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What Changes if Syria Shifts Ties to Iraq?

<i> Shireen T. Hunter is deputy director of the Middle East Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at Georgetown University. </i>

There have been growing indications of an impending Syrian-Iraqi reconciliation. It is not clear yet how far this process will go, but the fact that change is possible is no surprise. A number of moderate Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia and Jordan, have been trying to persuade Syria to reassess its relations with Iraq for some time. Even the Soviet Union, which is deeply concerned about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, has been urging Syria to resolve its differences with Iraq.

The Syria-Iran alliance has always been an odd sort of coupling, especially in view of the deep ideological differences between revolutionary-Islamic Iran and secular-socialist Syria.

What really brought the two countries together was their mutual animosity toward Iraq and its president, Saddam Hussein. During the period from 1982 to 1985, Syria also used Iran and its influence within the Lebanese Shia community to foil U.S.-Israeli plans for restructuring Lebanon’s political life and to salvage Syria’s predominant position there.

Syria paid an economic price for its alliance with Iran, because it lost considerable income by closing the pipeline carrying Iraqi oil to the Mediterranean. To a degree, however, Iran made up for Syria’s loss of income by providing it with cheap oil and economic assistance. And even though moderate Arab states in the Persian Gulf area were unhappy about Syria’s alliance with Iran, they continued to provide substantial aid out of fear.

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Things began to change in the last few months. Syria became increasingly concerned about Iranian influence on certain groups within Lebanon. Thus Damascus came to see Iran as a barrier to its plans to pacify and restructure that country politically under Syrian tutelage.

The Syrians also were troubled by Iran’s occupation of the strategic Faw peninsula on Iraq’s Persian Gulf coast. They had often reassured the gulf states that Iran would not occupy Arab territory, and what happened at Faw damaged their credibility in the Arab world.

Most important, however, have been Syria’s economic problems, which resulted from falling oil prices and a consequent cutback of Arab aid. Because Iran also has been badly hit by falling oil prices, it cannot make up for the drop in Arab aid to Syria. Indeed, Iran has not only stopped delivering cheap oil to Syria but has also been pressuring it to repay $2 billion in debts.

Meanwhile, the moderate gulf Arabs have made it clear that, despite their own economic difficulties, they will still be prepared to reward Syrian good behavior. And reopening the Iraqi pipeline would provide Syria with extra income from transit fees.

The U.S. air raid on Libya, followed by allegations in Washington and Western Europe about Syria’s role in terrorism, also have had a sobering effect, as indicated by Syria’s promise to help arrange the release of French hostages held in Lebanon. Moreover, President Hafez Assad has denied any involvement in terrorism. Yet what would be the effect, both on the Iran-Iraq war and on broader Middle East politics, if there were a Syrian-Iranian-Iraqi realignment?

It is unlikely that Syria would support Iraq militarily, if only because of the animosity between Assad and Saddam Hussein. Syria would continue to hedge its bets, since moving away from Iran would be one thing and deliberately antagonizing it quite another. Iraq’s economic position would improve with the reopening of the Syrian pipeline, but then the gulf Arabs would be tempted to reduce, proportionally, their subsidies to Iraq.

An abrogation of the Syrian-Iranian alliance would cost Iran militarily by restricting its ability to get supplies. Yet the effect would be marginal, because Iran has never received sophisticated military hardware from Syria--especially aircraft and surface-to-air missiles. A Syrian change of heart would be a psychological and moral boost for Iraq and a blow to Iran. It would help Iraq to withstand Iranian pressures and reduce any chance for an Iranian victory. Nevertheless, whether Iran would be forced to accept an unfavorable peace would be determined only by its ability to cope with economic pressures caused by falling oil revenues.

The principal beneficiaries of a diplomatic shift would be the gulf Arabs. Their political burdens would be reduced, since the loss of Syrian support would make an Iranian victory less likely.

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It would also deprive Iran of an ally in its subversive activities in the gulf.

A change in Syrian allegiance in the region would have even less effect on broader Middle East politics, especially the Arab-Israeli conflict. Syria’s approach to Arab-Israeli peace-making is determined by its desire both to regain the Golan Heights and to be the leader of the Arab world. On its own, a Syrian breach with Iran and fence-mending with Iraq would be unlikely to help Assad achieve these goals.

Thus the news that Syria may shift allegiances from Iran to Iraq should be followed closely, but it is far from earth-shaking.


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