NEAR EAST REPORT AIPAC'S BIWEEKLY ON AMERICAN MIDDLE EAST POLICY

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Syrian President Bashar Assad was awarded Iran’s highest national medal in October 2010 by his Iranian counterpart Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
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Iranian warships docked at the Syrian seaport of Latakia in February to demonstrate Tehran’s support for its isolated ally.
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Economic cooperation between Syria and Iran includes joint projects, such as a car factory Syrian President Bashar Assad inaugurated in Dec. 2007 in the city of Homs.

Iran Keeping the Assad Regime in Syria Afloat

While his counterparts in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have succumbed to massive anti-government protests, Syrian President Bashar Assad has withstood a 14-month-long uprising against his autocratic regime. Assad has managed to hold onto power despite an economy crippled by international sanctions and the presence of an armed opposition. A key factor in Assad’s success has been the support of his only remaining regional ally, Iran.

Strategic Allies

Driven by common traits and interests, the alliance between Syria and Iran was formed soon after Iran’s 1979 revolution. Iran is a predominantly Shiite country, and though a majority of Syrians are Sunnis, the Assads, who have ruled Syria for over 40 years, hail from the minority Alawite community, a Shiite offshoot. Ignoring their differences—the Assad regime is guided by a strictly secular ideology while Iran is a theocracy—the countries have developed unprecedented political, economic and military ties.

During the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War, when most Arab states backed Iraq, Damascus sided with Iran, providing the country invaluable diplomatic and military support. The countries cooperated in building and assisting a network of terrorist groups in the Levant, including Hizballah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Both Iran and Syria later cultivated ties with Iraqi militias, supplying aid to forces that challenged the U.S. presence in Iraq and targeted American troops there.

Assad Still Around

The Iran-Syria alliance has proven particularly beneficial to Bashar Assad over the past year, as his regime faces the most violent and prolonged upheaval of the Arab Spring.

The uprising began peacefully in March 2011, with demonstrators demanding democratic reforms, but quickly spiraled into bloodshed. Having brutally suppressed protests with the help of tanks and snipers, Assad now confronts an armed insurgency in addition to peaceful civilian demonstrations. His regime has become the subject of international opprobrium and the target of increasing sanctions imposed by the United States and E.U. Syria’s economy is in tatters, devastated by trade embargoes and the collapse of its vital tourist industry, while the opposition is supported in various ways by much of the West, the Arab world and Turkey.

Nonetheless, Assad is still around. Efforts by the Arab League and United Nations to resolve the situation through diplomacy have failed, and calls for Assad to step down have been replaced by acknowledgments that he may remain in power for some time. Pledges by the regime to withdraw from population centers—in accordance with a cease-fire that was supposed to have begun April 12—have not been fulfilled, as security forces carry on their assault on residential neighborhoods. The death toll recently surpassed 9,000 and thousands more continue to flee the violence.

Crucial Iranian Support

A divided opposition and the loyalty of Assad’s inner circle have been important in ensuring his survival. But no less crucial is the political, financial and military support provided by a dwindling circle of allies. And among these allies, Iran’s assistance has been particularly substantial and well-documented.

The Islamic Republic has plenty of experience in quashing political dissent, having launched a brutal crackdown on the opposition following the fraudulent presidential elections in 2009. It is no coincidence that the authorities in Damascus have followed the Iranian model. Iranian Revolutionary Guard officials have frequently traveled to Syria to advise the Assad regime on how to deal with the rebels and to train Syrian troops. Tehran has continuously provided Syria with arms and technical assistance, and has even agreed to fund a military base in Syria to enable it to transfer military hardware directly.

The Iranian arms shipments are “all the time, in a constant continuing effort,” said Major General Yair Golan, who heads the Israel Defense Forces’ Northern Command. “It is a full-throated effort by Iran to keep Assad there and oppress his own people,” Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Iran has also helped Assad deal with the financial aspects of the ongoing upheaval. Tehran is suspected of injecting at least $1 billion into the Syrian economy to stabilize the local currency, and the two countries have cooperated to bypass international sanctions imposed on Syria. Furthermore, the Assad regime has imported from Iran fuel that it needs for heavy vehicles, including army tanks, while relying on Iranian assistance to export its own oil.

Iran’s leaders have not been reticent about their support for Assad, whom they view as an outpost of resistance to Israel targeted by an American and Israeli plot. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has praised the Assad regime’s handling of the uprising, saying Iran would do “all in its power to support this country.”

Both Iran and Syria are more isolated than ever before. The two countries have grown increasingly close amid unprecedented sanctions, ensuring that Bashar Assad remains the ruler of Syria long beyond what many predicted.

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