had the basis of the alliance only been mutual animosity to Saddam Hussein, it would have long collapsed. In other words, Iraq, let alone the Iraq-Iran war, was not the exclusive basis of the alliance. It would be a misreading of the nature of the alliance to say so. Here's Goodarzi:

An examination of how the bilateral ties between Syria and Iran evolved during this critical period reveals the flawed conclusions of those who argued that the alliance was a marriage of convenience, a short-term tactical link between two regimes with disparate ideologies and objectives. It also exposes the limits of the realist school of thought in explaining the behaviour of these two states. If immediate security concerns and material interest had been the driving forces in their foreign policies, particularly in Syria's case, the relationship would have collapsed. However, both parties had broader, long-term strategic concerns derived from their national security priorities and based on their respective ideologies and world views. They saw a unique role for themselves in the region and utility in preserving the alliance to pursue an independent foreign policy to shape events in the Middle East in a desirable manner in the long term, and to minimize foreign influence and penetration of the region. (P. 135. Emphasis mine.)

It's evident that there were other factors having to do with Syria's disposition towards other Arab states, Assad's leadership ambitions, and, importantly, Syria's colonizing objectives in Lebanon. In other words, it's not a "defensive" alliance, nor is it a "tactical marriage of convenience." (In fact, the term "marriage of convenience" was first used to describe the alliance in an article by Shireen Hunter in 1985 -- that's 22 years ago, and 6 years after it had been struck.)

Here's where NPR and Landis mislead the audience. The segment states that "[t]he Iran-Syria alliance drifted apart in the 1990s when Saddam was weak, but Landis says that in 2003, Iraq became a threat again. ... Voop! The relationship became strong again." In other words, following the (deliberately) faulty Iraq-centric reasoning, once Iraq was not a problem, the alliance disappeared, only to reappear when Iraq came back into the picture.

That's a convenient picture as far as Landis' regime propaganda goes. But it's far from reality. Reality is that the Syrian-Iranian alliance flourished in the 90s -- particularly in Lebanon.

Let's continue with Goodarzi:

Again, analysts predicted the demise of the Syrian-Iranian alliance but, although they adopted divergent positions, the Kuwait crisis did not destroy the partnership. In fact, the two allies took a further step towards institutionalizing their bilateral relationship in November 1990 when they set up a Syrian-Iranian higher cooperation committee, which their vice-presidents and foreign ministers chaired. Its main purposes were to meet at regular intervals for consultations and to strengthen their cooperative links. (P. 289. Emphasis mine.)

In fact, September 1991 saw the finalization of a Syrian-Iranian agreement for increased military cooperation (yes, it long preceded the 2006 defense treaty), which at the time was suspected to facilitate Syria's efforts to acquire North Korean missile technology. This is particularly relevant today as we read about Israeli assessments of Syrian ballistic capabilities.

Aside from the continuing military cooperation, the Syrians and Iranians consolidated their political alliance... in Lebanon. The 90s were, in fact, the golden years of this alliance in Lebanon.

How so? The late 80s saw the brutal infighting between the Iranian creation Hezbollah and the Syrian-backed Amal. Yet the alliance not only endured, it was consolidated:

In the two-year period between the cessation of the Gulf hostilities and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (August 1988 to August 1990), many observers predicted the imminent demise of the Syrian-Iranian alliance. However, the partnership still endures at the start of the twenty-first century.
...
First and foremost, incessant speculation that the days of the Syrian-Iranian nexus were numbered proved unfounded: many analysts had failed to recognize that the two allies' continual consultations and ability to compromise on key issues, build mutual trust and maintain cooperative links during the troubled years of 1985-1988 had consolidated the alliance. Their mutual ability over time to assess the evolving regional situation, to recognize the limits of their power and to set feasible goals lent stability to the alliance. Both Damascus and Tehran also understood that their activities in the other's sphere of influence had to be within certain limits and subject to the other's approval, particularly if vital interests were at stake. (P. 286. Emphasis mine.)

Indeed, 1991-1992 proved rather axiomatic for the shape and future of the alliance for the entire decade of the 90s, up until the Syrian withdrawal in 2005.

The beginning of the decade saw various developments: 1- It saw the Syrian regime's takeover and trashing of the Taef Accord, and its complete colonization of Lebanon. 2- It saw the end of the Hezbollah-Amal war. 3- It saw Hezbollah's entry into parliamentary life. 4- It saw the Syrian-Iranian understanding to hand exclusive mandate for Hezbollah to take over military activity in the south against Israel. 5- It saw the reinvention -- if not the "Arab nationalization" -- of Hezbollah's image from the overtly Khomeinist "Islamic Revolution" to the more broad "Islamic Resistance," as per the Syrian-Iranian understanding, as well as the birth in 1991 of al-Manar TV, which went on to play a major role in the branding of Hezbollah. 5- In the mid to late 90s, and especially after 1996, Syria was instrumental in cultivating the Nasrallah cult, and mainstreaming the Hezbollah socio-political culture, and constructing a new political order based both ideologically and in reality around the "Resistance" and relying on the military president, the security services, and a host of second-tier puppets totally reliant on Syria and with no standing of their own.

Moreover, in 1993, when Iran and Syria opposed the Palestinian-Israeli Declaration of Principles (Rafsanjani had blasted the Declaration of Principles, and in a meeting between Iranian VP Habibi and Assad in December 1993, Habibi declared Tehran's support for "the revolutionary and Islamic stand of Syria in its campaign against the Zionist regime" while Assad lauded "Iran's stance vis-à-vis the issue of Palestine"), and Hamas and Islamic Jihad became part of the Damascus-based Alliance of Palestinian Forces (APF). Both established headquarters in Damascus, and were coordinating terror activities at the behest of Iran. Islamic Jihad's Fathi Shiqaqi admitted to receiving Iranian funding, and he was also received, in 1993, by Khamenei while visiting Iran. Hamas too had established ties with Iran. In fact, in 1993, Musa Abu Marzouq met with Rafsanjani. (See Hinnebusch and Ehteshami's Syria and Iran.) So what we're seeing now with Hamas is not new.

Now, this is the 90s, after the Madrid Process had started, which rather undermines Malley's premise. I'll leave that be for now, but only after I quote the one and only Imad Mustapha:

The Syrian Iranian relation is not about Syria adopting positions proposed by Iran. It’s the other way around. Iran under the Shah cooperated with Israel. We have historical policies about Israel and the resistance that have not changed. It’s not like we were lured by Iran to support policies we had not supported before. We supported resistance before Hizballah existed. If God forbid Iran will change its position Syria will not.

Voop! there it is!

And so, all this nonsense spewed by Landis making it seem as though the US is responsible for the "resurgence" of the alliance is, voop!, utter rubbish. The alliance never ceased growing.

But Landis' dishonest function comes to a peak with this statement: "So as soon as the U.S. leaves, Syria is going to want Sunnis to have more power. Iran is going to want Shiites to have more power, and they are going to fall out over this."

Now, this is pure and unadulterated, deliberately deceptive agitprop on behalf of the regime. The first time Landis said this was in March 2007, at the time of the Arab summit in Riyadh. Back then, Landis' function was to tell the media, as he did in a panel with me on NPR, that Saudi is "breaking with the US," and "mending fences with Syria," and Syria is now "in." Of course, I laughed at this crock back then, on the air, and today Landis looks even more pathetic given the public war between Syria and Saudi, whose papers have been blasting Syria daily, accusing it of all the murders in Lebanon and much more (I will come back to this issue in a separate post).

Anyway, back then this was the official talking points memo and it was Landis' job to disseminate it, and so he did. Syria wanted to break out of its isolation and its estrangement with Saudi. And so Landis wrote on March 29:

But when the US withdraws from Iraq this calculus will change. The alliance between Iran and Syria will face serious strains. It is in Syria's interest to team up with Saudi Arabia in order to tip the scales of power in Iraq toward its Sunni community. This will divide Syria from Iran, which will be pushing down on the Shiite side of the scale. So long as the US is strong in Iraq, Syria's interests are with Iran. Once the US is gone, Syria's interests will be with Saudi Arabia.

As you can see, it's the same nonsense he repeated here. Why? Because it's politically convenient in this context to say this. The implication is: Syria can actually be "pried away" from Iran -- if the US withdraws from Iraq and if Saudi gives it what it wants. It's a dishonest political agenda on behalf of the regime. It's not true, and it's not analysis.

Here's why. Here's what Landis wrote in July 31, 2006 (hat-tip, anonymous reader):

Shi’ite success looks like it is going to realign Iraq with Iran and possibly Syria against the Gulf. This will fundamentally change the balance of power in the region.

He then proceeded to describe a fantasy world of an "axis of oil" between Iran, Iraq and Syria, and categorized it as follows:

Iraqi technical committees have already been meeting with their Syrian and Iranian counterparts plan for these pipelines. This will allow them to challenge Saudi Arabian dominance in OPEC. It’s what you might call an axis of oil – or access of oil - and the Russians and Chinese are eager to connect to it. As I see it, this is the big battle. My hunch is that within five or six years, when Iraq beings to consolidate under a Shi’ite dictatorship, it will not ask American oil companies to run the show, but rather, Russian and Chinese oil companies. For political and economic reasons, Iraqis will want to move away from American domination. Economic imperatives make linking up to Iran and the East logical. Such a combination will be powerful.

In other words, in Landis' "analysis" back then, Syria was an integral part of the Iran-led "Shiite reawakening axis" against Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states!

Back then it was July 2006. The war between Hezbollah and Israel had broken out, relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia drastically deteriorated, and soon thereafter, Bashar gave his infamous "half-men" speech, attacking Saudi Arabia. Back then Landis' "analysis" followed that official talking points memo from Damascus. It continued along these lines, such as in this post from August 4, 2006:

[T]he break-out of Shiite Islam, started by the Iranian revolution but unleashed in the Arab World by the US invasion of Iraq, is changing the balance of power in the region and will force the US to engage Iran and, by extension, Syria and the Shiites of Lebanon.

Notice the syntax of that last clause. Syria is the extension of Iran, and is directly tied to the Shiites of Lebanon.

When the regime -- and "by extension," Landis -- wanted to market that it was "mending fences" with Saudi Arabia, the "analysis" shifted 180 degrees to say the exact opposite of what the same "analyst" (or, to be more accurate, regime flack) had himself written earlier!

But wait. Why go that far back? What Landis said on NPR contradicts what he wrote a mere five days ago! Here's what he wrote on August 18, after the Syrian-Saudi war broke out in the open after Farouq Sharaa's sanctioned public attack against Saudi Arabia (i.e., when the political talking points memo changed again, away from the "Saudi is mending fences with Syria" memo he peddled in March-April 2007):

Syria and Iran would probably prefer to inherit the Maliki government than any of its alternatives. I am not sure Saudi Arabia has made this calculation yet. In any event, Syria calculates that cooperating with the Maliki government even if it does collapse can no longer do it any harm.

Having a relatively weak Shiite coalition government in place in Iraq is better for Syria than chaos.

Saudi Arabia's position toward the Maliki government is unclear. Some Saudi officials have indicated that their government will support Sunni Iraqi militias against a Shiite led government that is pro-Iranian. Syria has indicated that it could pursue such a policy as well in the past. It has give asylum to Sunni opposition members and hosted Iraqi opposition group meetings. This common Saudi-Syrian policy of favoring Iraq's Sunnis led me to conjecture in the past that once the US pulled out of Iraq, Syria and Saudi Arabia would work toward elaborating a common pro-Sunni policy in Iraq. Saudi Arabia's refusal to send a delegate to the security conference in Damascus argues against this interpretation. Perhaps a reason for Sharaa's evident anger at SA's refusal is because Syria has been counting on a Saudi-Syrian rapprochement as the US prepares to withdraw from Iraq. Whether his outburst was motivated by differences over Lebanon, Iraq, or a combination of the two, I cannot say.

Syria has positioned itself between Iran and Saudi Arabia in Iraq.

Wait, what!? I lost count. According to the various versions of Landis, Syria will work with a "Shiite dictatorship" and "a relatively weak Shiite coalition government," and will back the Sunnis. Syria is part of the Iran/Shiite axis against Saudi Arabia, is on Saudi Arabia's side and will "fall out with Iran" as a result, and has "positioned itself between Iran and Saudi Arabia." Wow, such reliable, sturdy, carefully thought out "analysis."

This is utter nonsense and deliberate misleading as per the political talking points of the regime in Damascus. But then again, Landis' record with the truth leaves much to be desired.

As for that most fashionable of soundbites among pundits, the "prying Syria away from Iran" theory, let me conclude with another quote from Goodarzi. It's particularly relevant once compared to the current situation, as not much seems to have changed among policy pundits, who apparently have a very short memory:

Throughout the period between 1985 and 1988, Arab states and the USSR were trying hard to entice Assad to abandon his friendship with Iran. Apart from Syrian-Iranian relations having reached a nadir in 1986/7, Assad had good reason at the time to abandon his alliance with Khomeini's Iran. For a start, it would improve his overall position because he was facing several important challenges simultaneously. These included:

  • the need to secure Syria's eastern flank with Iraq because of the prospect of a conflict with Israel;
  • Syria's marginalization in Arab politics with the consolidation of the Egyptian-Jordanian-Iraqi axis;
  • the marked deterioration of relations with the West and international opprobrium over Syria's alleged involvement in the Hindawi affair;
  • Iranian activism and interference in Lebanon;
  • Hezbollah's rise at Amal's expense as a dominant force in Lebanon;
  • Iran's refusal to continue oil deliveries to Syria;
  • the dismal state of the Syrian economy; and
  • the gradual cooling of Soviet-Syrian relations in the Gorbachev era, and subsequent abandonment of the quest for 'strategic parity' with Israel.

Why Assad refused to distance himself from Iran and join mainstream Arab politics to minimize the risk of conflict with Israel and the West baffled many observers, for he would have derived considerable benefits, including oil and financial rewards, from the pro-Iraqi camp. Indeed, the USSR, Saudi Arabia and Jordan put considerable pressure on Syria to sever its links with Iran and mend fences with Iraq. Such a move could have eased its security dilemma with Israel, improved its regional and international standing and ensured a flow of economic and financial aid to remedy its dire domestic economic situation. (P. 134)

And yet Assad Sr. didn't. And Assad Jr. won't either; even when it looks so "logical" to self-styled policy gurus. It is not in the regime's interest. We should stop thinking we know the regime's "real" interests better than it does, and that if only we offer it this and that concession it'll see the light.

Addendum: With regards to Iran and Syria's policy in Iraq, it's very instructive to listen to Farouq al-Sharaa's recent comments on this very issue:

On relations between Damascus and Tehran, Sharaa said, 'there is agreement and understanding and a unified vision, and Syrian-Iranian relations are strategic, it's not a blind relationship, but rather one that sees all the details. The Iranians want the independence and security of Iraq, and Syria wants Iraq's unity and Arabness. This Syrian-Iranian-Iraqi cooperation helps Iraq to come out of its crisis and end the occupation of its land. The Syrian and Iranian positions complement each other, and there is a strategic vision. We complement each other with our long-term goals for a unified, independent, Arab Iraq that has no occupation forces of any kind on its soil.'

I'll conclude with Goodarzi's own conclusion:

In conclusion, it is worth mentioning once more that to varying degrees the experiences and geography of the two states shaped the Syrian-Iranian alliance. However, one should not underestimate the role and impact of their political elite's ideologies and world views. Their leaders share some perceptions and their secular and fundamentalist ideologies overlap in certain respects. ... Hafez Assad, Ruhollah Komeini and their successors have viewed the region as a strategic whole and regarded their alliance as a vital tool with which to further Arab-Islamic interests and increase regional autonomy by diminishing foreign penetration of the Middle East. As a result, to advance their common agenda over the years, both countries have put long-term interests before short-term gains. (P. 294. Emphasis mine.)