Syria's relationship with Iran, though largely asymmetrical, tends to be viewed as a robust alliance that many political observers believe is only getting stronger. Underneath the showmanship, Iran's ties to Syria are largely based on perception rather than reality. Both countries have been systematically engaged in mutual deception to create a myth of a solid alliance that rests on economic, political and military collaboration when in fact much of it exists on paper only. Syria is hardly benefiting from its relations with Iran while it is in dire need for economic reforms and massive capital investments that only the West can provide. The new American administration will be in a strong position to lure Damascus out of Iran's orbit and dramatically improve the political climate in the Middle East which could lead to regional stability and even peace.
For all intents and purposes, Iran and Syria have very little in common: whereas Syria is a secular state, Iran's regime is theocratic, and there is also Persian culture versus Arab culture with two entirely different national identities. Although Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite -- an offshoot of Shi'ism -- the Sunnis make up the majority in Syria while the Shiites are predominant in Iran. The two nations also have no shared border to foster great trade or security relations. Their economies differ in that Iran is overwhelmingly oil-based while Syria is by and large an agrarian society. Furthermore, Iran needs advanced technology that Syria is unable to provide and Syria needs capital investment that Iran cannot offer. And on a crucial policy matter, Syria is supportive of the Arab Peace Initiative with Israel, whereas Tehran continues to oppose any peace talks with Israel, including the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations it is actively trying to undermine. Moreover, Syria views itself as the intellectual center of the Arab nation in quest of rejoining the Sunni Arab fold and reinstates its position as an independent leading Arab state. Iran seeks regional hegemony and nuclear weapons while trying to subordinate the Sunni Arab states. The gulf between these two nations is deeply reflected in their day-to-day relationship, but their political collaboration and the tentative nature of their strategic objectives creates a smoke screen that covers the precariousness of their alliance.
It is clear that the main catalyst behind Syria and Iran's close political collaboration is the Bush administration's campaign to isolate both nations. The imposition of American and some Western sanctions against Syria and the accumulative international sanctions against Iran have provided further impetus for their political alliance. In addition, their mutual disdain for Israel's policies has brought them further together. Adding to this mix, both countries feel threatened by United States' professed intention of regime change. As a result, Tehran and Damascus sought each other for political support and agreed, at least from a tactical perspective, to join hands by actively opposing American and Israeli interests in the region. Iran skillfully used Syria to buttress its position in Lebanon by supporting Hezbollah and aiding Hamas and the Islamic Jihad in the Palestinian territories, while Damascus benefited from the political and limited financial support that Iran provided.
That being said, Damascus and Tehran have yet to translate political and strategic convenience into a meaningful economic and security cooperation. While Iran is boasting to have invested and concluded deals worth billions of dollars in Syria and dozens of agreements have been signed covering tourism, banking, health, the environment, agriculture, and education, most of these agreements are effectively collecting dust. The trade between the two countries is minuscule reaching a mere $200 million in 2007, nearly $180 million of which was Iranian exports to Syria. In fact, the U.S.-Syrian trade for the same period, even under the constraints of American sanctions, was more than double that amount while Syrian-Turkish trade exceeded $1.6 billion for the same year. A CIA report from March of 2008 indicates that while "The Syrian economy grew by 3.3% in 2007 nevertheless, the economy remains highly controlled by the government. Long-run economic constraints include declining oil production, high unemployment and inflation, rising budget deficits, and increasing pressure on water supplies caused by heavy use in agriculture, rapid population growth, industrial expansion and water pollution." Moreover, billions are needed to improve infrastructure, education, health care, social services and housing.
Regardless of an apparent political collaboration, the lack of compelling economic relations, absence of shared ideological fervor and the divergent long-term strategic interests have rendered the alliance between Syria and Iran basically empty of real substance. Based on what I know first-hand and supported by the current negotiations, it is clear that Syria has made peace with Israel a strategic choice. Not only because the Syrians want to recover the Golan but because Damascus seeks to normalize relations with the United States. Damascus is fully aware that only normal relations with the U.S. will bring Western and especially American capital investments, trade, new technology and over time even the prospect of procuring modern military equipment. Damascus, however, no longer hopes that the Bush administration will normalize relations in its waning days. This, to a large extent, explains why Syria refuses to conduct direct talks with Israel and prefers to continue to negotiate through Turkey as an intermediary. Direct talks with Israel are Syria's trump-card and it does not want to use it without getting something in return. As one Syrian official told me recently, only through direct involvement will the United States have stakes in the success of the negotiations and only then will the peace be solidified and Syria can expect to benefit financially as well as politically.
As the Russians have started to flex their muscles again, Damascus, perhaps out of necessity or as a warning to the U.S., is renewing its flirtation with Moscow. The new American administration should waste no time signaling to Syria that it is willing to start a new chapter in their relationship. As the international pressure continues to mount against Iran due to its nuclear program, President Assad realizes that his alliance of convenience with Tehran is becoming increasingly less convenient and less useful. He also knows the price he must pay for the Golan and for normal relations with the U.S. which in one form or another must result with the following: a substantial reduction in cooperation with Tehran, efforts to weaken and eventually disarm Hezbollah, a cessation of support for Palestinian militants Hamas and Islamic Jihad, full support of American efforts in Iraq, and finally cooperation in the fight against terrorism.
Syria is eager to change course and the new American administration must make this possible. The fact that Assad has made the peace talks with Israel public attests to his willingness to shift alliances. A realistic plan of engagement coupled with incentives by the next U.S. president will deal a major blow to Iran's regional ambitions which explains why Tehran was and still is so alarmed about the Israeli-Syrian peace talks.