Because of its strategic location between the two twentieth-century centers of Arab power, Egypt and Iraq, Syria has been for many decades a bellwether of Arab politics, viewed widely in the region as the heartland of Arab nationalism. The fact that the first major pan-Arab nationalist party, the Baath, was established in Syria and the leading roleplayed by Syrian (including Lebanese) intellectuals and activists in making pan-Arab ideology popular contributed greatly to this perception.
Moreover, whichever ideological or political trend emerged victorious in Syria came to dominate, more often than not, the Arab political scene. This was true in the 1950s and 1960s during the time of a "cold war" between “revolutionary” military regimes espousing the cause of Arab nationalism and conservative monarchies determined to hold on to their power and privilege. According to one analyst, today’s regional politics are showing signs of a new cold war, "and, once again, that broader conflict is manifesting itself in a struggle for Syria.”
But this new cold war extends beyond the Arab world. Saudi Arabia is being challenged by non-Arab Iran. Also, the ideological lines of conflict are blurry. Arch-conservative Gulf monarchies, steadfastly opposed to democracy in their own countries, support democracy in Syria, along with non-Arab democratic Turkey. Meanwhile, the authoritarian Assad has the support of Iran, whose hybrid political system encompasses both clerical and representative institutions.
Some argue that Iran’s role in the current regional cold war has introduced sectarian (Shia versus Sunni) as well ethnic (Persian versus Arab) divisions into the region. But Tehran supports Assad largely for strategic rather than sectarian (leave alone ethnic) reasons. Syria has been Iran’s only loyal Arab ally, even during the devastating Iran-Iraq War imposed on Iran by Iraq. All other Arab regimes, principally the Gulf monarchs newly flush with petrodollars, not only supported Iraq but largely financed Saddam’s war machine. Equally important, if not more so, is the fact that since the 1980s Syria has been the principal conduit for Iranian military and financial assistance to the Lebanese Hezbollah and, until recently, to Hamas.
The relationship’s economic dimension also is important. Syria has become a crucial economic lifeline for Iran. As one analyst puts it, "As both countries become increasingly isolated from the international community their economic ties have become exceedingly more important.” These ties have included a $10 billion agreement signed just before the Syrian uprising began for the construction of a gas pipeline running though Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and reaching Europe via the Mediterranean.
Additionally, Assad’s Syria is perceived by Iran as a part of the “resistance” front against Israel, one of Iran’s two primary regional antagonists — the other being Saudi Arabia. It is the authoritarian Sunni Arab regimes, such as those in Saudi Arabia and Jordan (and until recently in Egypt under Mubarak), that have fanned the fires of sectarian conflict by dubbing Iran’s support to Syria’s Alawite regime as sectarian and part of an Iranian effort to create a Shia crescent to dominate the Middle East. This allegation makes little sense when applied to Iran’s policy toward Syria since the Alawites are considered heretics or even non-Muslims by most Muslims, Sunni and Shia alike. But the allegation resonates with some because of the Shia-dominated Iraqi government’s close relationship with Iran and Hezbollah’s dependence upon Iran for military and financial support.
But Iran’s policy both toward Iraq and Hezbollah is driven only partly by sectarian-religious considerations. Tehran considers it essential to have a friendly regime in Baghdad because it cannot afford a re-run of its war with Iraq, which inflicted colossal damage on both countries but particularly on Iran. Saddam’s fall empowered Iraq’s Shia majority, which bolsters Iran’s sense of security vis-à-vis its neighbor. All major Shia parties in Iraq are led by people beholden to Iran, which gave them refuge and training during Saddam’s rule. The Lebanese Hezbollah has had close religious and ideological ties with Iran’s ruling clerical elements, but the relationship also has a strategic logic. Hezbollah is the only Arab force capable of standing up to Israel and giving it a bloody nose, as it did during the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. Hezbollah’s military capabilities provide Iran a backdoor option against Israel in case of an Israeli or American attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities.
Conversely, Saudi Arabia supports the Sunni-dominated opposition against the Assad regime not so much for sectarian reasons but because of the latter’s connection with Iran. For the Saudis and their monarchical allies in the Persian Gulf, keeping Iran bogged down in the Syrian quagmire diverts Tehran’s attention and capabilities from the Gulf theatre. This benefits Gulf kingdoms apprehensive of the fallout from the Arab Spring on their own legitimacy and longevity. The uprising in Bahrain, brutally crushed by the al-Khalifa regime with military support from Saudi Arabia, has made the absolute rulers of the Gulf very nervous about their own future. Thus, they paint the democracy movement in Bahrain as an Iranian conspiracy in order to gain support from Arab publics and Western powers.