New York Times: For a long time, the top-selling poster in Hassan al-Sheikh’s gift shop here showed President Bashar al-Assad of Syria seated beside the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon. A few weeks ago a slightly different poster overtook it, this one with the Syrian president, the Hezbollah leader and Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
The New York Times
By MICHAEL SLACKMAN
SAYEDA ZEINAB, Syria, June 24 For a long time, the top-selling poster in Hassan al-Sheikh’s gift shop here showed President Bashar al-Assad of Syria seated beside the leader of Hezbollah in Lebanon. A few weeks ago a slightly different poster overtook it, this one with the Syrian president, the Hezbollah leader and Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Mr. Sheikh’s shop is on a bustling street in Sayeda Zeinab beside the entrance to a Shiite shrine that shares a name with the town, and both have been packed with Iranian pilgrims, many more than in years past.
Those changes illustrate what may well be a worrying phenomenon for Washington as it seeks to contain Iran and isolate Syria: the two governments, and their people, are tightening relations on several fronts as power in the region shifts away from the once dominant Sunni to Shiites, led by Iran.
This is, in part, the result of the American installation of a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-led government. But it is also spurred by the growing belief in Arab capitals that the Bush administration may soon negotiate a deal with Tehran over Iraq and nuclear weapons.
Arab governments once hostile to Iran have begun to soften their public posture after decades of animosity toward Tehran. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt met Iran’s national security chief, Ali Larijani, in Cairo recently, and Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, visited Tehran this month and declared the two nations to be good friends. In addition, Iranian officials recently sent messages of friendship to every Persian Gulf state.
Amid all that activity, Syria has managed to inflate its power in the region by playing a subtle double game and setting itself up as a possible go-between.
On one hand, it is offering Iran the chance to develop a strong and unified crescent of influence extending from Syria to the Palestinian territories, now led by Hamas, a Syrian and Iranian ally. On the other, Syria, which has a secular-oriented government but is made up of different religious sects and ethnic groups, has held itself out as an important player in the Sunni effort to limit the spread of Shiite influence. That has helped it with Arab countries and has attracted investment from the around the gulf, diplomats and political analysts in Syria said.
“Syria will work to use its role as a pivotal point to get the most from both the Arabs and Iranians,” said Ayman Abdel Nour, a political analyst and Baath Party member who works for more political freedoms.
Syria’s strategy has helped it win crucial support at a time when it is cut off from the United States and Europe. But political analysts and government officials say it is also a risky strategy, one that could weaken Syria if Iran cuts a deal with the West over its nuclear program and abandons its ally in Damascus.
“Syrian officials are worried about America making a deal with Iran,” said Marwan Kabalan, a political science professor at Damascus University. “Syrians fear that Iranians will use them as a card to buy something from America.”
At the same time, Iran’s efforts to bolster Shiism in parts of Syria come as the government here is confronted by the rise of radical Islamic ideas that many say are being exported from the gulf region. Though relations with Iran are widely perceived as a political alliance rather than a religious one, the confluence of the two forces could aggravate sectarian rivalries. Tensions among Syria’s many religious and ethic groups burn so hot beneath the surface of the society that newspapers are forbidden from identifying sects even when reporting on Iraq.
Syria and Iran began establishing closer ties decades ago, but the real strides have been recent.
Syria has signed expanded military and economic agreements with Tehran covering everything from telecommunications projects to higher education. Syria will buy missiles from Iran. Iran will build cement and car plants in Syria.
At the same time, Arab nations that have been cool to Syria are now reaching out to it. Syria received the king of Bahrain this month, he met Thursday with Mr. Mubarak, and this week President Assad held a telephone conference with King Abdullah II of Jordan. Relations between Amman and Damascus became strained when Jordanian officials accused Syria of allowing Hamas to smuggle weapons across Syrian territory and into Jordan charges Syria has denied.
“Iran injected Syria with a lot of confidence: stand up, show defiance,” said Sami Moubayed, a political analyst and writer in Damascus. “Iran is giving them advice. This is certain.”
European diplomats here said that Syria’s turn away from the West and toward Iran and other Eastern countries had also been part of a domestic power struggle between two forces within the government. Those who favored at least trying to keep a foot in the door with Europe have been silenced, and those seeking to shift Syria toward the East have been empowered, said the diplomats who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid aggravating tensions between their governments and Damascus.
When Hafez al-Assad, the former Syrian president, forged ties with Iran decades ago, his government had the upper hand. Iran had recently gone through a revolution that ousted the shah and installed a religious system that was only just finding its footing. Then Saddam Hussein’s military invaded, and Iran was grateful that with Syria’s support, Mr. Hussein was unable to define his war as a battle of Arabs versus Persians, Shiites versus Sunnis.
While Syria offered Iran strategic support, Iran repaid Syria with economic aid like cheap oil. At the same time, the two shared an interest in building up Hezbollah, the militia group considered a terrorist organization by the United States and a resistance force by the Lebanese.
Today the relationship is fundamentally different, with Iran holding the dominant position as its strength in the region, and the world, is elevated and Syria’s is compromised. “Iran in the last few years became stronger and Syria became weaker,” said Dr. Samir al-Taqi, a health adviser to the Syrian government and the director of a research institute focused on international affairs. “Now everyone is asking what Iran will do if it cuts a deal with America?”
Iran’s ambassador to Syria, Muhammad Hassan Akhtari, who served as chief of staff for Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, for seven years, said in an interview that Syrians had been assured that Iran would not accept any compromise with the West if it was “against the interest of Syria.”
He also said that over the past 27 years, since the earliest days of the revolution, Iran had the opportunity to make a deal and “did not sell out its friends.”
“Now that Iran is stronger,” he added, “why would it sell out its friends, and sell out Syria?”
The risks also involve domestic affairs as Syria struggles against an increase in religious identification, particularly among Sunnis, and signs that the most radical interpretations of Islam have begun to spread in Syria.
That fight goes back to Hafez al-Assad’s reign, when he sent the army to wipe out the city of Hama, where the Muslim Brotherhood had started an uprising. Recently, Bashar al-Assad’s government reported killing a small group of Islamic terrorists planning to attack a government building in the center of Damascus.
All of this could present a challenge for a government controlled by a religious minority the Alawites and a political party that identifies itself as secular, the Baath Party.
“Our situation is so difficult now in the Islamic street,” said Muhammad Habash, a Syrian lawmaker and the director of the liberal-leaning Islamic Studies Center in Damascus. “Foreign influences, by which I mean mainly Saudi influences, or Wahhabi influences, are creating dangerous discussions in this region.”
Those forces promote the idea that Shiites are not proper Muslims and in some cases declare them to be apostates.
For the moment, though, many people say that Iran’s opposition to the West and its long ties to Syria generally have broad support here.
“The three are practically the only ones challenging the United States,” said the shopkeeper selling posters of Mr. Ahmadinejad, Mr. Assad and the leader of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. “That’s why we put them in a picture together. They are the only ones who say no.”
But the influx of religious pilgrims in Syria some estimates exceed a million a year and the Iranian investment in Shiite shrines in the north, could increase tensions.
Still, the prospect of inflaming sectarian tensions is, for now, a distant threat compared with the immediate benefits of Syria’s Iran policy.
“At the beginning of his term, the president tried to make contacts with the Western world,” said Intisar Junis, a Syrian television anchor. “I can’t imagine that he is a real friend to Iran, but now he has no choice. Europe and the U.S. forced his choice; they closed all the other doors to him.”
Katherine Zoepf contributed reporting from Damascus, Syria, for this article.