One can learn a great deal by analyzing the visit of Syrian President Bashar Assad to Iran last week. Statements made by Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reveal a great deal about the allies' strategy which seems to escape Western observers.
The first point is that they are indeed close allies. I would estimate that analyses by Western "experts" that Syria can be pried away from Iran outnumber explanations that this is impossible by about 10 to one.
This mistaken conception is also the official policy of the United States and France, perhaps Britain as well.
There are, of course a huge number of benefits Syria derives from its alliance with Iran including Islamist legitimacy, protection against being attacked or pressured, money, weapons, cooperation in anti-Israel terrorism and spreading both countries' influence among the Palestinians, Lebanese and Iraqis. Once Iran gets nuclear weapons, which is on the horizon, the alliance's value for Syria will rise dramatically.
This is why it was silly for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to suggest recently: "Given what's been going on in Iran and the instability that appears to be present there, it may not be in Syria's interest to put their eggs into that basket." Well, Assad apparently doesn't agree with her. Perhaps she should listen to what he's saying and watch what he's doing in order to draw the opposite conclusion.
Assad said: "I think that what happened in Iran is an important thing and a big lesson to the foreigners, and therefore they are not very satisfied. I believe the Iranian people's reelection [of Ahmadinejad] is another emphasis on the fact that Iran and Syria must continue the regional policy as in the past."
In other words, he correctly views Ahmadinejad and the regime as even stronger after the election. Dictators respect repression; they aren't impressed by an opposition which stages demonstrations and whose leaders get thrown into prison. That's especially true when they don't even receive Western support.
WATCHING THE gradual concessions made by the West to the Iran-Syria block, and its evident fear of confronting them, Assad stated that he was confident the international community would accept Iran and Syria more than it had done in the past.
Note also that the two countries are very consciously coordinating strategy in a war against Western interests and the relatively more moderate Arab regimes, a conflict that Western governments don't even perceive as existing: "Iran and Syria are on the same front, and any political event is an opportunity which must be used at the best way possible while helping one another," said Assad.
Iranian Supreme Leader (and the real leader of the country) Ali Khamenei agreed: "The result of this unity is evident in the Palestine, Lebanon and Iraq issues and also in the entire region." The tide is in favor of the resistance, he added, referring to the combination of Iranian, Syrian, Hamas, Hizbullah, Iraqi insurgents and other members of the radical alliance.
What does this mean?
Palestine: Hamas is entrenching itself further, while European governments seem less willing to isolate it. There is no prospect of bringing down that regime and the West isn't even trying to do so. Khamenei probably assumes - wrongly - that Hamas is steadily making gains in subverting Fatah's rule in the West Bank.
Lebanon: While Hizbullah didn't win the last election, it is clear that the Iran-Syria client increasingly owns the country. The country's president is fairly subservient to Iranian and Syrian influence; the tribunal investigating Syrian terrorism in Lebanon seems pretty dead itself. Hizbullah seems on the verge of reestablishing veto power in the government, and the most courageous opponent of Iran-Syria influence, Walid Jumblatt, has changed sides (or at least gone to neutrality).
Iraq: The US forces are withdrawing. Iran's money, agents and clients seem to be able to operate freely, though Teheran is nowhere near taking over the country. Khamenei also said something truly shocking. After remarking about Syria's improved relations with Iraq (a country against which it is daily sponsoring terrorist attacks), he added that unity (the translation probably should say "alliance") between Iran and Syria, on one hand, and their neighbors Iraq and Turkey would benefit the region.
What does this mean? He is showing Iran's longer-term plan to pull Iraq (under a more friendly faction) and Turkey (currently ruled by an Islamist-oriented regime) into a broad alliance. That statement should send shock waves throughout the West, and cause intelligence analysts to pick up the phone and inform someone who has Obama's ear.
Iran and Syria, along with their clients, are at war with America, and the US government doesn't even know it.
That's why Khamenei remarked, "America's blade has become blunter in the region." He's right. That's why if anyone is worried about putting all the eggs in one basket, nowadays it is America's Arab partners. The fact that the US is perceived as weaker and foolish in the region is far more important than the fact that Obama might be more popular in public opinion polls.
WITH A US government so intent on apologizing to everyone, all but ruling out the use of force or power politics and apparently - in Iran's perception - afraid to confront its enemies, they're concluding in Teheran and Damascus, as Ahmadinejad put it: "Today the world has realized that Western theories are not working anymore and that is why it needs the help and cooperation of Syria and Iran."
An increase in economic sanctions, which is the main US plan against Iran at present, is not going to change this perception - or Teheran's behavior. But before effective action can be taken, there must be the realization that a conflict is going on, one that is far more important than the one between the US and al-Qaida.