Syrian President Bashar Al Assad went to Tehran last Saturday for a much publicised meeting with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. His two-day visit received a lot of media attention, coming in the midst of Saudi-Iranian talks over Lebanon, the situation in Palestine and much speculation on how Syria can help combat the insurgency in Iraq.
By all accounts, Syria's allies seem to be winning throughout the region. In Palestine, despite all the thunder, Hamas has been called in to form another government with Esmail Haniya as prime minister. This is a victory for Syria. Its allies in Iraq, headed by President Jalal Talabani, are putting great effort in normalising relations between Baghdad and Damascus. And in Lebanon, Hezbollah is still struggling to bring down the anti-Syrian cabinet of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. They have not won in Lebanon, but they certainly are not losing. The situation in each of these three countries is linked, one way or another, to the Syrian-Iranian alliance. If anything, Bashar's visit to Tehran is further proof that to the great displeasure of the United States, this relationship is intact.
The Syrians have long realised that so long as George W. Bush is in the White House, a rapprochement with Washington is difficult.
The same applies to France ruled by Jacques Chirac. Since the doors to Washington and Paris are closed, the only alternative for Syria are the doors to the other "superpower". For the sake of argument, let us describe Iran as a superpower, or a superpower in-the-making, or at least, a regional superpower. It is engaged in its own Cold War with the US, resembling, in many cases, the standoff between the US and the USSR during the better part of the 20th century. Syria was forced to take sides in the 1950s and is forced again to take sides in 2007.
Was Syria anti-American to start out with? Only briefly, in 1963-1970, can the Syrian government be described as anti-American. Did it side with the USSR out of conviction or need? I would say need. Some would say that taking sides in the Cold War, as early as 1956, was fatal for Syria. I believe Syria had no other choice. The Americans forced it into the Soviet Bloc.
In the late 1940s, the United States asked the Syrians to sign an armistice with Israel, fight communism in Damascus and ratify the Tapline Agreement, giving transit rights to US oil companies through Syria.
The Syrians refused all three on the grounds of ideology (armistice), democracy (communism) and principal (Tapline).
The CIA famously told the Embassy in Damascus, "if you cannot change the board, change the players". The US retaliated by staging a coup d'etat and replacing the first democratically elected post-colonial republic with a pro-US military dictatorship, headed by General Husni Al Za'im. He answered all of America's worries.
After a tug-of-war between the US and Great Britain in 1949-1954, Syria began charting its own course, with real democracy in 1954. Under the outgoing regime of president Adib Al Shishakli, who initially was supported by the Americans, the US announced that Syria was the only country in the East, after Saudi Arabia, that was eligible for US military aid.
It conditioned, however, that Syria not use the arms it gets to fight Israel. Shishakli refused and he was toppled in 1954. During the elections of 1955, the ballots brought a communist into the Syrian parliament.
The US began talking of regime change in Damascus and even financed two failed coups in the late 1950s.
President Shukri Al Quwatli came out, for the first time in Syrian history, and described the US as "an enemy" in July 1957. It was the Americans who had removed him from office in 1949, promoting, as US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said many years later in Egypt in 2005, "stability over democracy". What else could Al Quwatli do? The Americans were financing revolution in Syria. They were calling on Syria's neighbours to invade and topple the regime. They were levying accusations of regional adventurism against the Syrians. All of this was being done to a country that was never - in principal - anti-American.
All of the above might explain why Syria is moving closer to Iran today. Replace "USSR" with Iran and "Shukri Al Quwatli" with "Bashar Al Assad" and you have an identical scenario. Just like in 1948, the US is asking the Syrians to do things that simply, the Syrians cannot do. In 1948 it was Tapline and armistice. In 2007 it has become Hamas, Hezbollah and Iraq.
Israeli aggression led Al Quwatli to go to Moscow in 1956. It has taken Bashar Al Assad to Tehran today, in 2007.
Concerning the dilemma in Syrian-US relations, the US secretary of state John Foster Dulles wrote in late 1957: "Efforts to persuade moderate Arab leaders to take an overt hard line towards Syria have failed. What alternatives do we have? Force is ruled out. Clandestine activity would not succeed. A hard line from the West would only drive Syria closer to the Soviet Bloc."
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.