Tuesday, May 27, 2014


By Ghassan Kadi.  26 May 2014
The complexity of the Iranian-Syrian relationship is not any simpler than that of the Russian-Syrian relationship, and even though the labour for the former was shorter and the birth was easier, the relationship between the Levant and Iran, formerly known as Persia, goes back a long way, much longer than any interaction between the Levant and Russia.

After all, it ...was the Persians who first invaded Babylon and put an end to three millennia of Mesopotamian civilization. And even though Iran adopted Islam much later, but this came after losing the battle of Al-Kadisiyyeh to the Muslim Arabs.    

Whilst the two cultures mingled to a great extent after coming of Islam, rivalry between Arabs and Persian (Al-Furs) remained alive and well. For example, many Persian scholars excelled in the Arabic language and left well renowned legacies in Arabic literature, medicine, mathematics and other fields of excellence, but their Persian origin was always celebrated by their peers.

Arabs and Persians don’t even agree what name to use for the body of water that separates Persia from Arabia. Arabs call it the Arab Gulf, and Persian call the Persian Gulf.

What complicated the tense relationship between Arabs and Persians even further was perhaps the fact that Persia adopted Shiite Islam as against Sunni Islam to which the majority of Muslim Arabs belong.

But this is not all. When Israel was established in 1948, the Shah of Iran was quick to recognize the Hebrew state. He built strong relationships with Israel, and his troops conducted many joint military exercises with the Israelis, needless to say that he supplied Israel with oil, especially at war time to help Israel with its war efforts.

Moreover, in 1971 the Shah decided to grab 3 islands in the Gulf and called them his own, and no Arab Gulf state dared to challenge him, and later on in 1975, he coerced Iraq into sharing with him Shat Al-Arab, Iraq’s only and very narrow access to the sea.

The Shah was America’s “Gulf Police”, a bully and a thug much loved by America and Israel, and much hated by Arabs. His quick fall from grace eventually proved that he was much hated by the majority of Iranians as well. 

When he was swept away by the Islamic Revolution and left Iran on the 16th of January 1979 to never return, it was a very tumultuous time in the Levant, and especially for the then Syrian President Hafez Assad. Just a few months earlier, and specifically on the 17th of September 1978, Syria had just lost its most power ally when Egypt signed the Camp David Accords with Israel leaving Syria all alone. In a desperate attempt to find new allies, Assad tried to bury the hatchet and reconcile with Iraq, his Baathist cousins, but Saddam Hussein was a very suspicious man with an obsession for power that was much stronger than any Pan-Arab obligations. Some steps were made in the right direction, but the honeymoon didn’t last long and both of Syria and Iraq blamed each other for the collapse of the efforts to bring the parties together, but it was in reality in Syria’s vested interest for the reconciliation to come to fruition; a fact that clearly indicates who the culprit was.

President Assad knew well that one of Israel’s major objectives in Camp David was to divide the Arabs and to corner Syria so that it can bully it into submission. 

Furthermore, Syria was bogged down in Lebanon, with 30,000 troops stationed there unable to bring peace into the country, and last but not least, the Muslim Brotherhood was waging a terror campaign within Syria targeting military personnel and civilians known for their loyalty to the government; not to mention the wave of bombs and mass executions in which hundreds, including top army personnel and scholars, were gunned down in cold blood.

President Assad knew that he had to contend with the enemy from within on his own, but on the regional front, was waited for a miracle to happen, a miracle that would upset the balance of power to his favour.

Soon after assuming power, Ayatollah Khomeini was quick to renounce the United States (The Great Satan) and Israel, and in a tokenistic move, after severing diplomatic ties with Israel, he offered the Israeli Embassy building to the PLO for it to house its Embassy in it.

Those who knew President Hafez Assad well, knew that he did not have a single sectarian bone in his body, but the fact that he was born in an Alawite (Shiite sub-sect) family was to haunt his image and perception by some others for the rest of his life. In reality, it was the sectarians who accused him of having sectarian agendas, because often people with an affliction believe that all other humans are the same as they are.  With his national interests in mind, when President Assad saw the 180 degree turn in Iran, he saw in it a huge opportunity; the miracle he had been waiting to happen.

From a huge and mighty regional supporter of Israel and the West, almost overnight, Iran has turned in the opposite direction. How much better could this get? He thought. He was quick to endorse Iran and extended his support to the new government. But just because the new government in Iran was Shiite Islamic, conservative Arab Sunni leaders did not find it easy for them to follow the footsteps of Assad. 

He tried to explain to his Arab peers that his approval of Iran’s new government is one that is strategic, not religious. But to his dismay, Arab leaders, especially those of the Gulf region could not believe that an Alawite making any alliance with a Shiite state does not have hidden agendas.

What made his position less convincing to the Gulf leaders was his crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982. In reality again, the crackdown, brutal as it was, was necessary to establish peace and order, and the culprits had to be hunted down regardless of their religious affiliations. If anything, the current war on Syria has proved that President Hafez Assad was a bit too lenient in allowing moderate Islamists to continue to operate. They simply gathered forces, regrouped, sought foreign support and waited to be strong enough to pounce back, and this time with great vengeance.

Iran too had a scandalous affair that sullied its name and helped strengthen the argument against it. When Saddam declared war on Iran, its military arsenal was all American, but with the American embargo, Iran was unable to get more supplies let alone spare parts. Israel stealthily approached Iran and offered to make those supplies. America’s intention behind the embargo was to enfeeble Iran and facilitate Saddam’s victory. At that time, Saddam was America’s regional favourite. Israel’s intention on the other hand was to prolong the war to enfeeble both enemies, and also in an attempt to woo Iran back into the pro-Israel camp. 

When the Iran-Contra scandal, as it became later on known, was all out in the open, the line of red faces extended all the way from Tehran to Washington. 

Iran was stuck in between a rock and a hard place, and obviously it chose pragmatism as against principles; a decision that eventually secured saving its neck.

However, the war with Iraq did not dampen the efforts to bolster the Syrian-Iranian relationships. Hezbollah was perhaps a big catalyst, and the new alliance of Iran, Syria and Hezbollah proved to be formidable enough to change the course of the region’s history.

The Iranian-Syrian alliance was the corner stone of the rise of Hezbollah to power and the Israeli defeat of 2000 when its troops withdrew unconditionally from Lebanon. Israel suffered another defeat in 2006 at the hands of Hezbollah, and currently lives in fear of being showered by its missiles.

Ever since the defeat of 1967, Assad’s nightmare was Israel’s military superiority. To defeat it or at least to be able to deter it was his dream. Finally, that alliance provided that deterrent he was seeking.

The current war on Syria was orchestrated by its enemies in order to punish it because it refused to surrender. In the world of today, there are only two types of states, those who will bow to the American will and those who refuse to. In the Levant in specific, Israel comes into the scene and the order of kowtowing becomes a bit more complex. A state that does not kowtow to both America and Israel will be punished by either one or both. 

What unites Iran and Syria is that they both refuse to kowtow.

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