There is an assumption that Syria would distance itself from Iran in favor of a peace treaty with Israel and normalized relations with the United States. Syria’s strategic relationship with Iran began in 1979 and both countries sought friendship as a deterrent from a mutual Iraqi threat. Iraq rivaled Syria as the true inheritor of Ba’thism and Arabism. Ethnic, religious and territorial disputes between Iran and Iraq prompted the former to seek an alliance with Syria.
In 1980 Iraqi President Saddam Hussein attacked Iran and Syrian President Hafez Assad provided artillery, antiaircraft weapons, and the means for Iranian fighter jets to refuel inside Syria. Assad sealed Syria’s border with Iraq in 1982, and prohibited Iraqi oil to enter Syrian territory. In return, Iran offered economic incentives on oil imports to Syria and granted tax breaks to Syrian trading companies.
The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon brought Syria and Iran even closer together. Assad viewed Lebanon as an integral part of Syria and felt justified to intervene for the greater good of Arabism. Iran viewed Lebanon as a weak and divided Arab state which under Syrian control, could fall under a sphere of Iranian influence. Iran sought to extend its influence in Lebanon by creating the Lebanese militia Hezbollah “party of God.” Hezbollah received orders from Tehran and attempted to turn Lebanon from a heterogeneous democracy into a fundamentalist Shia state. Assad worked with Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps to bring stability in Lebanon and bring Lebanon under Syria’s authority.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, Syrian and Iranian officials collaborated to arm and train Palestinian organizations opposed to reaching a peace accord between the PLO and Israel. Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) were supported by Syrian and Iranian intelligence agents in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley to undermine the PLO and derail the peace process.
Assad’s death in June 2000 did not alter the course of Syria’s strategic relationship with Iran. Some analysts believed that Assad’s Western educated, young, and technological savvy son Bashar would liberalize Syria’s economy, recognize Lebanon’s sovereignty and mend relations with the Arab League. Instead, Bashar has silenced pro-democracy and pro-reform Syrians, exerted great efforts at destabilizing Lebanon, encouraged proxies to kill Israelis and Americans in Iraq, and has reaffirmed Syria strategic relationship with Iran.
In November 2005, Syria and Iran signed a joint defense pact, known as the strategic signals intelligence (SIGNIT). Syrian and Iranian intelligence set up two locations, one in the Golan Heights, and the other in the al-Jazirah district in northern Syria. Two additional bases will be built in Bab al-Hawa, near Turkey and Abu Kamal, in northeast Syria. The bases are used for the purpose of collecting data and information to monitor Israel.
In May 2006 Ali Nourizadeh, a correspondent for the pan-Arabic daily Asharq Al-Awsat, asserted that a military cooperation pact was signed between Syrian Defense Minister Hassan Turkmani and his Iranian counterpart, Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najar. This agreement called for major Syrian purchases of Chinese, Russian, and Ukrainian military equipment. Syria promised to open its border to allow Iranian supplies to reach Hezbollah fighters. In December 2006 Nourizadeh also confirmed that Syria allowed the Iranian Revolutionary Guardsmen to train Syrian and Hezbollah fighters in Damascus.
During Bashar’s visit to Iran in February 2007, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reaffirmed the strong relationship between the two countries. Bashar met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad the following month to discuss military cooperation. In July 2007, Syria and Iran signed a weapons deal in which Iran pledged to donate $1 billion in sophisticated military equipment including Russian T-72 tanks, Mig-31 jets, Sukhoi-24 bombers, and Mi-8 helicopters. This military defense pact arose from a mutual fear that a confrontation between Israel and Hezbollah could erupt again, and extend beyond the borders of Lebanon into Syria.
Saddam’s deposal and the US occupation of Iraq removed the threat that Iraq once posed against Syria. These realities could influence Bashar to distance Syria from Iran in exchange for improved relations with the Arab League, closer relations with the US, and a peace treaty with Israel. Bashar must choose if Syria will remain part of the isolationist and rejectionist camp, or if it wishes to restore normal relations with the West. To do so, however, requires distancing Damascus’s close relationship with Tehran and renouncing support for Hamas and Hezbollah.
According to French sources from Asharq Al-Awsat, Syria would be “willing” to distance itself from Iran in favor of an Israeli-Syrian peace coupled with full normalization and diplomatic relations with the United States. However, it is impossible to know Bashar’s true intentions. He has previously stated in English to Western audiences that Syria wants peace with Israel and stronger Syrian-US cooperation while saying in Arabic to an Arab audience that Syria will not distance itself from Iran nor will it cease supporting Hezbollah and Hamas against their war with Israel.
Michael Sharnoff is a research associate at the Jewish Policy Center