Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi met counterpart Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in the first visit by an Iranian head of state since Syria’s civil war began in 2011, in move that underscored close ties between the rogue nations.
By Jonathan Hessen and Erin Viner
Speaking to pro-Iran broadcaster al-Mayadeen on the eve of his visit, Raisi said the trip would “consolidate and develop” ties with Syria and other allies, including the armed Lebanese Hezbollah terror group, which also intervened in Syria on Assad’s behalf.
Iran has become more entrenched militarily in Syria. An Israeli rocket strike on Damascus in February killed Iranian military experts, and Tehran has used the flow of aid in the aftermath of a deadly February earthquake as a cover for weapons deliveries.
Assad has never publicly acknowledged that Iranian forces have operated on his behalf in Syria’s civil war, saying Tehran has only military advisers on the ground.
Raisi’s visit comes as Iran and former arch-regional rival Saudi Arabia rebuild relations after years of tensions through a China-brokered arrangement . Meanwhile, the Arab League has abandoned the Western approach to the Syrian-conflict and is now looking to reinsert Damascus into the Arab fold. The latest meeting, reported by TV7 earlier this week, took place on 1 May.
The Syrian President, speaking alongside his Iranian counterpart, welcomed “the development” of ties between Tehran and Riyadh.
He went on to stress that the goal of critical meetings between representatives of his nation with those from Turkey, Russia and Iran in Moscow should the withdrawal of “the occupying forces and halting support to terrorist groups” – in an apparent reference to Turkey’s troops deployed as part of support for the insurgent-held northern Syria. Damascus officials have repeatedly insisted that any moves toward repairing ties will only be realized after the thousands of Syrian troops are pulled out.
While the Assad regime is eager to revitalize its relations with the Arab world, it is evidently less in a rush to normalize ties with Ankara. According to Turkish sources who spoke to TV7 on condition of anonymity, Syria is deliberately stalling talks until after the 14 May elections in Turkey to see whether President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, remains in power in an evident attempt to deny him any advantage in the polls.
Raisi, the leader of the Shi’ite Islamic Republic, praised Syria for its continued hostile approach against the United States and Israel, while calling on Assad to maintain the military campaign against opposition and Sunni-Muslim terror groups he branded as “Takfiris” (a derogatory term used to describe deviant jihadists that include the Islamic State).
“Iran will always stand by Syria … and support its sovereignty,” he underscored, adding, “They resisted, and for their resistance we should praise the dear Syrian people. We should also commend the Syrian government for its resistance against the greedy and brutal behavior of the Takfiri movements and the US, and for not allowing ‘the Zionist regime’ to reach its goals in this country (Syria).”
Assad also expressed hope that the visit would give a “strong push” to trade and investment. Following their face-to-face meeting, the two leaders ceremoniously signed a new long-term strategic cooperation agreement, including a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to substantively deepen cooperation, particularly in the oil industry.
Tehran has already supplied Assad’s government with credit lines and won lucrative business contracts in the telecom and mining industries, among others.
Raisi also lauded Syria’s current warming of relations with Arab states – which had isolated Damascus over its violent crackdown on anti-government protests in 2011 but now seek dialogue with Assad; currently working to develop strategies to end the 12-year civil war and reintegrate the Republic into the Arab fold.
Raisi seized the opportunity during his visit to Damascus to meet with leaders of Palestinian terror groups, when he reaffirmed the Ayatollah regime’s unwavering support for all Palestinians who confront Israel with violence.
The US is closely monitoring the deepening of ties between Iran and Syria, which US State Department Spokesperson Vedant Patel said “should be of great concern to not just our allies and partners and countries in the region, but also the world broadly.” During a press briefing, Patel emphasized that the “these are two regimes that have continued to partake in malign, destabilizing activities – not just in their immediate countries but also in the region,” and that Washington has made it “abundantly clear” to its international partners and allies that it opposes normalization of relations with the Assad regime.
“The US believes that a political solution that is outlined in UN Security Council Resolution 2254 is the only viable solution to this conflict in Syria,” reiterated the State Department Spokesperson.
United Nations Security Council 2254 states that the only sustainable solution to the civil war is through a Syrian-led political process that meets the legitimate aspirations of its people that would fully implement the 2012 Geneva Communiqué to establish “an inclusive transitional governing body with full executive powers” consisting of both government and opposition representatives.
In related developments, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned a visiting bipartisan US Congressional Delegation, led by the House of Representatives Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Michael Turner, against rising threats posed by the Islamic Republic.
“Iran is 50 North Koreas,” he said, “not merely a neighborhood bully like the dynasty that rules north Korea. This is an ideological force that views us, Israel, as the ‘Small Satan’ and views you (the US) as the Great Satan. And to have North Korea, or rather Iran, being able to threaten every city in the United States with nuclear blackmail is a changing of history,” he cautioned.