US dealing with Iran heightens Syria-Iran tensions. US said to undercut Syria's role as Mideast power broker
Jerusalem — Disclosures that the United States traded arms for hostages with Iran have inadvertantly highlighted tensions between Iran and Syria, Western diplomats say. By dealing directly with Iran to gain the freedom of American hostages in Lebanon, the US showed that it didn't need Syria as an intermediary. It also underscored how the balance of power has shifted in the Syrian-Iranian alliance as Iran gains influence in Lebanon and confidence in its war against Iraq, diplomats in Damascus said last week.
The increasing friction between Iran and Syria could have regional implications, one diplomat noted, ``because, at least in theory, Syria still could switch and throw its weight behind Iraq.''
Last week, Jordan's King Hussein renewed his efforts to reconcile Iraq and Syria, a goal he shares with Saudi Arabia's Prince Abdullah. Both Jordan and Saudi Arabia have supported Iraq in the six-year old Gulf War. Both have appealed to Syria to distance itself from Persian Iran, which since last year has occupied Arab soil - Iraq's Faw Peninsula.
Diplomats interviewed said they do not believe Syria will dramatically shift its allegiances soon in the Gulf War, because, in the words of one diplomat, ``the fact is that Syria now needs Iran more than Iran needs Syria.''
But the cracks in the uneasy alliance between revolutionary, radically Islamic Iran and the secular, socialist Syrian regime are widening - most visibly in Lebanon.
Using its power to shape Lebanon has long topped Syria's list of foreign policy priorities. Syria, which regards itself as a regional power, sees Lebanon as falling within its legitimate sphere of influence, diplomats in Damascus said. Since 1982, Syria has successfully eliminated US, French, and most Israeli influence from Lebanon. Syria has failed, however, to consolidate its own power over the warring Lebanese factions.
At first, pro-Iranian groups financed and inspired by Tehran proved useful to the Syrians in Lebanon. But in recent months, the Syrians have found themselves skirmishing with Iranian forces in Baalbek, a city in eastern Lebanon. They also have seen pro-Iranian groups join with Palestinians to fight the Syrian-backed Amal Shiite Muslim militia in south Lebanon.
``I wouldn't say the Syrians have lost control over the situation completely. But now they would have to pay too high a price to clean out [the pro-Iranian] Hizbullah, if they wanted to,'' one Western diplomat said. Feeling isolated itself and suffering serious economic problems, Syria would be hard pressed to find a replacement for Iran, should the alliance rupture, the diplomat said.
Syria's decision to ally itself with Iran in the early years of the Iran-Iraq war paid big dividends to Syrian President Hafez Assad for several years. It dealt a blow to a longtime foe, Iraq's President Saddam Hussein, and secured huge quantities of oil for Syria at concessionary rates from Iran. Refining and selling the estimated 6 million tons of oil Iran delivers to Syria annually provided Syria with much-needed foreign currency.
The quid pro quo for the oil, however, was Iranian access to Lebanon. It has been allowed to send weapons, fighters, and mullahs through Damascus to Baalbek and south Lebanon. The pro-Iranian forces initially attacked Western, then Israeli targets in Lebanon. But south Lebanon, with its largely Shiite Muslim population, has proved the only fertile ground for the export of Iran's Islamic revolution, and the Iranians eventually found their goals diverging from that of their Syrian allies.
It is only this year that Syria and Iran seemed to differ seriously over the course to pursue in Lebanon, diplomats say. They clashed when pro-Iranian organizations started attacking the UN Interim Force in Lebanon which is deployed in southern Lebanon. Syria supports UNIFIL's presence in south Lebanon and grew seriously alarmed when France threatened to withdraw its contingent after pro-Iranian guerrillas attacked their positions, diplomats in Damascus said.
Still, it was widely assumed until last week that Syria retained leverage over the Iranians and, through them, over the pro-Iranian Lebanese groups holding some 22 foreign hostages.
That assumption was shaken by the release of American hostage David Jacobsen by his pro-Iranian captors in west Beirut rather than Damascus. Syrian officials had alerted news agencies before the release that ``several'' hostages were to be released and that they would come through Damascus. Instead, Mr. Jacobsen was found walking in west Beirut alone.
Syria's relegation to the sidelines in the hostage negotiations became clear when the speaker of the Iranian parliament then disclosed that Washington was dealing directly with Tehran for the hostages.
Syria had used its assumed leverage over the shadowy groups holding the hostages to play a much-publicized role in such dramatic events as the June, 1985, TWA hijacking. The hijacking ended when the hostages were turned over to Syrian intelligence officers and driven by car to Damascus, where they were released.
Ironically, Washington press reports now say it was the TWA hijacking that convinced US officials they should be dealing with Iran rather than Syria. Officials noted it took the intervention of a senior Iranian official who flew to Damascus in the last days of the crisis to secure the release of the last four TWA hostages, who were held by the pro-Iranian Shiite militia, Hizbullah.
It was after the hijacking that the US reportedly accepted an Israeli idea to ship arms to Iran through Israel in exchange for the release of individual hostages. That arrangement continued until Hashemi Rafsanjani, the Iranian speaker of the parliament, disclosed the secret visit to Tehran of Robert McFarlane, President Reagan's former national security adviser, triggering a wave of disclosures about the secret deal between Washington and Tehran.