SYRIA VERSUS IRAN
Alon Ben-Meir Ė August 21, 2006
Dr. ALON BEN-MEIR Ė His exceptional knowledge and insight gained by more than 25 years of direct involvement with foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, have allowed Dr. Alon Ben-Meir to offer a unique and invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, ethnic conflict, and international negotiations.
A noted journalist and author, Dr. Ben-Meir is the Middle East Director of the World Policy Institute at the New School for Social Research, and a professor of International Relations and Middle-Eastern studies at the Center for Global Studies at NYU and at the New School. Born in Baghdad and currently residing in New York City, he holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University.
In addition to his essays on contemporary global conflict oriented issues, Dr. Ben-Meir writes a weekly syndicated column about current international policies and events, which is published by United Press International.
Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Dr. Ben-Meir began his career as a journalist. His frequent travels to the Mid-East and conversations with highly placed sources in Jordan, Syria, Egypt, Turkey, Israel, and Palestine provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness of and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news.
Dr. Ben-Meir is the author of numerous books, including: The Middle East: Imperative and Choices, Israel: The Challenge of the Fourth Decade, In Defiance of Time, Framework for Arab-Israeli Peace, The Last Option, and A War We Must Win. He expects to publish his latest book Defeating Terrorism in the summer of 2006.
Dr. Ben-Meir's views on contemporary international affairs are often sought out by major television and radio networks, and he is a frequent speaker before groups and organizations at venues as varied as world affairs councils and town hall meetings. He is a popular lecturer on international relations at a variety of universities besides the New York University and the New School.
The Bush administrationís strategy of treating Syria and Iran as if they are evil twins is fundamentally flawed. Although Damascus and Tehran have many common interests in addition to their grievances against the United States, they differ dramatically in their assessment of their regional roles and strategic objectives. To foster a more peaceful Middle East, Washington must take these into account and pursue a different strategy, one that seeks to further separate Syriaís interests from those of Iran.
Syriaís and Iranís long-term alliance is based more on circumstance than common strategic interests. Although both fear the U.S. policy of regime change, Washingtonís hostility provides a greater incentive for them to cooperate. While Syria has embraced Iran to avoid isolation, Iran has used Syria as an ďassistantĒ in building Hezbollah into a tool to promote the Islamic revolution. Their common interest in Lebanon has also led Iran to embrace Syriaís Alawites ruling elite, who are viewed disfavorably by the Sunnis. In addition, both nations, which previously considered Saddam Hussein as a threat, are now concerned that the turmoil in Iraq could spill across their borders. Finally, whereas Israel is seen as a common enemy, both Tehran and Damascus boast few allies inside and outside the region, making each otherís support critical.
Even a cursory look at what both nations share suggests that their enduring alliance has little to do with strategic objectives. Iran, which espouses revolutionary Islam, finds itself, as a Shiite country, frequently at odds with the Arab world, and in fact criticizes Arab leaders for turning away from Islam. In addition, Iran's nuclear ambitions arise not only from the desire to neutralize Israel's presumed nuclear power, but because it wants to establish regional hegemony, including over Syria. With the rise of Hamas to power, made possible in no small measure through Iranís direct support, Tehran is determined to take over the Palestinian agenda from the Arab states. And, with the election of the Shiites in Iraq, Iran sees an historic opportunity to consolidate the Shiite crescent, extending it, under its own leadership, from the Persian Gulf to Lebanon, thereby fulfilling an historic quest to dominate the region. Finally, Iranís interest in Western financial incentives has dramatically diminished due to the rise in the price of oil, which has nearly quadrupled Iranís earnings in the past few years allowing Tehran to amass close to $100 billion in foreign currency reserves.
In contrast, Syria, in its role of secular Arab nationalist state, has an entirely different agenda. This agenda is based on four main principles or goals. The first is for the United States to abandon its desire to change the regime in Damascus. The second is to ensure that the Golan Heights must be returned to Syrian sovereignty in exchange for peace with Israel. The third is that the United States and Israel must recognize that Syria has a special relationship with Lebanon. The fourth is to normalize relations with the United States because this would bring great benefits to Syria, such as the possibility of critically needed economic development.
Certainly the United States has many grievances against Syria, including that it offers refuge to several extreme terrorist groups, mostly Palestinians, sworn to undermine U.S. and Israeli regional interests. Among the other sticking points are Syriaís alleged support of the insurgency in Iraq, which contributes to the instability and bloodshed there, its being behind the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and its colluding with Iran to provide Hezbollah with arms to stir up trouble for Israel, all of which led to the recent war in Lebanon. These are obviously serious charges, and Damascus needs to address them in one form or another, but they pale compared to the mischievous and dangerous conduct of Iran toward the West and Israel in particular, which, if unchecked, could precipitate a major regional war involving weapons of mass destruction.
Nothing more will undermine Iranís strategic interests and bring Tehran down to size than breaking the so-called Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis. Although separating Iran and Syriaís tactical interests is itself important, engaging Syria now could yield many other benefits. These include changing the dynamic of the Arab-Israeli peace process, disarming Hezbollah, stabilizing Lebanon, strengthening the Sunni camp against the growing power of the Shiites, diminishing Iranís influence in the Mediterranean, weakening Hamasí resolve and slowing the rising tide of Islamism everywhere. A change in American policy toward Syria is especially vital at this point because just about every initiative of the Bush administration seems to have backfired, creating an unprecedented Arab and Muslim backlash. Promoting democratic reform in the Middle East has failed, Iraq has plunged into civil war, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has worsened, the war in Lebanon has left half the country in ruins, and the anger and hatred of Arabs and Muslims toward the United States has reached new heights.
The future danger to the region will come from Iran, not Syria. Yes, Syria may have played a dangerous game by supporting Hezbollahís reckless provocation of Israel. No one is saying that Syria is entitled to a special treatment. Rather, the suggestion is that the growing regional danger demands urgently a new strategy toward Syria that addresses Damascusís special national requirements and in so doing distancing the Assad government from that of Iran with its own very different agenda. Such a strategy will call Syria to task while offering Damascus clear incentives to separate from Iran. Bullying Damascus will not lead to submission: it will simply force Syria to seek ever-closer relations with Iran and that is where the greater danger lies.