Syria Having Its Way with Iran
The Islamic Republic of Iran and Syria have maintained close relations during the last 30 years. Some see their relationship as an alliance. Throughout the years, each side has carried a different weight in this relationship.
At the initial stages of their relations in the 1980s, Syria's position in the region was more senior. This was due to several reasons: first and foremost, Iran was stuck in a bloody war against Iraq. This sapped Iran of its resources, leaving them reliant on Syria - Iran's only backer in the Middle East. Damascus also hosted an Iraqi pipeline which it later shut down as part of a deal with Tehran. And last but not least, Syria was the gateway to Lebanon, where Iran desperately wanted to spread its influence amongst the country's Shiites.
Once the war against Iraq was finished in the late 80s, the balance in their bilateral relationship slowly started to tip in Iran's favor. Hezbollah's increasing influence was an important factor. In comparison to the Amal movement, which had a closer relationship with Damascus, Hezbollah managed to attract larger support amongst Shiites in Lebanon and Lebanese Shiites living in Diaspora - in places such as West Africa and Latin America.
Hezbollah's position was further boosted by Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Meanwhile, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and later Iraq elevated Iran's position still further, as they removed Iran's arch enemies in both countries. Once each respective invasion was over, Tehran was more successful than Damascus at increasing its influence in Iraq and Afghanistan -- both of which remain strategically important to the U.S.
Meanwhile, Syria's weight was reduced after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and the ensuing UN investigation. Dwindling oil resources also left Syria in a weaker regional position. In 2000, Damascus exported 500,000 barrels of oil a day. This has now fallen to 150,000 barrels a day.
However, it seems that after the recent demonstrations in Iran, Syria may be about to adjust the balance in its favor. The loss of legitimacy suffered by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei's government in the region is one factor. The other is its apparent refusal to discuss the nuclear program with the U.S. This will not only isolate Iran internationally, it will also lead to further sanctions, which will damage its economy.
Syria, on the other hand, is elevating its position regionally. Damascus has worked diligently to improve its image of late, indicated by more recent efforts to improve relations with Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Syria also seems to be gaining more favor in Washington, as shown by recent visits to the country from senior State Department officials.
Damascus also appears to be complimenting its regional impact by increasing its influence over levels of violence. This is especially true when it comes to Iraq. Judging by recent reports from Iraq, Damascus has been providing support to militants who staged attacks in Baghdad and other areas. Although this support for militants has damaged Syria-Iraq relations, it likewise has increased Syria's bargaining power in the region. This now means that when it comes to formulating regional strategies for creating stability in Iraq, more importance has to be attached to Syria's demands and position.
The weakening of Iran's position internally and externally provided Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad with an important opportunity which he seems to be putting to good use. This does not mean that Syria is about to break relations with Tehran. This is unlikely to happen, even if the Golan Heights are returned to Syrian hands by Israel. What it does mean however, is that Damascus could demand a higher price from Tehran for its friendship. In the 1980s this came in the form of free oil. Nowadays, this could manifest itself in the form of more Iranian investment inside Syria, or a bigger say over Hezbollah and Hamas' decision making process.
Al-Assad recently delayed his visit to Iran to congratulate Ahmadinejad by three days. This angered some Iranian analysts such as Dr. Hamid Ahmadi, who is an associate professor of Political Science at the University of Tehran. According to his recent article in the Iran Diplomacy publication, Bashar Al-Assad stood Ahmadinejad up because he wanted to use that opportunity to present himself as a intermediary on behalf of French President Nicolas Sarkozy to free a French lecturer who has was arrested in Iran.
If true, then Syria may now be more friend than ally to the Islamic Republic.