|The Syrian-Iranian Nexus|
|By Dr. Dany Shoham|
The Arab world new during the recent decades some noticeable alliances, marked by substantial military-strategic outlooks. Such was the Egyptian-Syrian nexus that formed in the early 70s and led to the bloody 1973 Yom-Kippur War against Israel, a war that posed a grave menace towards Israel. Among other things, the understandings reached by Sadat and Assad, the then two Arab leaders, included the transfer of chemical weapons from Egypt to Syrian possession, prior to their attack against Israel.
Such was the Egyptian-Iraqi nexus that has been established in the 80s, aiming to equip Iraq, primarily, with surface-to-surface missiles tipped with chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, but terminated consequent to the insensible Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. That profound Egyptian-Iraqi interface fueled, nonetheless, significant portions of the military technological capacities exhibited by Iraq in her war against Iran, including the component of repeatedly employed chemical weapons, during the 80s.
It so happened that the latter war triggered a new alliance in the Middle-East, involving, in that case, an Arab country – Syria – and an Islamic non-Arab country, namely Iran. Iran has continuingly been afflicted by Iraqi chemical weapons and at the time did not have the ability to retaliate in kind. Iran was aware, though, of the chemical weapons arsenal held by Syria (by that time an already advanced, self-made Syrian chemical inventory) and of the deep rivalry between Saddam and Assad, and hence asked Assad to supply a portion of that inventory, so as to backfire the Iraqis. Assad refused, but the seeds of the new alliance were sawed, nevertheless.
Unfortunately, that preliminary nexus gradually yet persistently turned to be a solid, profound and far-reaching strategic axis, already lasting for 25 years. During those 25 years, no interface between two Islamic countries equaled or neared the depth and intense of the Syrian-Iranian interface. Throughout that period of time Iran became a regional (to the least) power in the areas of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Like Syria, it fully masters the technologies related to chemical weapons and has an operational arsenal, including chemical warheads for long range ballistic missiles. But appreciably ahead of Syria, Iran is in the same position regarding biological weapons, and by far ahead of Syria in the field of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles related technologies. Hence it is, both potentially and practically, a great supporter of Syria in those areas. Still, Iran, innately, would never land hand to some other country purposelessly. And the benefits for Iran, in that respect are both direct, namely in arming Syria with such weapons, and indirect, that is gaining rewards and willingness from Syria in other aspects. Even if any further attempt to renew military-oriented nuclear infrastructures in Syria will be halted again, Iran ultimately might, if not prone to, achieve nuclear weapons of her own, and consequently furnish Syria with assured nuclear umbrella. Conceivably, this could create an extremely complicated situation.
Such issues have certainly been discussed between the two presidents. The timings and concrete contents – although but poorly and vaguely undisclosed publicly - of the encounters between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bashar Assad constitute a remarkable reflection of the essence, profoundness and goals of the Syrian-Iranian connection. This is in particular the case with respect to the visits of the Iranian leader in Damascus. Ahmadinejad’s visit to Syria in July 2007, for instance, was not timed randomly. Coincidental with concern over peace feelers between Syria and Israel, while Iran feared an Israeli or American attack, Ahmadinejad met with Assad in Damascus. Ahmadinejad then stated that Iran will provide Syria with technical assistance in the development of chemical weapons as well as in nuclear research, and will help build a factory for the manufacture of medium-range missiles in Syria. This was the first time that the CW interface between the two countries formally surfaced, although cooperation has been there for over a decade, especially on advanced ballistic missiles.
Lately, as of May this year, Ahmadinejad and Assad reconfirmed the close alliance between their two countries while the Iranian president was visiting Damascus. Beyond, yet, Ahmadinejad's visit actually came on the eve of the return of two senior US officials, Jeffrey Feltman and Daniel Shapiro, to Damascus. Their visit was part of ongoing US efforts at engagement with Syria. The tone struck by Ahmadinejad and Assad, did not suggest a mood for compromise, nonetheless.
In the joint press conference held by the two presidents after their meeting, Assad accurately described the Iranian-Syrian alliance as founded on both "principles and interests." Aiming to counterbalance , if not curtail, any attempt to disintegrate the soundness of their own mutual understandings, Ahmadinejad's and Assad's statements following their meeting stressed the meaningfulness and solidity of their treaty. Ahmadinejad noted that "Harmony and steadfastness are the secret of victory." Not lagging behind, the Syrian president stated that Ahmadinejad's visit confirmed once more the "strategic relationship" between the two countries. He further mentioned the support lent by Syria and Iran for Palestinian "resistance." The two leaders pointed at the fruits of their strong bond. Yet those fruits, albeit highly significant, are for now not fully ripened, in Iran’s eyes; full ripeness, in that concern, means, apparently, the completed ability to destroy Israel.
Many dissimilarities mark Syria and Iran. But the basis underlying that alliance is much more predominant than the differences between the two states. At any rate, Bashar Assad, the son of Hafez Assad, who paved the way for the establishment of that outstanding alliance, strictly follows the line of his father. Certainly less wise and less independent than his father, he is readily guided by Tehran according to Tehran’s own courses and perceptions, at times not even realizing them in effect.
Geographically, the regional, paramountly important conjunction of Syrian and Iranian principles and interests is Lebanon. This country – with its supreme location next to Israel - has long been the ideal arena and constructive melting pot of Iranian and Syrian principles and interests. As far back as 1982, it was Syrian facilitation of the entry of 1,500 Iranian Revolutionary Guards into the Lebanese Bekaa which enable the subsequent foundation of Hizbullah. And since, the rewards attained by both Syria and Iran in that context are obvious.
Thus, a cardinal Iranian-Syrian accord, negotiations of which began in 2004, was signed by both parties on November 14, 2005, in preparation for possible sanctions imposed on either state. It is a strategic accord intended to protect either country from international pressure. For instance, Iran has pledged to grant safe haven to any Syrian intelligence officer indicted by the UN or Lebanon regarding the Hariri assassination. Likewise, Syria is obligated to continue supplying the Iran-sponsored terrorist group Hizbullah with weapons, ammunition, and communications .
However, independently of the immense importance of Lebanon, the Syrian-Iranian nexus has been flourishing foremost, strategically, within the dimensions of ballistic missiles and WMD. It seems as if a meaningful climax took place, connectedly, in 2005, when Syria has agreed to store Iranian nuclear materials should Tehran come under UN sanctions. According to that approach, Syria has committed to allow Iran to safely store weapons, sensitive equipment or even hazardous materials on Syrian soil should Iran need such help in a time of crisis.
Parallel expression of the Syrian-Iranian cooperation in the nuclear sphere surfaced two years later. It is most likely, that Iran was deeply involved, financially and/or technologically, in the Syrian-North-Korean nuclear project conducted in Syria for the creation of atomic weapon. Its destruction in 2007 was a strike to the three countries altogether, but in a sense strengthened the Syrian-Iranian bonds. The afflicted facility has been reconstructed so as to run advanced chemical and biological weapons installations, in all likelihood with Iranian assistance.
Technology transfer for various non-conventional warheads has been a prime component of Iranian contributions to Syria’s missile development programs Also, Iran intended to furnish Syria with industrial equipment for the production of CW agent precursors,and in all likelihood implemented that intention. An accident that happened in 2007 in a Syrian chemically-armed ballistic missile installation drew attention to one of five suspected Syrian CW facilities supported technologically by Iran.
How the Iranian–Syrian interface might be contributive to the preparations made by Iran for effective retaliatory modes in case Iran is attacked, and to the in effect quality and extent of the second strike. What posture will be taken by Syria, Iran’s essential ally, in case Iran is attacked and reacts? Iran would certainly pursue active Syrian military involvement concomitantly with an Iranian second strike. This might maximize the impact of the second strike and lessen the impact of the third strike on Iran. Under such circumstances, Iran will probably try to stimulate Syria to join military retaliation. Such understandings may have already been achieved by the two countries.
Geopolitically, Syria is the last Arab state bordering Israel that is both a distinct enemy, and, at the same time, a candidate for peace agreement, ostensibly. Iran loves the first title of Syria and hates the second one. Syria's political and diplomatic moves represent, basically, intrinsic consistency of the regime's strategic choice to align itself with the regional alliance led by Iran. The Syrian steps hence ought to be watched by all those currently promoting the feasibility of a "grand bargain" between Israel and the Arab world. They are evidence of the reality of a Middle East Cold War, in which the fault lines are growing ever clearer. Iran, through Syria, endeavors to elegantly bolster that cold war, and ultimately bring about a shift into a true, perhaps crucial war. Allover, it presently seems as if the solidity of the Syrian-Iranian nexus is too hard to be disrupted. I might hence lead to another war in the Middle East, if not beyond.