Syria, Iran Wild Cards in Mideast Diplomacy

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A "marriage of convenience" between Syria and Iran is likely to complicate diplomatic efforts to halt fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. Many observers feel there can be no peace deal without Iran and Syria's consent.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

For years, the Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon have relied on political, military and logistical support from Syria and Iran. Those two countries have stepped up contact since the fighting began almost three weeks ago. And many analysts in the region believe there can be no peace deal without the backing of Syria and Iran.

NPR's Deborah Amos has that story from Damascus.

DEBORAH AMOS: Syria's partnership with Iran is more than 20 years old, but the crisis in Lebanon has brought them closer than ever before in the halls of government and on the streets.

In downtown Damascus at the Omayyad Mosque, the vast courtyard is crowded with Iranian tourists. Thousands of them come every year to visit one of the most sacred sites in Shiite Islam. Worshipers push into a small room to pray and to touch a silver shrine believed to contain the head of Hussein Iban Ali, the grandson of the prophet Muhammad. Fourteen hundred years ago, Hussein was killed in a battle against an overwhelming enemy. Today, for these Iranian pilgrims, the overwhelming enemy is the United States and Israel, says Mansur Sayad(ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MANSUR SAYAD: They are not right. Israel is not right.

AMOS: And do you think Hezbollah will win the battle?

SAYAD: Yes. But, not in near future. It will be long, a long war.

AMOS: The alliance between Syriah and Iran is based on shared interest, explains tourist Behruz Kadish Pur(ph), a stand against the United States.

BEHRUZ KADISH PUR: One of the best relations in the world between two countries, Iran and Syria, both are against the imperialism.

AMOS: It is surely an odd pairing. Iran is a Shiite Muslim power. Syria's population is predominantly Sunni Muslim, while Syria's ruling elite belongs to the minority Alawi sect. But the identity politics of the region seems to be less important to Syria's president. His partnership with Iran has put him at odds with the Sunni powers in the region and against the United States.

There is talk in the region and in Washington of driving a wedge between Syria and Iran, but the idea is dismissed by Syria's deputy foreign minister, Fayssal Mekdad.

FAYSSAL MEKDAD: I think these are crazy ideas. We think what we are doing is in the national interest of Syria. We are the only party who decides upon Syrian interests.

AMOS: The alliance is more visible, say Western diplomats, due to upheavals in the region. Washington's policy of isolating Syria, says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian analyst, only prompted Damascus to strengthen ties with Iran.

SAMI MOUBAYED: The Iranians have been good to the Syrians. There is no reason for the Syrians to turn their backs on Iran at this stage. Why should they with nobody else willing to ally themselves with Syria?

AMOS: Iran is willing to cement the alliance, say Western diplomats, because if Syria and Iran stick together, it's hard for the west to single one of them out. For Syria there have been rewards too, says Sami Moubayed, as the crisis builds in Lebanon.

MOUBAYED: The Syrians believe that their role is being enhanced, government speaking, that the world needs them to solve this crisis and that any solution to be done between Hezbollah, Iran, Syria, America and Israel it has to run through the Syrians. That's what the officials in Syria are saying.

AMOS: But so far, the Bush administration refuses high level talks with Damascus, depending instead on Arab allies to apply the pressure. The Sada Zena(ph) Mosque in Damascus is another sacred site for Shiite Muslims. Iran has poured money into the upkeep of these shrines and built Shiite mosques even in Syria's predominantly Sunni Muslim towns.

It is one way to project power. Another is backing Hezbollah in Lebanon. The financing from Iran, the arms shipments through Syria give both countries continued influence in Lebanon says Middle East analyst Nadim Shehadi.

NADIM SHEHADI: Syria and Iran can still cause a lot of trouble and derail any deal that is not convenient for them or that they would not agree with. So I think that any deal would have to take into account the whole regional aspects of this conflict in Lebanon.

AMOS: While Washington continue to shun Tehran and Damascus, European diplomats have opened high level talks with both in the last 48 hours as a peace deal begins to take shape.

Deborah Amos, NPR News, Damascus.

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