Iranian Foreign Minister Hussein Amir-Abdollahian's visit to Syria aimed to accelerate the implementation of agreements between Iran and Syria. As tensions between Israel and Hezbollah and protests against Bashar Assad's rule intensify, the visit holds strategic importance.
Amidst these regional challenges, Amir-Abdollahian's discussions with Syrian officials centered on various bilateral, international, and regional issues. Syria's vital role as a state actor within Iran's "Axis of Resistance" broader strategy is particularly significant. Adjacency to Israel and deep-rooted connections with Hezbollah and Lebanon underscore Syria's role in Iran's national security agenda.
Iran's unwavering support for Syria extends beyond economic interests, reflecting its strategic intent to maintain Syria as a cornerstone in its regional security strategy. While the economic advantages of its engagement may be debated, Iran's commitment to Syria's security and its intricate role in the resistance axis remain paramount.
Foreign Minister Hussein Amir-Abdollahian embarked on an official two-day visit to Syria on August 30. He aimed to advance Iran's engagement policy with neighboring regions and expedite the implementation of agreements between Iranian and Syrian presidents. During his visit, Amir-Abdollahian met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Prime Minister Hussein Arnous, and his counterpart Faisal Mekdad. This visit coincided with a fresh wave of protests against Bashar Assad's rule and escalated tensions between Israel and Hezbollah.
Amir Abdullahian is accompanied by Nasser Kanani, Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mehdi Shoshtari, Assistant Minister and Director General of West Asia and North Africa, Mohammad Sadegh Fazli, Advisor to the Minister and Ministerial Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Ali Asghar Khaji, Senior Advisor to the Minister of Foreign Affairs on Special Political Affairs.
Amir-Abdollahian discussed various issues, including bilateral, international, and regional matters. He emphasized the need for stability, calm, sovereignty, and territorial integrity in Syria amid ongoing "fresh developments in the region," adding that "we are witnessing a new and positive chapter in the relations in the region."
He condemns the recent attacks of "the fake Israeli regime" that targeted Aleppo airport, emphasizing that "no aggression and crime by the Zionist regime in the region has gone and will not go unanswered." The Iranian Foreign Minister also addressed the movements of terrorist groups and "the American effort to mobilize terrorists and the continuation of the occupation (of Syria) under the pretext of fighting ISIS." During a joint press conference in Damascus, Hossein Amir Abdullahian and Faisal Moqdad voiced their concerns over the US military presence along the Syrian-Iraq border. Both ministers emphasized that such a presence constitutes a violation of international law and called for an immediate halt to America's military intervention in the region.
In light of the protests that engulfed Syria's southwest Suwayda province for over a week, echoing calls for the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad, the Iranian Foreign Minister reiterated "our strong support to the Syrian leadership and the command of the Syrian army, its government, and its nation to reach a safe, stable and developed region."
The demonstrations rekindling the spirit of the 2011 revolution under the banner of "bread, freedom, and dignity" signify a renewed wave of dissent against the Syrian government's economic hardship, escalating fuel prices, withdrawal of subsidies, and currency collapse. The protests have once again raised doubts about the stability of the Assad regime, with even the traditionally neutral Druze community participating.
Given Assad's new challenge, the Iranian Foreign Minister's visit is seen as an attempt to shore up support for the Syrian government and create a hostile environment for US forces, pushing them and their allies to withdraw from Syria.
On the ground, Iranian-backed militias, including the Baqir Brigade, National Defense Forces (NDF), and Syrian Air Force intelligence, have been deploying personnel into territory held by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to fuel tribal disputes, all while supporting Iran's broader campaign to expel the United States from Syria. As of August 31, these militias have sent militants into SDF-controlled areas, such as Kasra and Dhiban. Additionally, the IRGC Quds Force has tasked Iraqi militants with sabotage activities and exploiting instability in SDF-held regions. Iranian-backed militias have been deployed from Iraq to Damascus, possibly to suppress anti-regime protests. The protesters in Suwayda chanted, "Leave, O Bashar, with Iran and Russia."
Amir Abdullahian also referred to the last (May 2023) quadrilateral meeting of the foreign ministers of Turkey, Iran, Syria, and Russia. He said Iran "continues to resolve misunderstandings and establish peace and security on the common border between Syria and Turkey." He also echoed his recent visit to Saudi Arabia, saying he "received positive statements from Saudi officials regarding Syria. Today I'm in Damascus to discuss these remarks". The Iranian Foreign minister added that during the visit, the two sides also discussed recent developments in the Islamic world, including Palestine, and "strongly condemned the insult to religious holy things and holy books, including the Holy Quran".
The Minister of Foreign Affairs also recalled the recent trip of the Syrian high-ranking delegation to Tehran and the various meetings held and the joint emphasis on the necessity of trade facilitation, banking cooperation, Khordu (car) production line, collaboration in the field of energy including oil, gas, and electricity important and the support of the two governments for the implementation.
In May, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad convened in Damascus, where they endorsed 15 documents to enhance bilateral collaboration between their nations. Notably, Raisi's visit marked the first instance of such high-level interaction between Iranian and Syrian officials since the onset of foreign-backed hostilities in 2011. Among the agreements, a comprehensive accord on long-term and strategic cooperation was formalized, underscoring the significance of their alliance. President Assad appealed for Tehran's support in securing Damascus and revitalizing the regions marred by the impacts of conflict.
Beyond the overarching strategic cooperation pact, the two leaders also endorsed an additional 14 accords spanning diverse sectors such as trade, energy, engineering, housing, transportation by rail and air, free trade zones, communications, technology, earthquake relief, and facilitation of pilgrimage to sacred sites for citizens of both Muslim nations. Concerning these developments, Amir Abdullahian expressed contentment that pilgrimage and tourism ventures between Iranians and Syrians are once again operational, signifying a restoration of people-to-people exchanges.
Syria has been devastated by years of civil war. Iran's involvement in Syria has been a subject of ongoing domestic debate and criticism. Some Iranians are concerned about the costs and priorities of engaging in Syria's affairs while facing economic challenges at home. The Iranian people are questioning the allocation of resources to foreign endeavors while the nation faces economic challenges. The criticism has been growing in recent years. Since 20 9, there have been widespread protests against the government's economic policies, and many of the protesters also called for an end to the support for Syria, Hezbollah, and the Houthis in Yemen.
However, the prevailing conservative administration in Iran remains steadfast in safeguarding its extensive, historically costly investment in Syria and upholding its strategic interests within the region. Iran views Syria and its alliance with Hezbollah as pivotal components of its national security strategy, particularly in countering potential threats from Israel.
Iran faces competition in its economic engagement with Syria, as it's not the sole nation interested in such ties. Despite Iran's enduring strategic alliance with Syria and its fervent support throughout the ongoing civil war, involving considerable Iranian resources and sacrifices to protect Assad's regime and Shiite religious sites, other players, including Russia, China, and even Saudi Arabia have shown increasing interest in Syria's reconstruction and economic opportunities. This rivalry could erode the extent and advantages of Iran's economic involvement. Iran expects Syria to acknowledge its longstanding commitment and contributions and offer corresponding rewards.
In January 2019, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, the former Chairman of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee of the Iranian Parliament (Majlis), visited Syria and met with President Bashar Assad. Following his return to Iran, Falahatpisheh openly voiced his concerns regarding the treatment Iran was receiving from Syria. He highlighted Syria's failure to meet its financial commitments to Iran, including the repayment of outstanding debts. Falahatpisheh expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that the Iranian aid provided to the Syrian government during the war had been funded "from the pockets of the Iranian people." He underlined the importance of Syria addressing these financial obligations by providing favorable terms to Iranian companies participating in the country's rehabilitation projects.
Russia'smilitary involvement, even if reduced given the war with Ukraine, has positioned Moscow well to influence the Syria's reconstruction efforts. Russia's state-owned companies are eyeing opportunities in the energy, infrastructure, and agriculture sectors. Moscow's involvement also aims to secure its geopolitical interests and military stronghold in Syria's seaports and airfields. Iran has periodically expressed dissatisfaction with Russia's approach to Israeli Air Force airstrikes targeting Iranian and Syrian facilities. Iranian officials have voiced anger that Russia does not use its S-300 air defense systems during the Israeli airstrikes.
China, with its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China is seeking to enhance its connectivity and influence across Eurasia, including the Middle East. After mending fences between Riyadh and Tehran, Syria Is another potential BRI partner. Syria provides China with enticing prospects in various domains such as infrastructure, seaport establishment, facilitation of trade, and avenues for investment. China's involvement in Syria could indirectly erode Iran's economic presence.
In summary, the visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to Syria represents an ongoing series of interactions between the two nations in recent years. It underscores Iran's unwavering support for the Syrian government driven by Iran's clear strategic intent to maintain Syria as a strategic front against Israel and as a conduit for support to Hezbollah, particularly concerning the transportation of weapons, notably precision-guidedSyria to Rockets. Furthermore, this effort seeks to bolster the "Shia corridor" stretching from Tehran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and undermine the USA presence in the region
Iran's interest also lies in securing a pivotal role in Syria's post-war reconstruction. This entails integrating Iranian firms, particularly those affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards (most notably those linked to Khatam alAnbiya Construction Headquarters), into the reconstruction process, all while ensuring its military presence in Syria.
Irrespective of any prospective economic advantages in the future, Iran's foremost priority remains its security interests and military–intelligence presence in Syria. From Iran's perspective, Syria holds a critical role within the broader resistance axis, acting as a pivotal state actor. This importance is particularly underscored by its proximity to Israel and its intricate connections with Hezbollah and Lebanon. Given these strategic factors, Iran must sustain its ongoing engagement in Syria to safeguard its vital regional and security interests, even when economic dividends may be limited.