Posted by Matthew Barber on Sunday, June 14th, 2015
The Iran-Syria Alliance: Sectarianism or Realpolitik?
by Mohammad Ataie
“They are witnessing the Islamic awakening and feel profoundly imperiled by the spreading idea of political Islam and the rule of Islam.”
“The project of political Islam has failed, and there should be no mixing between political and religious work.”
These two contradictory remarks were made in the wake of the Arab “revolutions,” not by two rival Middle Eastern leaders, but by two longtime allies in the region. The first statement is from Iran’s leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who has described the Arab uprisings as an “Islamic Awakening.” The second came from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has called political Islam a “plague” and asserts that Syria is “the last stronghold of secularism” in the region. The conflicting statements run against the grain of the dominant narrative that describes Damascus-Tehran partnership as sectarian and its raison d’état the creation of a “Shi‘a crescent.” In the past four years, the mainstream media and pundits have had a tendency to overplay the split between the Sunni and Shi‘a to explain the sanguinary war in Syria. In doing so, they have reduced the manifold crisis and the complexity of the Damascus-Tehran relationship to a simplified narrative of Sunni-Shi‘i sectarianism.
As a key feature of the modern Middle East, the Syrian-Iranian axis has been an important factor in shaping the geopolitics of the region in the past three decades. The partnership between a pan-Arab secular state and a Persian Islamic Republic—and the longevity of this alliance—has always triggered the curiosity of observers, to which a plethora of academic and journalistic writing attests. Some observers, especially critics of the alliance, tend to trace the roots of the relationship to the reign of the Shi‘i clergy in Iran and the Alawite in Syria and simply conclude that religious affinity has been inherent in the formation and continuation of the partnership. This sectarian narrative, so prevalent in the mainstream media, downplays significant political disagreements between Damascus and Tehran and overlooks the irony of the paradox in their ideological foundations—a factor which has indeed been vital for perpetuating the alliance.
Contrary to notions of post-revolution Iran’s foreign policy as fanatic and purely religiously driven, the Islamic Republic’s partnership with Ba‘thist Syria was not constructed on a spiritual basis to spread Shi‘a ideology. Rather it was primarily aimed at reaching out to the Sunni movements in the Arab East, a policy that was in line with Tehran’s overall strategy to present itself as the heart of Muslim revolutionary struggles and a champion of resistance for both Sunni and Shi‘i movements. To export the revolution, the clergy in Tehran established ties with Hamas, the Islamic Jihad in Palestine and Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, including its Syrian branch, as well as Sunni clerical factions in Lebanon. This alliance lent a very credible Sunni dimension to the Islamic Republic’s policy.
The unification of Islam’s two sects has been central to post-revolution Iran’s foreign policy. Iran’s leaders advocated this kind of Muslim unity and issued fatwas that banned the fomenting of disagreements harmful to “the brotherhood of Muslims.” Through specific support for the Palestinian cause and symbolic initiatives such as the declaration of the Week of Unity between the Shi‘a and Sunni, Iran has sought to create a united Islamic front against the common enemies of the umma, i.e. the Muslim community. This approach in Iran’s regional policy has continued under the current leader of Iran, who has repeatedly stated that “Iran does not seek to Persianize Arabs or convert other Muslims to Shi‘ism. Iran is after … reviving the Islamic umma.”
The Islamic Republic’s effort to shed its image as a Shi‘i entity and assume an Islamic universalist discourse should be seen in the historical context of Iran’s ethnic and religious isolation in the region. Historically, Iran’s identification with the Shi‘a has been an obstacle to claiming a universalist Islamic mantle and gave its regional rivals a pretext for depicting it as heretical Persian entity. Iran’s regional rivals have been able to undermine Tehran’s endeavor to overcome these ethnic and cultural barriers to its regional influence by highlighting Iran’s Shi‘i and Persian characteristics. This partly explains why media affiliated with Saudi Arabia and Qatar constantly project a provocative sectarian image of Tehran’s involvement in the region to both demonize the clergy and mobilize Sunni public opinion.
For Tehran, the paramount importance of Syria is its geographic location at the heart of the Arab East and its historic role as a bastion for pan-Arabism. This ideological weight was significant during the Iraq-Iran war when Hafez al-Assad’s support blunted Saddam Hussein’s anti-Iranian propaganda and prevented the conflict from becoming an all-Arab war against Persians. Syria is an essential link to the frontline of the struggle with Israel and an entry point into the Palestinian and Lebanese arenas. For Iran, an unfriendly regime or a power vacuum in Damascus, resulting in the spread of extremists to neighboring countries, would jeopardize Iran’s allies in both Lebanon and Iraq. The partnership between a divine state in Iran and a secular Baʿthist Syria is in the first place a product of these historical and geostrategic factors.
The irony of this alliance is that the two states espouse contradictory ideologies. At odds with prevailing views, it is not religious affinity but ideological disagreement that has been a crucial factor in the longevity of the Syrian–Iranian axis. As Jubin Goodarzi argues in his book about Syria–Iran relations, “in the Middle East, the record clearly shows that states sharing a common ideology compete for the mantle of leadership rather than form durable alliances.” An example of this is that despite the structural and ideological similarities between Assad’s and Saddam Hussein’s regimes, the unity plans between the two Baathist parties in the 1970s ended in failure and animosity partly because each claimed to be the legitimate leader of Ba‘thist pan-Arabism.
The ideological paradox, however, did exact a toll on the Syria–Iran relationship in the formative years of the alliance. In the 1980s, the former Syrian President Hafez al-Assad was concerned with the export of the Islamic Revolution and connections between Iran and his Muslim Brotherhood opposition. While Iran’s relationship with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood remained limited, the clergy’s support for radical Sunni factions and Hezbollah, an alternative to the pro-Syrian secular Amal, led to major tensions between Damascus and Tehran in Lebanon. Likewise, the Iranian clergy were upset with anti-Islamic practices of the ruling Ba‘thists. Around the same time that the ayatollahs in Iran imposed an Islamic dress code on women, the Ba‘thists in Syria sought to enforce the unveiling of women and to target any public Islamic symbols that could bear a trace of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Iranian diplomats in Syria were appalled by the Ba‘thist’s extreme policies, such as harassing ordinary people merely for their Islamic look. At one point Syrian security forces even arrested an Iranian diplomat and his chadur-clad wife in a Damascus street and took them into custody believing that they were Muslim Brotherhood supporters.
Even though the current turmoil has made Damascus heavily reliant on Tehran, political and ideological contradictions are still apparent in their foreign policy. President Bashar al-Assad calls political Islam “a plague that hit the Islamic world” and has proclaimed that “the project of political Islam has failed.” This is in stark contrast to the Islamic Republic’s promulgation of political Islam in the region. From the very beginning of the Arab uprisings, Iran’s leader called them an Islamic Awakening and declared that this “unique historical moment” would usher in Islamist governments in place of pro-West authoritarian regimes. But for Assad, “Arab uprisings have only brought chaos.”
The paradox of the alliance between the Iranian clergy and secular Ba‘thists of Syria is one of the most intriguing aspects of the partnership between the “odd couple.” The alliance’s survival to this day despite various internal contradictions and regional differences remains an exceptional phenomenon in the history of the modern Middle East. The Damascus-Tehran relationship should be primarily analyzed in this context and not by the two states’ common Shi‘i roots. Recognizing the complexity of the historical and geopolitical factors behind the alliance would provide insights into building a common ground with Iran over solving regional problems, including the conflict in Syria.
* Mohammad Ataie is an Iranian journalist and a PhD student in History at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. A previous post from Mohammad can be viewed here.