The visit by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to Damascus is testimony to the enduring strength of the Iran-led “resistance bloc” in the region, and to Syria’s membership in it. It is hard not to see it also as a calculated snub by the Syrian president to the US administration.
US officials have been active and vocal in recent days in expressing their hopes of what will result from the current policy of engagement with Damascus. It is only a few days since the US named its new ambassador to Syria – the first since diplomatic relations were broken off in 2005. By hosting the Iranian president in his capital, Bashar Assad once more drove home the point that he has unambiguously stressed throughout: Syria’s alliance with Iran is deep and multi-dimensional. It also isn’t going anywhere, any time soon.
In testimony to Congress earlier this week, Secretary of State Clinton outlined her hopes regarding what might result from outreach to Syria. She listed “the end to interference in Lebanon and the transport and provisions of weapons to Hizbullah, a resumption of the Israeli-Syrian track on the peace process... and generally to begin to move away from the relationship with Iran which is so deeply troubling to the region as well as the United States.”
Both in the very fact of the Ahmedinejad visit to Damascus, and in its substance, the Syrian regime delivered its response to these hopes.
Damascus is set to host meetings in the coming days between the Iranian President, Hizbullah and Hamas leaders, according to regional media. A Syrian diplomat quoted by the Iranian Fars news agency noted that the two leaders were set to discuss a variety of regional issues, including ways to build support for “anti-Israeli resistance groups.”
As such, the Ahmedinejad trip to Syria is not merely an opportunity for the two leaders to re-affirm the long-standing close ties between their regimes – and Syria’s links with the Islamic Republic of Iran date back to 1980, a year after the Iranian revolution. Rather, the visit represents a showcasing of the shared regional strategy of “resistance” to the US and its allies in the region.
Sure enough, Ahmedinejad, speaking after his meeting with Assad, said that together, the two countries and their allies would establish a Middle East “without Zionists and without colonialists.”
Iran has proved a reliable friend to Syria throughout. The alliance between the two has paid dividends for Damascus. Syria was expelled from Lebanon in 2005 – but through its friendship with Iran and Hizbullah, Damascus is now once more part of the forces dominating that country.
With regard to Israel, the Golan may remain in Israeli hands, but via its domiciling of Iran-supported Palestinian movements, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, Syria is able to pose as the guardian of Arab nationalism – and to hold an effective veto over any chance of diplomatic progress between Israelis and Palestinians. Both political and material support from Teheran to Damascus has been consistent and unwavering.
And all of this comes apparently with little cost. In spite of it, all the West, the US and Israel, still apparently want to be friends. Why then would Assad be inclined to “distance” himself from Iran? The answer is that he wouldn’t, and he won’t – as was on vivid display this week in the visit of the Iranian president to Damascus.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior researcher at the Global Research in International Affairs Center, IDC, Herzliya.