Inside Story

Iran and Syria: A show of strength and unity

Is the arrival of Iranian warships in Syria a symbolic move or is the uprising there no longer a solely Syrian affair?

Tehran says that two of its navy ships have docked in western Syria to train the Syrian navy under an agreement signed last year. It is only the second time that they have done so since the Islamic revolution in 1979. 

Iran’s state media said the ships docked in the port of Tartus on Saturday, after entering the Mediterranean Sea through the Suez Canal.

Another angle to it is that Iran has a very vested interest in stabilising the Assad regime. Iran has also reportedly given over $1bn in aid to Syria to help cushion the blow of UN sanctions, and there are reports that 15,000 Iranian troops are on their way to Syria to help calm the situation.”

– Joshua Goodman, the communications director at the Transatlantic Institute

It also said that Tehran and Damascus had agreed on the mission last year when Iranian vessels docked in Syria the first time – a mission that Israel condemned as a “provocation”.

Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and his government are now mostly diplomatically isolated, but they still have powerful friends.

Russia and China have prevented the possibility of outside military intervention with a UN mandate. And Iran’s leadership, which relies on Syria to promote its interests in the Arab world, is no longer just voicing its support, but taking concrete measures.

Youcef Bouandel, a professor of International Affairs, told Al Jazeera: “The sending of these warships will have two meanings. The first one is that ‘yes, we are powerful and we can close the Strait of Hormuz if you impose sanctions on us’. And secondly, ‘we stand with our ally’.”

In a meeting with a number of navy commanders, Rear Admiral Habibollah Sayyari, the Iranian navy chief, said the mission was a show of might and a message of peace.

“The naval fleet will prove that enemies’ sanctions against the Islamic Republic have neither hindered Iran’s scientific progress nor decreased the country’s military capability,” he said.

It can be seen as a moral or spiritual support to Bashar al-Assad .… I don’t think Iran is deliberately acting to provoke any power. It is also sending the message to the US, Israel and perhaps to the EU leaders that it will not back down regardless of sanctions or the threat of military intervention”

– Sadegh Zibakalam, a political science professor at Tehran University

Sayyari added that one of the goals of the mission is to provide training to students of the Imam Khomeini Naval Academy, which is located on the Caspian Sea.

Iran’s government has warned the international community not to interfere in Syrian affairs. The Islamic Republic supplies Syria with arms, ammunition and military technology. In June 2011, Iran agreed to give Syria $23m to build a military base. But Iran’s support, according to the Syrian opposition, goes beyond that.

Iran and Syria have been allies for decades and with both countries facing international pressure, their alliance is taking on added importance. Increasingly, Syria’s uprising seems no longer to be solely a Syrian affair.

So is this purely a symbolic move or could it mean much more for a desperate Syrian government?

Joining presenter Adrian Finighan on Inside Story are guests: Sadegh Zibakalam, a professor of political science at Tehran University and an expert on Middle Eastern issues; Joshua Goodman, the communications director of the Transatlantic Institute, an organisation aiming to foster dialogue between the US and the EU in the fields of global security, Middle East peace and human rights; and Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of contemporary Middle Eastern history at Qatar University and an expert on Middle Eastern politics.

“Iran is always trying to draw attention to other crises to convince people there is an outside challenge to the regime, to the country. This is one way to mobilise more voters to turn out for the elections, which Iran is trying to use to assure the international community that the government is supported by the people.”

Mahjoob Zweiri, a professor of contemporary Middle Eastern history at Qatar University