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Flags of Syria and the United States
The US wants Syria to distance itself from its close ally IranImage: AP

Syrian influence

August 20, 2010

The United States, backed by a number of its Arab allies, is dangling the carrot of greater Middle East influence in front of Syria in an attempt to convince Damascus to turn its back on a 30-year alliance with Iran.


With US forces withdrawing from Iraq, the realisation that the United States will drastically reduce its influence in the country after the 2011 final pull-out date begins to dawn on Iraq's neighbors. Washington has already considered the potential consequences of a power vacuum and has begun to encourage deeper involvement by regional powers considered to be of use in maintaining US interests in the Middle East.

While the courting of Syria for this reason may at first seem surprising, the wider strategic implications of a more active role for Damascus in Iraq's post-US future suggests Washington is considering a much bigger picture.

Syria's current interest in Iraq is based on a policy of diluting the power of Shia majority in the country and promoting an inclusive, secular government which includes equal representation for the Sunni minority.

Damascus has had a hand in supporting Iyad Allawi, the secular Shia leader whose bloc emerged from the contentious elections in March with a slim lead over the coalition of Nouri al-Maliki, the incumbent prime minister.

The Syrians, with the help of Saudi Arabia, aided Allawi's election campaign and brought Allawi and Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr together to form a new cabinet in July. As the climate of uncertainty in Iraq over the formation of the government continues, both Damascus and Riyadh continue to apply covert pressure in a bid to secure the premiership for Allawi and install a secular government in Iraq.

Increased Iraq influence could divide Syria and Iran

One of the consequences of the US and its Arab allies providing Damascus with more influence in Iraq and support in its desire for a secular government is that it puts Syria at odds with its long-time ally Iran.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, meets with former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, left, in Damascus
Against Iran's wishes, Assad's Syria is backing Allawi in IraqImage: AP

The Iranians, who sheltered Nuri al-Maliki during his years in exile from Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime, are unsurprisingly strong supporters of the incumbent prime minister and want the five-year Shiite-majority rule in Iraq to continue. Before the US-led invasion of Iraq finally led to the Shia taking power in 2005, Iraq had been under Sunni rule for more than 80 years.

While Syria champions Iyad Allawi, Iran is pressuring al-Maliki and other Shiite leaders to reach consensus as soon as possible on nominating a new prime minister, while marginalizing Sunni influence in any new government.

Should Iraq continue to be governed by a majority Shiite government, Iran's regional influence would grow, especially when the United States finally leaves Iraq in 2011.

The United States is obviously wary of leaving Iraq wide open to Tehran's march. By providing Syria with more influence, the US - and other concerned Arab states such as Saudi Arabia - would hope to neutralize Iran's ability to use its allies to influence the politics of the region and intervene in Middle Eastern conflicts.

"The ultimate objective is to detach Syria and Iran, and emphasizing their diverging interests and objectives in Iraq could become a powerful issue with which to do so," Dr. Kristian Ulrichsen, an Iraq expert at the London School of Economics and International Politics, told Deutsche Welle.

"Syria arguably wishes to achieve in Iraq what it already has been able to do in Lebanon, namely ensure that its interests are taken into account when governments and policies are formed, and it is able to wield significant domestic influence."

"Countering Iranian influence is certainly one reason for this US re-engagement as it forms part of a broader effort to unstitch the Syrian-Iran alignment," he added. "There is also a growing recognition of shared Syrian-US objectives within Iraq. This is founded on a belief that Damascus can leverage its influence over Ba'athist and Sunni insurgent groups inside and outside Iraq to assist and promote national reconciliation initiatives and suppress any resurgence in violence."

Assad playing a dangerous game of balancing alliances

The slow rehabilitation of Syria and acceptance by the US, the Europeans and western-friendly Arab states is cause for concern in Tehran. The 30-year Syrian-Iranian alliance may not be on the verge of collapse but the new prominence of Damascus on the world stage and the backers it now appears to have is definitely sowing the seeds of suspicion over President Assad's intentions.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, right, laughs during a press conference with his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, in Damascus
Iran and Syria have had a close alliance for over 30 yearsImage: AP

Syria's return to regional prominence and the benefits that come from cooperating with powers which, until very recently, treated it like a pariah could give Damascus a certain amount of protection while isolating Iran further. With international pressure increasing on Tehran, Assad is wisely beginning to balance his relationship between Iran and those joining forces against it - but it's a risky game.

"Assad holds a strong hand," Hazir Teimourian, a Middle East commentator and analyst at the Limehouse Group think-tank, told Deutsche Welle. "He can switch on and off the flow of Arab suicide bombers to Iraq. That enables him to influence decision makers there, and he can regulate the flow of Iranian arms to the Hezbollah which, in turn, increases his influence over the anti-Syrian politicians in Beirut. At the same time, Iranian money keeps flowing into Damascus and he would risk losing that if he showed signs of doing America's bidding."

Syria's return to Lebanon engineered with Hezbollah in mind

Syria still needs Iran as it continues to support Hezbollah in Lebanon but this is another area in which the US and its Arab partners are exerting more subtle pressure on Damascus. Both Syria and Iran have used the Shia militant group as a proxy army against Israel with Syria diverting Iranian weapons through Damascus to Hezbollah in Beirut.

A poster shows Syrian President Bashar Assad, and Lebanese Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah
Syria and Hezbollah are intrinsically linked in LebanonImage: AP

Again, Iran is the main power in this relationship and Tehran continues to hold the greater of the influence over Hezbollah.

However, the US and Saudi Arabia see great benefits from restoring Syria's influence over Lebanon, which it left in 2005 after 30 years of mutual occupation. Providing Damascus with a prominent role in Lebanon, five years after it withdrew over accusations of its involvement in the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, could lead to increased Syrian authority over Hezbollah's decision-making processes and the dilution of Iran's influence.

Iran is said to have consolidated its hold over Hezbollah since Syria's withdrawal and with the militant group threatening war should UN investigators blame it for the Hariri assassination, concerns are rising that Tehran is preparing to use its proxy army to destabilize the region once more and target Israel through Lebanon.

Backing Damascus not a risk-free enterprise

Saudi Arabia, a close ally of the Hariri family, has made peace with Syria and has joined with Damascus to try and avoid a new confrontation. In return for bringing Syria back into Lebanon and putting the brakes on the UN indictments of Hezbollah militants - with US assistance - the Saudis are looking to Assad to rein in Hezbollah and weaken Iran's hold on the group, something Washington also has a great interest in achieving.

Armed Lebanese Hezbollah militant looks towards northern Israel on the Lebanese-Israeli border
Hezbollah could aid Syria in its quest of the Golan HeightsImage: AP

While this may prevent an escalation of tensions in the short term, experts don't believe Syria can be persuaded to dismantle Hezbollah - whatever the incentives. The danger could be that if Tehran is pushed aside, Damascus could take full control of the group's activities which could be harnessed in Syria's on-going pursuit of the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967.

"While Syria doubtlessly provides valuable support for Hezbollah, and perhaps to a lesser degree Hamas, the idea that one could, so to speak, buy off the Syrians in order to get rid of those problems is downright silly," Heiko Wimmen, a Lebanon expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Deutsche Welle.

"The only way to get rid of those problems short of militarily crushing these organizations - which is most likely not a viable option, if it is an option at all - would be by addressing the problems that produced them which, of course, would include an Arab-Israeli peace arrangement shaped in a way that enough people in the region would support it, so that those who won't - and there will always be some who won't - can be isolated and prevented from sabotaging it."

Author: Nick Amies
Editor: Rob Mudge

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