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IRAQ - Sadrist-Syrian-Hizbollah Links.

There are indications of closer links now developing between Syria and each of the Sadrist movement and Hizbollah, with Iran said to be playing a role in the background as well. These may reflect what some experts call "a new version of strategic alliance between Iran and Syria", as both face threats from the US.

The first attempt by Iran and Syria to create a strategic alliance was in 1980: Syria, alone of the Arab states, took the side of non-Arab Iran when it was attacked by the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein. The most recent effort to strengthen these strategic ties came during a visit by Syrian Prime Minister Naji Al-Otari to Tehran on Feb. 15, one day after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister, in Beirut in a massive explosion of which Syria and its Lebanese allies have been accused. The proposal for a Syria-Iran front was made by Otari in an attempt to counter new pressures by the US and the international community, with whom relations soured after the Hariri assassination - in addition to pressures created by massive Lebanese rallies against the Syrian presence in Lebanon.

However, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has since minimised the front's importance, saying it was not "their primary objective". Yet downplaying the strategic alliance came at a time when Iran and Syria were under increased international pressure. Both are accused of working together to derail the peace efforts between the Palestinians and Israel by providing assistance to Hizbollah, Hamas, and other radical groups.

In the early 1980s then Syrian President Hafez Al-Assad concluded several important treaties of co-operation with Iran covering geo-political, economic and military fields. The depth of that alliance was indicated by the creation of a "Higher Iranian-Syrian Joint Committee" whose purpose was to ensure policy co-ordination between the two states in virtually every area, including developments in Lebanon, Iraq and the Palestinian territories. The Tehran-Damascus alliance continued to develop after Hafez's death in June 2000, now under his son Bashar, and the two states have lately indicated they were prepared for even greater co-ordination. In Iranian President Mohammad Khatami's words, the principles formulated by the late Syrian ruler had "always been bilateral and... steadily improved".

After the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in May 2000, people expected Hizbollah to focus on domestic politics and economic reconstruction in the south. But after a short lull it launched a new war in the Sheb'a Farms - a disputed strip of land taken from Syria by Israeli forces in the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war - while Syria prevented the deployment of the Lebanese Army in the south. With growing pressures calling for a Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, Syria found in Hizbollah and other proxies favourable allies. Syria managed also to get some Hizbollah volunteers move into Iraq and join the Sadrist Shiites.

In Lebanon, meanwhile, opposition to Damascus has been growing among all sectarian communities as evidenced in a recent Beirut rally of over one million citizens. Yet following Assad's decision to withdraw all his troops and intelligence assets by April 30, Hizbollah's unqualified support for Syrian influence has continued, while Iran has remained silent. The complications of the assassination of Hariri and the Syrian withdrawal, along with the complexities of the Iranian nuclear issue, have created a tense situation in Lebanon and in the region.

Now whether or not the links which Syria is providing for the Sadrists and Hizbollah will lead to a big Shiite insurgency against the US-led foreign presence in Iraq remains to be seen. Also remains to be seen is whether the "unified front" between Syria and Iran will become a reality.

The Bush administration has defined both the Ja'fari theocracy in Iran and the Baathist regime of Syria as its main antagonists in the Middle East and relations with them have become extremely tense, including the possibility of enforcing international sanctions against them. In addition, both Assad's regime and the Iranian theocracy are facing American and Israeli military threats.

Under such pressures, and in the absence of active dialogue with the US, the two regimes may take the only possible option remaining open to them: to create under the auspices of Tehran and Damascus an alliance encompassing the Sadrist movement and the Sunni/Baathist insurgency in Iraq, together with Hizbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, as spearheads for a two-pronged resistance to American interests and to Israel.

Yet such an alliance cannot survive without the backing of a super-power able to challenge American hegemony. There is no Soviet Union left to lean on; nor is Europe ready for such a role. But it is not clear yet whether Assad and Iran's theocrats realise what is really happening around the world and what the Bush administration is still capable of doing to them both.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map
Geographic Code:7SYRI
Date:Apr 18, 2005
Words:809
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