While there is much talk of continued Syrian machinations in Lebanon, little attention is paid to an Iranian plan to remodel Syria into a Khomeinist state.
The Teheran-Damascus axis that challenges the United States in the Middle East was first formed in 1980 when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in the hope of destroying the newly created Islamic Republic.
At first, the Khomeinist regime in Iran and the Ba'athist dictatorship in Syria seemed unlikely allies. The Khomeinists followed a radical Shi'ite ideology aimed at global jihad in the name of their brand of Islam. The Syrian Ba'athists, on the other hand, were secularists inspired by an Arabized version of National Socialism aimed at uniting Arab countries under one flag and one party.
The Iran-Iraq war brought the two together for a simple reason: the Syrians knew that if Saddam won he would become the unrivaled Arab supremo, marginalizing the Syrian Ba'ath and eventually toppling the regime of President Hafez Assad. The mullahs knew that only Syria could prevent a unified Arab bloc to back Saddam.
The mullahs had to pay for Syrian support in the form of cut-price oil and an annual cash handout of $150 million. In 1982 the two furthered their alliance by sponsoring the Lebanese branch of Hizbullah.
All along, however, the Syrians were careful not to be totally hooked to the Iranian strategy. Hafez Assad insisted on meeting every American president and maintained close contact with Washington. He was also ruthless when it came to Islamist tendencies, even if that meant massacring thousands of people. Even in Lebanon, Assad did not put all his eggs in the Iranian basket and insisted on having his own Shi'ite outlet in the form of Nabih Berri's Amal movement.
To underline their difference, the Syrians also made a number of small but significant gestures. For example, they refused Iranian demands that women be kept out of official ceremonies attended by visiting Khomeinist dignitaries, or that no alcohol be served on such occasions.
"Syria is Syria and Iran is Iran," Syria's then defense minister Mustafa Tlas told a reporter in 1986. "We cannot live like them and they cannot live like us. But we can work together."
Today, Tlas may well have much to worry about. For there are signs that the Islamic Republic is determined to export its ideology to Syria. Teheran believes that only an Islamicized Syria would be a dependable ally in driving the US out of the Middle East, wiping Israel off the map, and creating a new Islamic "superpower" with Iran as its "core component."
According to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad secular anti-imperialism, including Ba'athism, has failed to halt the advance of the American "Great Satan." Today, only militant Islamism can fill the gap left by the disintegration of the USSR and Communism as global challengers to "imperialist hegemony."
TEHERAN STRATEGISTS, working on the assumption that Israel and the Islamic Republic will clash at some point, regard Lebanon and Syria as part of the Iranian glacis. It was to secure Lebanon and Syria as strategic assets that Teheran launched its plan for the "Fertile Crescent."
The first phase of the plan consisted of an Iranian-sponsored campaign last year to cast suspicion on elements in the Syrian Ba'ath known for their opposition to Khomeinism. Hundreds of Ba'athist cadres, including senior figures, were retired or driven into exile. Cadres with what is euphemistically called "better Islamic sensibilities" have taken their place. Many of the new rising stars have some experience of Iran, having served there in diplomatic, military and intelligence capacities on behalf of their government. In Syria today, having an "Iranian flavor" is as useful for an individual's career as a Soviet one was in the old days.
President Bashar Assad's purge of the party, the army and security services of secular elements has, in turn, increased his vulnerability to conspiracies by the excluded cadres. Some of those cadres have formed alliances with the regime's Sunni fundamentalist and democratic opponents. That, in turn, has increased Assad's reliance on Iranian security and the Lebanese branch of Hizbullah. Sources in Damascus claim that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and the Hizbullah have assigned special units to protect Assad, if and when he is threatened by domestic enemies.
Teheran has also succeeded in killing what Dr. Hassan Abbasi, Ahmadinejad's strategic guru, has called "the American temptation" in Damascus. That "temptation" came to the fore in 2003 when Assad surrounded himself with Western-educated technocrats and diplomats who wanted him to switch to the American side in the wake of regime change in Baghdad.
Since then, however, the Syrian officials branded by Abbasi as "Emrikazadeh" (struck by America) have been silenced or force to change tune. Teheran has successfully peddled the fear that Syria may be a target for American "regime change."
ONE OTHER development has forced Syria closer to Iran: The murder of former Lebanese premier Rafik Hariri in 2005 destroyed bridges between Damascus and moderate Arab capitals. Today, hardly a single Arab regime is prepared to maintain friendly ties with Syria, let alone prop up the Assad regime. At one stroke Syria lost the annual stipend of $250 million that it had received from Saudi Arabia since 1991. The more isolated Syria becomes the more its leaders are forced to depend on Iranian power.
To protect himself against alleged US plans for "regime change," Assad is leaning on the mullahs who also want to change his regime.
Last June Syria did what it had not done even during its alliance with the USSR, and signed a defense pact with the Islamic Republic.
The pact gives Iran direct access to the Syrian military at middle and senior levels, provides for joint staff conversations, harmonization of weapons systems and training, and military exercises. Under it, any attack on either partner would be regarded as an aggression against the other. One result of the pact has been a fourfold increase in the number of Iranian military and security personnel in Syria.
"Iran is trying to play the role that the Soviet Union played in Syria during the Cold War," says a former member of Assad's cabinet. "It is the regional big power and behaving like one."
Several developments confirm that view:
• Iran has increased scholarships offered to Syrians, including for military training, from a mere 200 in 2001 to over 3,000 this year.
• Assad has lifted the ban on Syrians attending Islamic seminaries in Iran, allowing over 170 Syrians to attend seminaries in the Iranian holy city of Qom.
• The ban on Iranian cultural centers outside Damascus has been lifted. Iran has now set up 11 centers for Khomeinist indoctrination in Syrian cities including Aleppo and Latakiyah. By last September a total of 17,000 Syrians had enrolled in classes to learn Farsi and study the "philosophy of Imam Khomeini."
• Iran is clearly flexing is economic muscle in Syria. Hundreds of Iranian companies, from banks to building contractors, are active in Syria, employing tens of thousands of people in a country hit by mass unemployment. This year the Islamic Republic is expected to become Syria's second major trading partner, after the European Union.
• Syria has agreed to raise the number of Iranian pilgrims visiting the Zeynabiah Shi'ite holy shrine near Damascus from 150 to 1,000 a day. Critics claim that the pilgrimage is used as cover for the presence in Damascus of hundreds of Islamic Revolutionary Guard fighters at any given time.
• Iranian television and radio networks, broadcasting in Arabic, are now available in every Syrian home while other non-Syrian Arabic-language media are banned.
• Assad has granted 41 Iran-based charities permission to operate in Syria. These use the models of Hizbullah and Hamas by providing services such as clinics, schools, interest-free loan agencies and grants for weddings.
• Women who agree to wear Khomeinist-style hijabs and men who grow Khomeinist-style beards receive cash gifts and preferential treatment in getting jobs with hundreds of Iranian companies operating in Syria. Visitors to Syria would be struck by the massive rise in the number of young women and men trying to confirm to the Khomeinist "look."
• Syria has also lifted the ban on Shi'ite proselytization, allowing hundreds of Iranian mullahs to convert Syrian Sunnis to Shi'ism. There are also reports of mass conversions of members of Assad's own Alawite sect to Iranian duodecimain Shi'ism. Traditionally, Iranian Shi'ism considered the Alawites as heterodox because of esoteric elements in their theology. Last year, however, two ayatollahs of Qom with ties to the Khomeinist regime declared he Alawites part of the Muslim ummah, and authorized "theological exchanges" with them, opening the path for attempts at conversion.
• In Lebanon, Iran is trying to undermine Syria's role by marginalizing Amal and establishing direct contact with the Christian bloc led by ex-general Michel Aoun. Teheran wants Berri and Aoun to put themselves under the banner of a front led by Hizbullah.
Last summer's war in Lebanon that ended with Israel's "greatest defeat," according to Iran, has strengthened the supporters of a Damascus-Teheran axis within the Syrian leadership.
The Assad regime is the typical Arab set-up that cannot survive without the backing of an outside power. For a brief moment in 2003 and 2004 it looked as if the US could provide that backing. Since then, Assad has been left with no option but putting himself under Iranian protection. And that, in turn, makes a showdown between the US and the Islamic Republic that much more possible.