Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Syria's Relations with Iran: Managing the Dilemmas of Alliance

Academic journal article The Middle East Journal

Syria's Relations with Iran: Managing the Dilemmas of Alliance

Article excerpt

Syria's relations with Iran illustrate the importance of what Glenn Snyder calls the "alliance dilemma." Efforts to strengthen the strategic partnership with Tehran have had a direct impact on Damascus's policies toward regional rivals. Nevertheless, the connection between the alliance game and the adversary game is not as straightforward as one might think. Whenever one ally adopts a posture of moderate hostility toward an adversary, the other is likely to engage in initiatives that might entrap both of them in unwanted conflicts. But if one partner assumes an inordinately hostile stance toward an adversary, the other tends to restrain itself for fear of being caught up in a general war. Likewise, when one ally makes moderate overtures to a rival, the other takes steps to realign preemptively. But if one partner acts in an extremely conciliatory manner toward an adversary, the other is more apt to shore up the alliance than to look for new partners. Making sense of the connection between Syria's alliance with Iran and its recent policies toward Turkey, Iraq, and Israel requires a reformulation of the alliance dilemma.

For the last twenty-five years, Syria has confronted a trio of strategic adversaries: Turkey, Iraq, and Israel. At the same time, Syria has cultivated a major ally: the Islamic Republic of Iran.1 Using somewhat technical language, one can say that the Ba'thi leadership in Damascus has been engaged in a set of three adversary games, and simultaneously has been involved in a crucial alliance game. These games are almost impossible to keep separate from one another. Damascus's relations with its primary adversaries have had important consequences for relations with its key strategic partner, while the moves that Syria has made in the alliance game with Iran have had a direct impact on its dealings with Turkey, Iraq, and Israel.

More precisely, Syria's partnership with the Islamic Republic entails what Glenn Snyder calls an "alliance dilemma." Whenever Damascus takes firm steps to confront one of its adversaries, Iran can be expected to grow more confident and assertive. The leadership in Tehran is then likely to carry out risky foreign policy initiatives that have the potential to draw Syria into conflicts in which it has no intrinsic interest. Snyder calls this dynamic "entrapment."2 On the other hand, whenever the Syrian government moves to conciliate a major adversary, Iran is apt to worry that Damascus is preparing to abandon it. The leadership in Tehran then will refrain from pursuing dangerous foreign policy initiatives and may even make overtures of its own to the adversary, a move that Snyder labels "pre-emptive realignment."3 A state's policies toward adversaries, therefore, have a significant impact on relations with its allies, and the consequences often prove detrimental to that state's underlying security interests.

Faced with this underlying dilemma, Syria has for the most part kept its commitments to Iran loose and fluid. This posture has enabled Damascus to avoid being dragged into simmering conflicts in the Gulf, although it has left Syria vulnerable to being abandoned by Tehran.4 Still, Syria's comparatively loose ties to the Islamic Republic have not eliminated the possibility that it will become entrapped in unwanted conflicts. For example, as the 1980s drew to a close, Syria and Turkey adopted more belligerent postures toward one another. Ankara expressed growing irritation over Damascus's failure to rein in Kurdish and Armenian militants and stop them from carrying out armed attacks against Turkish targets.3 In October 1989, a pair of Syrian MiG-21 interceptors crossed into Turkish airspace east of Iskandarun and shot down a Turkish survey plane, killing the five civilians on board.6 Turkey responded by announcing that it planned to shut off the southward flow of the Euphrates River for an entire month, purportedly to fill the massive reservoir behind the newly-completed Ataturk Dam. …

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