Barry Rubin: "Syria is still the main Sponsor and secure Base of the Insurgency in Iraq"
WSN: The fact that Syria attended the meeting in Annapolis has been widely seen as a positive signal. Some observers even saw a split between Syria and Iran, which refused to participate. Many observers asked the US to integrate Syria into the talks to enhance the chances for progress. What is your view?
In your book you pay a lot of attention to the axis of Iran-Syria-Hezbollah and Hamas. What is the glue that keeps this group together?
Barry Rubin: One thing many people fail to comprehend is just how strong this alliance is and how many material interests link these four parties. I have read dozens of articles and speeches in which politicians, academics, and journalists talk as if this is just some temporary and accidental alliance of convenience that can easily be broken apart. They simply ignore the evidence to the contrary—they don’t refute it they simply never mention it. This is dangerous, irresponsible, and alarming.
For Hezbollah and Hamas, of course, Tehran and Damascus are irreplaceable patrons. In general, they will allow the terrorist groups to do precisely what they want. (The exceptions are that Syria sometimes wants to restrain Hezbollah from attacking Israel because of timing issues but that is about the sole limitation.)
It is hardly ever mentioned that Mr. Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, is the official representative in Lebanon of Iran’s supreme guide, the true leader of Iran’s regime. For Iran and Syria, Hezbollah is their client in Lebanon, both to gain influence in that country and to attack Israel. For Hezbollah, Tehran and Damascus provide money, protection, secure rear bases, trainers, and logistical assistance. There is simply no other source of these things available. And of course Hezbollah is also linked to Tehran through ideological affinity and respect for Iran’s revolution. This link is unbreakable.
The same can be said for Hamas (and for that matter Palestinian Islamic Jihad) and the two radical regimes. In the case of Hamas, of course, they share the common goal of an Islamist regime running a Palestinian state and eliminating Israel. The two sponsors put no restrictions on Hamas. They want it to defeat Fatah; they want it to launch the maximum amount of terrorist attacks on Israel.
The lynchpin of this alliance is the relationship between Iran and Syria. The way this issue is often treated in public discussions is shameful because all the evidence for why it is so long-lasting and strong is ignored. For Syria, Iran provides: Islamist legitimacy, which helps preserve the regime despite the fact that it is run by non-Muslims; massive direct aid and investment, which keeps Syria’s weak economy going; subsidizing Hamas and Hezbollah, which benefits Syrian interests at no cost to Damascus; paying for Syrian arms’ purchases from Russia; fighting against U.S. interests, which fits perfectly with Syria’s policy and goals; and providing strategic depth, ensuring that Syria will not face military attack. The two countries have identical goals in Lebanon and on the Palestinian issue, including the blocking of any successful peace process.
For its part, Syria gives Iran entry into the Arab and Sunni world, something absolutely vital for its ambitions and for which there is no alternative. Syria provides a base for Iran to play a role in Lebanon, and on the Palestinian and anti-Israel front. For Tehran, too, the interests and goals of its ally on every issue are identical.
This is a huge basis for an alliance. Iraq, the only apparent conflict between them only further proves their closeness. After all, Syria backs the Sunnis; Iran has the Shias for clients. The two Iraqi communities are at war to a large extent. But this situation has never damaged Tehran-Damascus relations in the slightest because both seek a radical, Islamist, anti-American Iraq that will join their alliance.
The idea that the West can pull Syria away—something I hear over and over again from the columns of leading Western newspapers to meetings with Western foreign ministries, is absurd. What is the West going to offer Syria: the Golan Heights without having to make peace with Israel? Lebanon as a slave state? Unlimited arms? Billions of dollars in aid? Damascus would only accept these things if it did not have to change its policies—including the alliance with Iran. This makes such a deal ultimately unacceptable—and unprofitable—for the West.
WSN: You mention that Syria needs the continuous struggle with Israel for the survival of the dictatorial Assad regime at home. In the past, they rejected any chance of a compromise –e.g. Israel’s offer to give the Golan Heights back to Syria. Is there no chance that reforms in Syria might lead to a more democratic and moderate regime under Bashar Assad? Why?
Barry Rubin: But Bashar has no interest in reform! He knows reform would destroy him, this is a lesson he drew from the collapse of the USSR. In fact, he has killed reform. The idea that Bashar is interested in reforms is a second myth that persists when all evidence is to the contrary. Syria can arrest the reformers and throw them in prison and torture them. Bashar can make virtually no change and yet people still talk like this.
WSN: In your view Syria was able to forge an “Arab nationalist-Islamist synthesis” – though the Assad dynasty is not of Muslim faith. In spite of its economic weakness Syria has become the leader of the Arabic world. Who are the allies and partners of Syria and who are the opposing forces?
Barry Rubin: I would definitely not say Syria has become leader of the Arab world! I would only say that it has become the chief Arab patron of the Islamist movement but after all Syria has not succeeded in any of its main goals and won’t do so except through Western appeasement.
It is important to note that while Syria talks an Arab nationalist line it has abandoned Arab solidarity to side with Iran. The rest of the Arab world is well aware of this. Clearly opposed to Syria is the government of Lebanon and the majority of people there, the Saudis, and Jordan. The same applies to Iraq. The Egyptians and the rest of the Gulf Arab states are more subtle about it but are also on the other side. And Israel, of course.
WSN: Lebanon is still a kind of colony of Syria in spite of the withdrawal of Syrian troops. Why is Lebanon that important for Syria? What are the chances that Lebanon will free itself of Syria’s power and influence in the near future? Is there a risk that the West might give up the idea of a free and independent Lebanon to achieve compromises with Syria?
Barry Rubin: I would not say it is a colony. That is precisely why Syria is attacking it. Syria, of course, has a lot of influence in Lebanon through Hezbollah, Amal, and a variety of politicians from different communities. It has agents in Lebanon’s army and intelligence while also controlling small terrorist groups like Fatah al-Islam.
Lebanon has freed itself largely from Syria’s power and influence. It is more independent than at any time in the last 35 years. But, yes, there is a real chance of the West selling out Lebanon and this possibility—along with evidence making it seem more likely—is demoralizing the Lebanese independence struggle.
WSN: You pay a lot of respect to Bashar Assad and his dead father Hafiz, because they were and are able to deceive the Western world about their strategic goals and objectives. They have obviously been able to hide behind the actions of Hamas and Hezbollah, who they supply with weapons and money together with Iran. They even tolerate official offices of Islamic terrorist organizations in Damascus. How could Syria achieve the image of being a possible broker in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?
Barry Rubin: This is an interesting issue and the main answer seems to be that the West is far more desperate for a resolution than is the Arab world, or the Palestinians for that matter. The Syrians merely have to hint that they are interested in peace for most observers to forget the history of their behavior and the nature of their interests.
WSN: What role does Syria play in Iraq? Is Syria still a transition corridor for terrorists and extremists from the mainly Arabic world into Iraq? Is Syria another safe haven for those groups? Are Islamic terrorists a possible danger for Syria? What type of Iraq would best suit Syria’s national interests?
Barry Rubin: It is important to note a simple point of fact. Syria is still the main sponsor and secure base of the insurgency. The insurgency is led by al-Qaida. Thus, Syria is now an ally of al-Qaida, at least since 2004. Nothing could be more obvious yet such a statement would be quite controversial in mainstream circles, which shows how bizarre discussion about the Middle East has become. Thus when the “mysterious” terrorist group Fatah al-Islam appears in Lebanon, where it pursues Syrian interests, it is said to be linked to al-Qaida which “proves” that it has nothing to do with Syria.
Islamist terrorism is not a danger to Syria in the short- to medium-run though it could turn against Syria in future. By the way, what are the most likely circumstances that it could do so, and win support among Syria’s Sunni majority? Answer: if Syria were to become more moderate, make peace with Israel, and abandon Iran to turn Westward. The Syrian government knows this and it is one more incentive not to change course.
As for what kind of Iraq is desired by Damascus, the answer is a radical Iraq that would expel U.S. forces and become part of the Iran-Syria alliance. It must ensure that any relatively moderate Iraqi government fails, using violence to destabilize it. From Syria’s standpoint, the exact arrangement between Sunni and Shia is of relative unimportance in this equation.