Iran plays a major role in the ongoing processes in Syria, including in the strengthening of Bashar Assad’s regime. Since the start of the civil war in Syria, its military instructors have been training, arming and subsequently using both local fighters and Shiite groups from Iraq, Lebanon, and Afghanistan in military operations. In addition, the Iranians have made serious investments in the Syrian economy and energy in recent years. The purpose of our blog is to cover the official visit of the President of Iran – Ebrahim Raisi – to Syria, and to discuss the recent dynamics of Iran-Syria relations in light of it.
Why exactly did the First Person of Iran visit Syria? Most likely, he wanted to receive from Bashar Assad guarantees of Iran’s active participation in the reconstruction of civil infrastructure destroyed as a result of the civil war, and to deepen relations in the economic and energy fields. In addition, Raisi’s interest, most likely, was the issue of cooperation with the Syrian leadership in the field of defense and security.
It is interesting that in light of reinvigorated Iran-Syrian cooperation, on May 7, at the session of the League of Arab States held in Cairo, the capital of Egypt, the foreign ministers of the member states of the organization decided to accept Syria back into its folds. What could Iran gain from the return of Syria to this important Arab organization? We see it as gaining an influential ally, which will protect Iran’s regional interests if necessary.
The Iranian President’s Visit to Syria
In order to further expand cooperation with Syria, on May 3, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited his Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad in Damascus on a two-day official visit. It is significant that after the civil war that started in Syria in 2011, the President of Iran was in Syria for the first time. Raisi’s visit indicates that Iran considers the current security situation in Syria’s capital Damascus to be satisfactory, which provides an opportunity for high-level negotiations and business meetings. However, it is necessary to take into account the fact that, on May 2, just the night before Raisi’s arrival in Syria, Israel bombed Aleppo International Airport, “Neyrab” Airfield, and Iranian military factories in Syria. Most likely, the purpose of this attack was to “intimidate” Raisi and force him to adjust his plans. This goal was partially accomplished, as Raisi was planning to visit Aleppo along with Damascus, a trip he canceled due to Israel’s actions.
Interestingly, during the visit, Iran and Syria signed a strategic partnership agreement, which aims to implement a 20-year plan for cooperation in the trade, economic, and energy spheres. One of the likely goals of the Iranian president’s visit is the desire to play a key role in the reconstruction of Syria, which promises him a fairly good income and more influence on Syria. Based on the fact that it provided a substantial help to Bashar Assad in the civil war, Iran expects significant political and economic dividends in return.
During their meeting, the presidents of Iran and Syria most likely paid a lot of attention to the topic of defense and security. In this regard, the development of a joint action plan against Israel and the USA was probably another main strategic goal of the meeting. The statements against America and Israel made by Ebrahim Raisi in an interview given to Syrian TV corroborates this assumption; in the interview, the head of the state of Iran accused them of destructive actions against Syria and of trying to occupy its territory. The Iranian side has actively helped Syria against Israel and the USA before, and after this visit, this trend will probably increase.
In general, in a broader sense, it is expected that Iran will continue to provide significant military assistance to the Syrian regime. Allegedly, Iran intends to form a Shiite arch of Syria-Iraq-Lebanon-Iran so as to create a passage to the Mediterranean Sea, which causes serious concern in Israel. According to the Ministry of Defense of the Jewish State, under the patronage of the “Iranian Islamic Revolution Guards Corps”, mini-factories are operating in the Iranian military cities in Syria, which manufacture various types of weapons, including drones, missiles, and ammunition. Iran and its Lebanese ally “Hezbollah” even have their own intelligence centers in Syria. It is conceivable that Israel will continue to use the tactics of aerial bombardment of Iranian military bases and intelligence centers in the future to weaken Iran’s influence in Syria.
The visit of the President of Iran to Syria at the end of April preceded the meeting of foreign ministers of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan in the capital of Jordan Amman, where they announced the need for a political solution to the Syrian crisis and demanded that foreign armed forces leave the territory of Syria. Presumably, they meant the USA, Turkey, and Iran. The decision on the return of Syria to “the League of Arab States,” made on May 7 at the meeting of foreign ministers of this organization, demonstrates that the Arab states intend to settle their relations with Syria. Accordingly, it is expected that Syrian President Bashar Assad will also attend the summit of the Arab League in Riyadh . Considering the new political reality, the Syrian government will likely try to normalize relations with the rich Arab countries of the Persian Gulf and attract the necessary investments for the reconstruction of the infrastructure of Syria destroyed by the war.
For Iran, the return of Syria to the “League of Arab States” is on the one hand a serious challenge, because it does not like to have strong Arab countries competing in the reconstruction of Syria’s infrastructure, and on the other, however, Iran will gain a serious ally in this influential organization, through which it can influence the ongoing processes in the League. Interestingly, the Iranians recently embarked on a policy of improving relations with the Arab world, and the agreement on the restoration of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia on March 10, 2023, mediated by China, is a good indication of this. The parties have already agreed to open embassies on each other’s territory. It is obvious that Iran is trying to escape the international sanctions and isolation, and to settle its relations with the rich and influential Arab countries of the Persian Gulf. The warming of relations between the Iranian regime and Saudi Arabia is actually a message to the USA and its allies that the Muslim countries of the Persian Gulf intend to strengthen the integration processes in the future and weaken the positions of the United States of America in the Middle East region.
Against the background of these processes, the visits of high-ranking diplomats between Saudi Arabia and Syria, until now known as “mortal enemies”, have become more frequent. First was the visit of the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Syria Faisal Miqdadi to Saudi Arabia on April 12, and then the Minister of Foreign Affairs of Saudi Arabia Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud went to Syria on a reciprocal visit. These were the first bilateral visits conducted since 2011. Saudi Arabia will most likely neutralize its proxy Sunni armed groups operating in Syria, and will be actively involved in the reconstruction of the country. It is conceivable that the Islamic Republic of Iran is partly responsible for the warming of relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia, as its strategic foreign policy goal is to expel the US from the Middle East region, weaken Israel, and subsequently destroy it.
Attempts to change the current geopolitical configuration in the Middle East are perceived as a serious threat by the US political establishment. On April 6, 2023, the head of the US Central Intelligence Agency, William Barnes, paid an unplanned visit to Saudi Arabia, and he confirmed the displeasure of the American side to Prince Mohammad bin Salman for intensifying contacts with Iran and Syria. Interestingly, in light of this, the US offered to help Israel plan joint military actions against Iran. Most likely, Israel will approach this undoubtedly promising and positive proposal with interest, but at the same time with caution, because if it agrees, it will have to share its plans with the Americans. This might be difficult for the Jewish state to accept, as the Israelis traditionally do not let anyone into their affairs, even if it is their main strategic partner, the USA. At the same time, cooperation between the US and Israel in the military field will undoubtedly be further expanded to neutralize the expected threat from Iran.
While summarizing the visit of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi to Syria, it becomes clear that Syria and, in general, the Arab countries of the Middle East, remain the priority domain for Iran’s foreign policy. Iranians will continue their political-economic and military expansion in order to strengthen their positions in Syria. They will try to play a major role in the reconstruction of Syria, destroyed by the civil war, which will bring them serious economic and financial dividends, and will help to increase their influence in that strategically important country. It is very important for Iran, which is partially isolated internationally, to gain access to the Mediterranean Sea with the help of Syria. In this regard, Iran is doing its best to create the Shiite arch of Syria-Lebanon-Iraq, which will further strengthen its position in the Shiite Arabic-speaking world. Iran is also likely to increase the weapons supply to Syria, and will try to use Syria against Israel and the US, as one of the main objectives of Iran’s foreign policy is to drive them out of the Middle East. At the same time, Iran will promote the return of Syria to the “Arab League”, which will allow it to indirectly penetrate the organization and increase informational awareness. In turn, the USA and Israel will try to weaken Iran’s influence on the ongoing political and economic processes in the Middle East as much as possible. That is why they are likely to continue the policy of destroying the joint military infrastructure of Iran and Bashar Assad’s regime in Syria. The confrontation between Iran and Israel will deepen and take on a larger scale in the future, a trend already visible today.