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Syria looks West despite its ties to Iran

Times Staff Writer

A brunet in a yellow strapless gown strolls with her friends through the old city, while nearby a pair of young toughs on Kawasaki motorbikes rocket down the street, helmets off. The beat here is set to the rhythm of two new radio stations, 97.3 Farah FM and 105.7 Mix FM, that pump out tunes by the Foo Fighters and 50 Cent.

Meanwhile, Syria’s leaders deepen their ties with Iran, whose conservative Islamic theocracy has poured more than $1 billion in investments into the economy and has become Damascus’ No. 1, and sometimes only, outspoken ally.

Largely isolated by its alleged support of militant groups, this nation finds itself in an incongruous relationship with the outside world. Syrians, including many of their leaders, are drawn to the opulence of the West yet tied by necessity to Iran, despite some fundamental differences with the Islamic Republic.

“What brings us together is resistance to the U.S. project in the region,” Nabil Sukkar, a Syrian economist and political commentator, said of his nation and Iran. “Ideologically, we are on different paths completely.”

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On Sunday, Damascus announced that it would send a delegation to today’s Middle East peace conference in Annapolis, Md., probably upsetting Tehran, which vehemently opposes the summit.

The move surprised some Syria watchers. In the face of international isolation and the scorn of its neighbors, Damascus has forged its own path. Even as the government of President Bashar Assad appears to be coaxing its people away from the austere Islam sweeping the region in favor of the modernity of the West, it is deepening ties with the drab autocracies of the East, such as Russia and especially Iran.

Thus, while the country enjoys the fruits of 5% annual growth rates, new investments from abroad, Costa Cafes and a Four Seasons hotel, as well as a growing status as the center of the Arab world’s hottest new television series, its people fret about being drawn into a major war.

When a brownout hit Damascus in September, many residents became alarmed. They feared the final war had begun between Iran and Syria on the one side and the U.S. and Israel on the other. At any given time, taxi drivers confidently predict that an American or Israeli offensive will begin in the coming days.

Syrian officials and analysts speak bitterly of what they call an abandonment of their country by the West they admire. Iran, most admit, is an uncomfortable fit for their nation, which once used to enjoy cozy relations with the West, especially Europe, and with other Arab countries.

The Syrian government has for decades been fighting Islamic militants, some of them linked to Al Qaeda. But relations between Syria and much of the rest of the world soured over Damascus’ ties to other militant groups in the region, including those opposed to Israel and the pro-Western government in Lebanon.

Syria has long had close ties with Tehran, strengthened when the government here backed the Islamic Republic during the bitter Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. But Syria’s international isolation now has highlighted its connection to Iran.

“The alliance between Syria and Iran is not something new,” said a European diplomat in Damascus, speaking on condition of anonymity. “The real thing which has changed is that it’s no longer a relationship between two partners with equal weight, but it has shifted to an unequal relationship. It doesn’t mean Syria wants what Iran wants.”

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In fact, though Damascus and Tehran share some of the same general strategic goals, such as confronting Israel, they diverge starkly over the details.

They find themselves on opposite sides in the simmering Shiite-Sunni conflict in Iraq. Tehran backs Shiite allies who dominate the government in Baghdad. Damascus provides a haven for former followers of Saddam Hussein’s secular regime -- including, U.S. military officials say, insurgents fighting the Iraqi government.

“Syria and Iran have very few things they agree on for Iraq; they have very different agendas for the post-Saddam regime,” said Sami Moubayed, a Damascus political analyst and journalist. “But Syria can’t oppose Iran because Iran is Syria’s No. 1 friend nowadays.”

Like Iran, Syria also has fallen afoul of Saudi Arabia, the U.S. and France over its support for Iranian-backed militant groups in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. But Tehran and Damascus support such groups for different reasons.

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Tehran backs the Shiite Hezbollah movement and militant Palestinian groups for the same reason it seeks to influence the governments of Syria and Iraq: as weapons to wield against its ideological nemeses, Israel and the U.S., as well as to extend Iran’s unique clerical system to the Arab world. The latter was long the dream of Iran’s late revolutionary founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

“There’s a unity between Iraq, Iran and Syria,” Hamid Reza Taraghi, a spokesman for Iran’s hard-line Islamic Coalition Party, said during an interview in Tehran. “If the Lebanese join this coalition, we’ll throw out all the U.S. ambitions in the region.”

But Damascus’ support for militant groups is mostly a way to pressure Israel to return the Golan Heights, seized during the 1967 Middle East War. Syrian officials opted to attend the Annapolis summit in hopes of recovering the Golan, which remains under Israeli occupation.

Average Syrians, meanwhile, complain that they feel ostracized from the rest of the region, even avoiding once-common visits to Beirut. When international pressure forced the Syrians to pull their troops out of Lebanon after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, they drew inward, even reinventing a version of Lebanon’s freewheeling night life in what Moubayed describes as a “Beirut-ization” of Damascus.

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“Proud 2B Syrian,” says one colorful billboard, using the imagery of American hip-hop culture to sum up the defiant if wistful attitude in Damascus these days.

daragahi@latimes.com

Daragahi was recently on assignment in Damascus.


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