Assad: Mullahs have him by short hairs.
November 6, 2006 -- 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 Tehran-Damascus axis was first formed in 1980, when Saddam Hussein invaded Iran. They seemed unlikely allies: Iran's Khomeinists followed a radical Shiite ideology aimed at global holy war; Syria's Ba'athists were secularists, inspired by an Arabized version of National Socialism, aimed at uniting Arab countries under one flag and one party.
Yet the Syrians knew that, if Saddam won, he'd become the unrivalled Arab supremo, marginalizing and eventually toppling theirregime. The mullahs knew that only Syria could prevent a unified Arab bloc to back Saddam.
All along, however, Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was careful not to be totally hooked to Iran. He met every U.S. 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. When the two joined in sponsoring the Lebanese branch of Hezbollah in 1982, Assad insisted on having his own Lebanonese Shiite outlet in the form of Nabih Berri's Amal Movement.
Significantly, the Syrians also 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.
Yet today there are signs that the Islamic Republic is determined to export its ideology to Syria. Tehran believes that only an Islamicized Syria would be a dependable ally in driving America out of the Middle East, wiping Israel off the map and creating a new Islamic "superpower" with Iran as its core.
Phase one was last year's campaign to cast suspicion on elements in the Syrian Ba'ath known for opposing Khomeinism. Hundreds of Ba'athist cadres, including senior figures, were retired or driven into exile.
Cadres with "better Islamic sensibilities" have taken their place. Many served in Iran in diplomatic, military and intelligence capacities on behalf of their government. In Syria today, having an "Iranian flavor" is as useful for your career as a Soviet one once was.
Yet President Bashar al-Assad's purge has increased his vulnerability to conspiracies by the excluded cadres. Some of these have allied with the regime's opponents - increasing Assad's reliance on Iranian security. Sources in Damascus claim that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Hezbollah have assigned special units to protect Assad against any domestic enemies.
Tehran has also succeeded in killing "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 U.S. side in the wake of regime change in Baghdad.
Since then, however, such Syrian officials have been silenced or forced to change tune. Tehran has successfully peddled the fear that Syria may be a target for American "regime change."
Also forcing Syria closer to Iran was the 2005 murder of former Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri - widely thought Syria's work. This destroyed bridges between Damascus and moderate Arab capitals. Hardly a single Arab regime is prepared to maintain friendly ties with Syria, let alone prop up the Assad regime.
The more isolated Syria becomes, the more its leaders are forced to depend on Iran. Last June, Syria did what it had not done even during its Soviet alliance, and signed a defence pact with the Islamic Republic. Among much else, this gives Iran direct access to Syria's military at middle and senior levels. One result 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 for Syrians, including for military training, from 200 in 2001 to 3,000-plus this year.
* The ban on Iranian cultural centers outside Damascus has been lifted. By last September a total of 17,000 Syrians had enrolled in classes to learn Persian and study the "philosophy of Imam Khomeini."
* 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 No. 2 trading partner, after the European Union.
* Syria has agreed to raise the number of Iranian pilgrims visiting the Zeynabiah Shiite 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 TV and radio networks, broadcasting in Arabic, are now available in every Syrian home. Other non-Syrian Arabic media are banned.
* Assad has granted 41 Iran-based charities to operate in Syria. These use the models of Hezballah and Hamas by providing services, such as clinics, schools, interest-free loan agencies.
* 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 would be struck by the massive rise in the number of young Syrians trying to confirm to the Khomeinist "look."
* Syria has also lifted the ban on Shiite 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.
The Assad regime is a typical Arab set-up, unable to survive without the backing of an outside power. For a brief moment in 2003-04, it looked as if Americfa could provide that backing. Since then, Assad has been left with no option but putting himself under Iranian protection. That, in turn, makes a showdown between America and the Islamic Republic that much more possible.
Amir Taheri is a member of Benador Associates.