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June 6, 2022 Special Dispatch No. 10001

In Light Of Russia's Growing Preoccupation With Ukraine, Assad Strengthening Ties With Iran, Disappointing Arab Countries’ Hopes To Distance Him From It

June 6, 2022
Iran, Russia, Syria | Special Dispatch No. 10001

On May 8, 2022, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad made an unannounced three-hour visit to Tehran, during which he met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi. The leaders discussed the cooperation between the two countries, in particular in the economic sphere. 

This visit was the culmination of a series of mutual visits by Syrian and Iranian officials in the recent months: In late February 2022, the head of Syria’s National Security Bureau, ‘Ali Mamlouk, visited Iran;[1] in early March Ali Asghar Khaji, the Iranian foreign minister's senior advisor for special political affairs, visited Syria,[2] and in late may the Iranian foreign minister himself, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, visited Damascus as well.[3]

Assad’s visit to Tehran drew special attention because it was held against the backdrop of the war between Russia and Ukraine. Analysts speculated that the Syrians may be concerned about a possible decline in Russia’s involvement in Syria and in its support for the Syrian regime, and that Iran, for its part, sees an opportunity to fill the vacuum left by Russia and expand its influence in Syria.[4] 

During Assad's visit the leaders of the two countries stressed the importance of Iran’s support for Syria and of the close cooperation between the two countries in their resistance against Israel and the U.S. The leaders also extended the Iranian credit line, which, in essence, provides the Syrian regime with convenient loans for purchasing Iranian  goods, especially oil, to alleviate Syria’s severe energy crisis. Many articles in the Syrian press stressed the close and strategic relations between the countries and even noted that Assad’s visit may be part of preparations for a future regional war by the entire pro-Iranian axis against Israel and the American presence in the region.

Furthermore, the visit was apparently meant to convey a message to some Arab countries, especially the UAE, that recently began to show openness to the Syrian regime in hopes of distancing it from Iran.[5] Syrian oppositionists therefore called on the Arab countries to stop drawing close to the Syrian regime, since their hopes of prying it away from Iran are unfounded.


Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (Source: Sana.sy, May 8, 2022)

This report reviews the outcomes of Assad’s visit to Tehran, and the responses to it.

Assad: Iran Is The Only Country That Has Supported Us Since The Beginning Of The Syria War

Assad’s recent visit to Tehran was his first visit there since 2019, and, as stated, included meetings to discuss political and economic issues with Supreme Leader Khamenei and with President Raisi, for whom this was the first meeting with Assad since becoming president.   During the visit the leaders praised the strong alliance between the countries. Assad thanked Iran for being “the only country that has stood with us since the beginning of our confrontation with the takfiri Western aggression [i.e., the extremist Sunni Islamic organizations that are fighting against the Syrian regime and who, according to this regime, claims are supported by the West].”  Assad added that “we are witnessing the collapse of the American role in the region, and we have proved that we are able to defeat the West and the dominant powers through close cooperation among the regional countries." He stated further: "Some believe that Iran’s support for the resistance axis is limited to providing weapons, but the more important aid provided by the Islamic Republic [of Iran] involves spreading the spirit of resistance and persistence.”[6]

Khamenei, for his part, said that “Syria today is not like it was before the war. Its status has risen considerably, and everyone must regard it as a regional power.”[7] He praised Assad, saying, “We are confident of your ability to liberate the remaining Syrian lands, and are certain that under your rule Syria will remain united.”[8] 

The leaders also made barbed remarks against the leaders of the Arab states that have normalized their relations with Israel, although without mentioning their names. These remarks came in the context of these countries’ attempts to draw closer to the Syrian regime in hopes of distancing it from Iran.[9]  Khamenei said: “Some leaders of the countries neighboring Iran and Syria sit for coffee with the leaders of the Zionist entity, whereas the people and the residents of these countries filled the streets on Qods Day [an annual pro-Palestinian event instantiated  by Iran and held on the last Friday of Ramadan], calling slogans against Zionism and the Zionists.” President Raisi said, “While some leaders in the Arab world and elsewhere betted on the collapse of the Syrian regime, the Iranian government and people stood with Syria.” Assad said that “what prevents the Zionist entity from controlling the region is the strategic ties between Iran and Syria, which must remain strong.” He added that “the success of the Palestinian resistance proves that the normalization of some Arabs’ [relations] with Israel produced the opposite result [from what was intended].”[10]

Following Assad’s Visit, Iran Renews Credit Line, Oil Shipments To Syria

Media identified with the Syrian regime highlighted the economic aspect of Assad’s visit to Iran, especially in light of reports that the presidents of the two countries agreed on the renewal of Iran’s line of credit to Syria, which was suspended three years ago, so as to provide Syria with oil products and other basic goods it vitally needs.[11] According to reports in the Arab press, the Syrian regime recently asked Arab countries, including the UAE, Algeria and Iraq, to provide it with oil, but the sanctions on Syria prevented them from complying. This left the Syrian regime with no recourse but to reactivate the Iranian credit line, and Assad’s visit was meant to promote this goal.[12] Syria’s official media did not disclose the size of the credit line, but Shadi Ahmad, a Syrian economist close to the regime, said it amounted to about  $2 billion.[13]

On May 15, Syrian Prime Minister Hussein ‘Arnous announced that preparations for the renewal of the credit line were complete and that Iranian oil shipments would soon begin arriving in Syria. Syrian Electricity Minister Ghassan Al-Zamil said that the activation of the credit line would go a long way towards solving Syria’s oil-import problem.[14] Many other economic figures spoke on Syria's state media about the need to strengthen the economic ties between Syria and Iran at this time. Economist Muhammd Dayoub spoke of the importance of attracting Iranian investors and businesspeople  to Syria and strengthening Iran's involvement in the rebuilding of Syria's infrastructures. He added that Syria should utilize Iranian raw materials and technologies in order to decrease its reliance on imports from other countries and its use of hard currency.[15] Zulfiqar 'Abboud, an economist at Tartous University, noted that Assad's visit would promote the issue of developing the land and sea routes between the two countries,  and assessed that steps to implement the construction of a railway connecting Iran, Iraq and Syria would soon be announced.[16] 

Following Assad's visit, the Damascus Chamber of Industry and the Syrian-Iranian Joint Chamber of Commerce signed a memorandum of understandings on the promotion of Iranian investments in Syria. During the visit of a Syrian economic delegation to Tehran, the boards of directors of the Syrian-Iranian Joint Chamber of Commerce signed a memorandum of understandings which included, inter alia, the lifting of customs tariffs on mutual exports and the establishment of an Iranian commerce center in the Damascus Free Trade Zone.[17]

Syrian State Press: Syria-Iran Relations Are Stronger Than Ever

In the wake of Assad's visit to Iran, articles in Syria's press, especially in the state daily Al-Thawra, discussed the deep relations between the two countries and stressed that nothing can undermine them. 

Al-Thawra editor Ahmad Hamada wrote: "Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad's visit to Tehran, and his meeting with the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolution, [Supreme Leader] Ayatollah Ali Khamenei,  and with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, has far-reaching implications, both in terms of its timing and in terms of its content. First, it proves what has already been proven, [namely] that the relations between the two countries are not new. They began with the outbreak of Iran's Islamic Revolution, took root and  today they are stronger and more solid and stable than ever, especially amid the shared battle against the terror that sowed  death, devastation, destruction and chaos in Syria and in the region at large.   These strategic relations also come against the backdrop of the foreign and Western interference, and especially the American interference, in Syria's and Iran's affairs, which the two countries are fighting with great determination.  The U.S. and its servants in the region and the world can no longer impose their vision and agenda on these two countries, thanks to the steadfastness of their peoples and the far-sighted political vision of their leaderships… The attempts of the U.S. and its servants to sever the ties between these countries and to dismantle the resistance axis fail again and again. As a matter of fact, these attempts encourage Syria and Iran to develop their relations even more and to establish their strategic depth so as to create a significant shift that strengthens the security and stability of the region and serves the interests of its peoples."[18]

Nasser Mundhir, the secretary of Al-Thawra's editorial board, stressed that the Syrian-Iranian cooperation will also accelerate America's withdrawal from the region, writing: "The importance of the visit lies in the fact that it took place amid the complex situation in the international arena, which is slipping towards a dangerous curve that threatens global security and peace due to America's destructive policy that aspires to [gain] exclusive hegemony and control. The Biden administration seeks to exacerbate tensions in the international arena in order to impose its colonialist agenda, as part of its plan of destructive chaos that has been prepared for Syria and the entire region.  Syria and Iran lead the countries that oppose this destructive policy. Therefore, Iran's focus on its ongoing support for Syria, so it can complete its victory over the terrorists and liberate the rest of the Syrian land, sends a clear message to everyone who is counting on the possibility of a slump in the strategic relations between the two countries. There is no possibility that the track of ongoing cooperation and coordination between Damascus and Tehran, aimed at liberating all the lands, will ever come to an end…

"Indications on the ground, as well as the political situation, show that America's withdrawal from the entire region is inevitable, in light of the growing failure of its policy, and the American decision-makers realize the implications of this failure for the status and prestige of their country. The continued cooperation between Syria, Iran and the rest of their friends and allies will no doubt accelerate the American withdrawal and prevent the U.S. from rebuilding its terrorist array in order to renew its attacks the countries of the region…"[19]

Al-Thawra columnist Ihab Zaki took a more threatening tone, stating that Assad's visit to Tehran came in the context of a possible regional war against Israel and the U.S. He wrote: "President Bashar Al-Assad's visit to Tehran cannot be addressed without noting the firm warning issued by Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan Nasrallah to the temporary entity [i.e., Israel] about the implications of its attacks, which will be met with a swift and direct response.[20] Since Nasrallah did not specify the exact arena of [this response], all options are on the table, especially since the [Syrian-Iranian] meeting took place between two countries that are enemies of the temporary entity and are in direct [conflict] with it. In this context, it is impossible to miss Assad's statement, that the Syrian-Iranian alliance has been a barrier to the takeover of the region by the temporary entity…  

"The visit may become even more dangerous in the eyes of the Zionist entity if it sees it in the context of the regional war that Nasrallah has declared, because this war cannot be regional without Syria and/or Iran… This [issue] is not confined to the temporary entity, but may also include the U.S., which understands that the Jerusalem axis [i.e., the pro-Iranian axis] has declared that its strategy is to expel it from the region. [The U.S.] may regard this visit as part of this strategy, for the American bases in Syria are seen as one of the expressions of this [American] presence…"[21]

Syrian Opposition: Arab States' Attempts To Distance Assad From Iran Are Bound To Fail

The Syrian opposition and the anti-Assad Arab media also regarded the visit as reflecting the tight relations between Syria and Iran, and cited it as proof that Arab attempts of rapprochement with Assad and his regime in hopes of distancing them from Iran are likely to be futile.[22] The London-based daily Al-Arabi Al-Jadid, for example, described the visit as "proof that Iran is still Assad's closest ally," which highlights the misguided policy of "the Arab states that are trying to relaunch the Assad regime and reinstall it as Syria's representative in the Arab League, on the grounds that this will distance Assad from Iran, while Assad's [behavior] proves that there is no weakening in his alliance with Iran."[23]

Political analysts quoted in the London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi said, in a similar vein, that Assad's visit sends a message from both Syria and Iran to all the Arab countries that are courting the Syrian regime in hopes of minimizing its relations with Iran. The message is that the relations between the two countries are not up for negotiation and that Iran will not give up its alliance with the Syrian regime.[24] 

International relations expert Mahmoud Allouch wrote on the Syrian opposition website syria.tv:  "Assad's decision to visit Tehran only a few weeks after his visit to Abu Dhabi indicates that the Syrian regime's ties with Iran are still very strong and that it will be difficult for the Arab states to weaken them. If there is any clear conclusion that can be drawn from this visit, it is that the approach taken by some Arab countries towards Syria are based on untenable illusions. In fact, this approach is bound to yield the opposite result, of strengthening Iran's presence in Syria instead of weakening it.  Assad is currently relying on economic aid, provided mainly by the Gulf states, to help the Syrian economy recover and to rebuild Syria. This aid helps Assad to re-consolidate his rule without taking the slightest step towards a political resolution [of the Syria crisis]. It is not clear that the humble achievements that the Arab countries seek to gain in Syria [by] winning some influence there are worth this risk… "[25]

The Syrian opposition website nedaa-post.com reported in this context that, during the visit, the Iranians in fact warned Assad "not to fall into the Gulf trap… and not to harm Iran's interests in Syria in response to any pressure from Arab counties that are pursuing the track of Arab normalization" with Syria.[26]

The president of the National Coalition for Syrian Opposition and Revolutionary Forces, Salem Al-Meslet, called to form a unified Arab position via-a-vis the expansion of Iran's presence in Syria, and stressed that any attempt to distance Assad from Iran is bound to fail.[27]

 

[1]  Sana.sy, February 27, 2022.

[2]  Al-Watan (Syria), March 1, 2022.

[3] Sana.sy, March 23, 2022.

[4] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), May 10, 2022; aljazeera.net, May 9, 2022; syria.tv, May 16, 2022.

[5]  Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), February 7, 2022; independentarabia.com, February 21, 2022. See also MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 1602 – Jordan, With U.S. Consent, Spearheads Efforts To Return Syrian Regime To Arab Fold, October 19, 2021; MEMRI Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1476 - Warm Encounter Between Arab League Secretary-General, Syrian Regime Representatives On Margins Of UNGA Reignites Speculation About Syria's Reinstatement In Arab League – October 4, 2019.

[6]  Raialyoum.com, May 8, 2022.

[7]  Raialyoum.com, May 8, 2022.

[8]  Sana.sy, May 8, 2022.

[10]  Raialyoum.com, May 8, 2022.

[11] Sana.sy, May 8, 2022; Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 10, 2022.

[12] Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), April 29, 2022; Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 10, 2022.

[13] Facebook.com/tishreen.new.sy, May 9, 2022.

[14] Al-Watan (Syria), May 16, 2022.

[15]  Facebook.com/tishreen.new.sy, May 8, 2022.

[16] Facebook.com/tishreen.new.sy, May 8, 2022.

[17] Al-Watan (Syria), May 31, 2022.

[18] Al-Thawra (Syria), May 8, 2022.

[19] Al-Thawra (Syria), May 10, 2022.

[20] In his speech on the occasion of Iranian Qods Day, Nasrallah threatened that "any mistake, foolish act, or act of aggression by Israel, large or small, will be met with a swift and direct response" (Alahednews.com.lb, April 29, 2022).

[21] Al-Thawra (Syria), May 11, 2022.

[23]  Al-Arabi Al-Jadid (London), May 10, 2022.

[24]  Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), May 16, 2022.

[25] Syria.tv, May 15, 2022.

[26]  Nedaa-post.com, May 8, 2022.

[27]  Twitter.com/pofsoc, May 20, 2022.

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