The Iran-Syria "common front" announced in Tehran in mid-February, the day after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, is not new. Senior Iranian and Syrian officials have spoken of a "strategic partnership" for years.
From an Israeli standpoint, the Iran-Syria alliance, coupled with Hizballah and the Palestinian Islamist groups that the alliance supports, constitutes the only active hostile front in the Middle East. It is also an anti-American front, with Tehran and Damascus both interfering in Iraq. And it potentially endangers other regional states like Jordan and the Gulf emirates. Iran, though not Syria, is the only country in the Middle East that still rejects the idea of peace with Israel.
An examination of the Iran-Syria alliance is particularly relevant now because, problematic as that alliance is, it may tell us something about the prospects and workings of a future alliance between Iran and a Shi’ite-dominated regime in Iraq. This may not appear to be a likely prospect in the near future. But if Shi’ite Iran could find common cause for the past 25 years with a Shi’ite/Alawi minority regime in Syria, it is not beyond the realm of possibility that it could do so with the only majority Shi’ite Arab regime in the Middle East, in Baghdad.
The most convincing version of the origins of the Iran-Syria alliance also has an Iraqi Shi’ite aspect. It goes back to the 1970s, before the Islamic Republic of Iran came into existence, when Musa Sadr, a dynamic emissary to the downtrodden Shi’ites of southern Lebanon and a scion of the renowned Sadr family of Shi’ite Iraq, conferred "Muslim" status on President Hafez Assad of Syria. Assad, an Alawite, had drafted a constitution for Syria that determined that the president of the country be a Muslim. Representatives of Syria’s Sunni majority saw an opening to dethrone Assad by arguing that the Alawites, who split from Shi’ite Islam a thousand years ago, were not Muslims. Sadr, backed by the Shi’ite hierarchy then centered in Najaf and Karbala (where Ayatollah Khomeini lived in exile), solved Assad’s problem by declaring the Alawites Muslims, and in so doing laid the groundwork for an alliance.
During the mid to late 1970s, Shi’ite southern Lebanon and Syria provided refuge to several prominent leaders of Khomeini’s revolutionary "international" underground, like Sadeq Gotbzadeh and Abol Hassan Bani-Sadr. Once Khomeini took power in Iran in 1979, and particularly after the Iran-Iraq War began in 1980, the alliance became more formal and military in nature and was directed against Saddam’s Iraq and toward support for Hizballah in Lebanon.
Today the two allies are far from equal, with Syria undoubtedly the weaker and less stable partner. Iran seeks to develop nuclear weaponry, while Bashar Assad’s regime is, under duress, pulling out of Lebanon and declaring its intention to "democratize". Though the two partners feel threatened by the US presence in Iraq, they are working there at cross-purposes: Iran’s strategy is to allow the US to develop a Shi’ite-dominated regime, while Syria provides support to the Sunni remnants of Saddam’s Baath regime.
On the other hand, both countries (along with Turkey) share a fear of the spillover effect of possible Kurdish independence in northern Iraq, and both undoubtedly wish to ensure a dominant role for Hizballah in Lebanon and a minimization of American influence there. Some Middle East actors, like Jordan’s King Abdullah, project the specter of a Shi’ite "crescent" embodying Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hizballah in Lebanon, that threatens the entire Sunni Middle East.
Israel, which for understandable reasons considers itself a target of the Iran-Syria alliance, has two strategic concerns in this regard. One is Iran’s nuclear program. An attempt by the Bush administration to eliminate it by force could activate the alliance: Iran, with Syrian connivance, could seek to retaliate against Israel by means of a Hizballah attack, firing thousands of rockets supplied by Iran into northern Israel. Meanwhile Israel is exploring ways to enhance its strategic deterrent vis-a-vis Iran by moving closer to NATO and obtaining US security guarantees.
Israel’s second concern is Palestinian Islamist terrorism, fostered and supported by Hizballah with Iran’s active backing and Syria’s acquiescence. The current de facto ceasefire renders this last threat dormant, though it is not clear for how long.
The obvious way to neutralize the Iran-Syria alliance is to target the weaker link: Syria. The US is doing precisely this, by organizing international pressure on Syria to leave Lebanon. If Syria can also be persuaded to cease supporting the insurgents in Iraq and Bashar Assad indeed cleans up his regime–some Arab commentators are suggesting he could or should "pull a Qadhafi"–then Israel could enter into renewed peace talks with Syria, with one objective being to isolate Hizballah and break the alliance. This would have the effect of isolating Iran, whose nuclear program would then remain the only serious strategic threat from within to the Middle East.