Is a new Cold War brewing in the Middle East? That’s the conventional wisdom surrounding the so-called “Arab Spring,” which has further corroded the already poor relations between the region’s Saudi-led bloc on the one hand, and Iran and its allies on the other. Yet the two competing sides have found common ground on at least one strategic issue: Syria. Each desperately wants the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad to survive.
The historic, simmering regional rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia broke into the open two months ago, amid the turmoil of Egypt’s revolution. Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, infuriated Riyadh by calling for the ouster of President Mubarak of Egypt, a close Saudi ally, and hailing his fall as part of an “Islamic Awakening” inspired by Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Tensions were further aggravated by Tehran’s vocal support for the primarily Shi’ite-led rebellion in Bahrain against the kingdom’s Sunni-minority regime (which is aligned with Saudi Arabia). And when the Gulf Cooperation Council dispatched a Saudi-led military force to Bahrain to restore order there, the Iranian government denounced the move as unacceptable interference in Bahrain's internal affairs, with officials going so far as to warn that the move could “threaten the security of Saudi Arabia.” These bellicose statements prompted Bahrain to recall its ambassador to Iran. Two weeks later, Kuwait recalled its ambassador from Tehran, a day after sentencing two Iranians and a Kuwaiti national to death for spying for Iran. And yet, despite their competition elsewhere in the Middle East, when it comes to Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and their respective allies all seem to agree that the Assad regime should persevere.
Why have so many rivals coalesced to support the Assad regime? The answer lies in Syria’s long-standing strategy of playing the major Middle Eastern powers off against each other. Simply put, Damascus grants enough concessions to each Middle Eastern power to convince all of them that their interests would likely suffer if the Assad regime were to fall. It is an approach that has proven remarkably effective to date.
Iran, for example, views Syria as a critical conduit for supplying its Lebanese terrorist proxy, Hezbollah, as well as Iran’s Palestinian allies Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Since the Iran-Iraq War some two-and-a-half decades ago, Syria also has served at times as an advocate for Iranian interests in various Arab fora.
This does not mean that Damascus blindly serves Iranian interests, however. To the contrary, the Syrian government has at times broken openly with Tehran. A 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable recently published by WikiLeaks highlights that Syria rejected Iran’s request to retaliate militarily against Israel in the event of an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. And although Syria transfers Iranian weapons to Hezbollah, Damascus views Lebanon as part of its sphere of influence and has worked to prevent Hezbollah from fashioning Lebanon into an Iranian protectorate (for example, through the supply of arms to some of Hezbollah’s competitors, including the Amal Movement and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party).
At the same time, Syria has sought to ingratiate itself with Iran’s Sunni rival, Saudi Arabia. Damascus endorsed the Saudi-authored Arab Peace Initiative, a plan for the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict presented at the 2002 Arab League Summit, despite opposition to it from Iran, Hezbollah, and Hamas. And, although Syrian-Saudi relations soured after Damascus was implicated in the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese Prime Minister close to the Saudi royal family, Assad rekindled the Syrian-Saudi friendship this spring by backing Riyadh’s intervention in Bahrain over the fierce objections of Iran and Hezbollah.
Even still, Israel fears that the post-Assad era might pose a greater threat to its security than the status quo. For, although Syria supports and sustains Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Assad regime has kept the Syrian-Israeli border quiet for decades and did not retaliate after Israel bombed Syria’s nuclear reactor in 2007. Israel’s controversial Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was the only Israeli leader to counsel international intervention to protect Syrian demonstrators.And, less than a week later, Damascus offered a preview of what the fall of Assad and chaos in Syria would spell for Israel by allowing thousands of unarmed pro-Palestinian activists to cross the border, causing havoc that left four Syrians dead. Damascus’ restraint vis-à-vis Israel, along with its sporadic cooperation with the U.S.-led Coalition, has convinced more than a few American policy makers that Syria can eventually be weaned from its alliance with Tehran.
Such hopes prompted President Obama to appoint the first U.S. ambassador to Syria since the Hariri assassination in February 2005. They also go a long way toward explaining his reluctance to penalize Syria harshly for its violent suppression of the current pro-democracy protests taking place there. The Obama administration only imposed sanctions on Bashar al-Assad after reports of mass graves were revealed. Moreover, those sanctions are largely symbolic; Assad has few assets in the US.
Yet, if history is any guide, expectations that Syria will turn over a new leaf are sorely misplaced, for a simple reason. The Assad regime won’t terminate its cooperation with Iran, Hezbollah, and Palestinian militants because, as the largely uncritical international reaction to its current domestic crackdown demonstrates, Damascus benefits far more from playing Middle Eastern powers off against each other than from definitively aligning itself with any one of them.