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The Syrian-Iranian Relationship: Do We Get It Now? Did We Ever?

March 8, 2012

Destruction of Hama, Syria - 1982

Last Saturday, Joby Warrick and Liz Sly of the Washington Post detailed Iranian involvement in the on-going Syrian crisis. Iran’s actions have complicated our efforts in the Middle East, and a look back at declassified intelligence documents from 30 years ago shows that this complication is nothing new. Syria’s al-Assad dynasty has a history of horrific violence against its own people, and the United States has been unsure how to proceed, partly because the intelligence community has not had a unified stance on Iranian motives in Syria.

Photographs of a few of the tens of thousands of Syrians massacred in Hama in 1982.

In 1982 Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father, orchestrated an attack on Hama, a city in Western Syria. The ‘scorched earth’ style attack killed between 17,000 and 40,000 – predominately Sunni – Syrians. Shortly after the attack Hafez’s brother, Syrian Army General Rifaat al-Assad, bragged that the total was 38,000 dead. The Hama Massacre is considered to be one of the worst atrocities by any dictator against his own people in modern history.

A quote from Rifaat al-Assad on the number of Syrians slaughtered in Hama - excerpt taken from Thomas L. Friedman's "From Beirut to Jerusalem."

During the Hama Massacre, the Iran-Iraq War was just getting started, and Syria had initially sided with its fellow Ba’athists in Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein. This was unsurprising, as both Iraqis and Syrians had even tried briefly to combine their two countries and re-create the ancient Kingdom of Iraq. However, by 1982, Iraq was continually frustrated with al-Assad, and severed all diplomatic ties over his “brutal suppression of the Muslim Brotherhood.” Iraq’s exit from Syria in early 1982 allowed Iran to exert its influence shortly thereafter.

A re-examination of a declassified CIA document from 1982 affirms the growing relationship between Iran and Syria. In March 1982 Iran and Syria reached an economic agreement that would send subsidized Iranian oil to Syria, and close Iraq’s oil pipeline through Syrian territory.  Later that year, the US became aware of the presence of 2,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps troops traveling through Damascus, whom Hafez al-Assad helped move into Lebanon after the Israelis surrounded Beirut. These events can be seen as proof of a long-standing, pragmatic bond between the two repressive regimes. It confirms that it is Iran’s interest to aid Syria in its current emergency, as the two share a mutually beneficial, opportunistic relationship.

While CIA documents from the early 1980s point to an unscrupulous rapport between Syria and Iran, a contemporaneous intelligence report from the National Intelligence Council  –a rotating body of senior analysts and national security experts appointed by the Director of National Intelligence to support the National Security Council– muddles the picture.

Excerpt from the NIC report on the important role Iran plays in fueling the global economy.

The NIC’s interpretation of events of what Iran wanted from Syria was very different from the CIA’s. A fascinating, formerly secret NIC report from July 1982 outlining “The Iranian Threat to American Interests in the Persian Gulf,” argues that the US’s main concern was the disruption of Iranian oil supplies to the West. The report argues that, in 1982, three years after the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Iranian leaders hoped to eventually replace the secular Ba’athists regimes with fundamentalist Islamic ones. It argued that Iran would attempt to dominate the entire Levant and Persian Gulf with fundamentalist regimes that would fully support Tehran, and jeopardize Western economic power by shutting off the flow of oil.

Iranian soldier wears a chemical mask while fighting in the Iran-Iraq War.

Both CIA and National Intelligence Council accounts agree that Iran acted opportunistically in Syria, using it to pressure Iraq during a violent, decade-long struggle. And it’s logical that Iran wanted to use Syria to end the war with Iraq more quickly. The Iran-Iraq War was the longest conventional war of the 20th century, cost nearly $1.2 trillion, left 1,500,000 casualties, and shaped the political atmosphere of the Middle East. Though to what end Iran used Syria is up for debate.

So who got it right? The CIA or the National Intelligence Council? Has Iran been propping up the al-Assads for decades, or has it been trying to undermine the al-Assads and replace them with fundamentalist Islamists to help them cripple the West? The two are not necessarily mutually exclusive, though the CIA’s analysis seems more plausible – given that the al-Assads are still in power. What is more clear from the different accounts, though, is that in the 1980’s the United States intelligence community couldn’t agree on Iran’s motives, or how to protect American and interests, or save lives in Syria.

Thirty years after Hafez al-Assad’s attack in Hama, thousands of Syrians are still dying at the hands of his son, and Iran continues to have more leverage over and understanding of Syria than the United States.

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