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Last Updated: Saturday, 26 August 2006, 06:51 GMT 07:51 UK
Analysis: Breaking the Syria-Iran alliance
By Mohammad Tabaar
BBC World Service, Washington DC

President of Syria and Iran, Bashar al-Assad and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
Assad and Ahmadinejad: Alliance of convenience or true friends?
Since the outbreak of the conflict between Israel's army and Hezbollah's militia, some commentators in the US have been calling for direct talks with Syria.

Some in Washington argue that to contain Hezbollah, the US needs to drive a wedge between Syria and Iran, since Syria is the vital conduit for the weapons that Iran is allegedly transferring to the Lebanese militant group.

For almost three decades, Iran and Syria have had a strategic alliance, in part based on their shared animosity to the former ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein.

However, with the collapse of that regime, some analysts argue that the value of the Iran-Syria alliance has vanished.

Bashar himself told me one time when I asked him about having friendly relations with Iran and North Korea. He said: 'Well, I have no choice. I have to have some friends'
David Lesch
Trinity University
"An alliance between Iran and Syria is no longer a strategic alliance. It's an alliance of convenience and habit," argues Edward Luttwak, a scholar at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

He adds that the alliance with Persian and Shia Muslim Iran is isolating Arab and Sunni Syria from the rest of the Arab world, something that goes against the natural feelings of the Syrians.

'No choice'

Indeed, the Syrians may not be very happy with their current relationship with Iran.

Professor David Lesch of Trinity University, who has met Bashar al-Assad several times over the past few years, raised this question in a meeting with the Syrian president.

"Bashar himself told me one time when I asked him about having friendly relations with Iran and North Korea. He said: 'Well, I have no choice. I have to have some friends.'"

Mr Lesch concludes: "Possibly giving the right incentives to Syria, like the Golan Heights in a comprehensive peace agreement, might make Syria willing to downgrade its relationship with Iran."

But he is quick to add that because of President Assad's lack of trust in US President George W Bush, such an agreement may not take place under the current US administration.

Syria's isolation

The assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005 isolated Syria from the international community. Syrian officials were accused of plotting against Mr Hariri.

Syria might make an apparent compromise with the West. But this will not worry Iran because the government of Syria has a long-term strategic plan which says that a good relationship with Iran is more important than anything else
Abbas Maleki
Iran's former Deputy Foreign Minister
The assassination led to the humiliating withdrawal of the Syrian army from Lebanon, ending its three-decade presence in the country.

Since then, Syria's president has longed for an opportunity to become a major player in the region.

The current conflict in Lebanon may catapult Syria into the game again.

In fact, during the G8 Summit, Mr Bush, in what he thought was a private conversation with UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, said: "The irony is, what they really need to do is to get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over."

In a recent meeting with the Syrian president, Mr Lesch asked him how he felt about the US president's expletive: "He said: 'Actually I look at it as positive, because at least the US president is thinking about Syria and Syria is on his mind.'"

This response can certainly be seen an expression of how desperate Mr Assad is to get back into the game, Mr Lesch suggests.

'Good relations'

But its desire to re-establish itself as a regional player does not necessarily mean that Syria will cut off its alliance with Iran.

Abbas Maleki, Iran's former deputy foreign minister, says that this is not the first time that the US has tried to drive a wedge between the two states.

Its previous attempts have failed, Mr Maleki says, because the relationship between Tehran and Damascus is "deep" and was not formed "one or two months ago".

Mr Maleki, who is now a Senior Research Fellow at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, points out: "Syria might make an apparent compromise with the West.

"But this will not worry Iran because the government of Syria has a long-term strategic plan which says that a good relationship with Iran is more important than anything else."


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