May 3, 2023 - World

Iran's president meets with Assad in first Syria visit since war began

The Iranian and Syrian presidents meet in Demascus.

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (left) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meet in Damascus. Photo: Handout/Syrian Presidency via Facebook

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi arrived in Damascus on Wednesday for an official visit that included a meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Why it matters: It is the first visit to Syria by an Iranian president since the country's civil war broke out in 2011. Iran has been one of the main backers of the Assad regime during the war and is now looking to play a key role in reconstruction efforts.

State of play: By supporting Assad both militarily and financially, Russia and Iran have helped the Syrian president's regime retake territory once controlled by the rebels.

  • Iranian military advisers help Assad’s army and Iran brought in Hezbollah forces to help the Syrian president in the war.
  • Iran also established several militias in Syria to back the regime.

Flashback: Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the last Iranian head of state to visit the country when he met with Assad and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Damascus in 2010.

Driving the news: Iranian officials have repeatedly said Tehran wants to be a key player in the reconstruction process in Syria.

  • That will allow Iran to benefit economically from the rebuilding and gain even bigger influence in the country.
  • "Syria is entering the reconstruction phase and Iran will stand by Syria during this phase too," Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Nasser Kanaani said on Monday.

Iran and Syria also want to signal a united front against Israel.

  • Raisi told the pan-Arab television channel Al Mayadeen on Tuesday that his visit to Damascus is part of Iran’s support for the axis of resistance to Israel.
  • Earlier this week Israel reportedly sent a signal of its own ahead of Raisi’s visit when it bombed targets at the Aleppo International Airport causing it to shut down for repairs.

The big picture: Raisi’s visit to Damascus is taking place amid a wider normalization wave in the region — mainly between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which recently announced they were resuming diplomatic relations.

  • As part of this regional process, Saudi Arabia is trying to normalize relations between the Assad regime and the rest of the Arab world.
  • On Monday, the foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq met in Amman with the Syrian foreign minister to discuss the possible return of Syria to the Arab League.
  • In a statement at the end of the meeting, the ministers called for all foreign forces to leave Syria and urged the Syrian regime to take certain steps like allowing the safe return of Syrian refugees and stopping all drug smuggling across the country.

Between the lines: Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries like the United Arab Emirates are also eying big infrastructure projects in Syria as part of the reconstruction of the country.

  • Rebuilding in Syria is expected to cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

What they're saying: During their meeting, Assad thanked Raisi for Iran's support during the civil war. “You didn’t only give us political and economic support, you supported us with your blood," Assad said, according to a video released by his office.

  • Raisi replied that Syria "achieved victory despite the threats and sanctions" because it resisted. He pledged that any changes in the region will not influence the relationship between Iran and Syria.
  • According to the official Syrian and Iranian news agencies, Assad and Raisi signed a long-term strategic cooperation agreement. It wasn’t clear what the agreement included.

Meanwhile, The Biden administration is not enthusiastic about the Arab efforts to normalize relations with Assad.

  • Secretary of State Tony Blinken spoke on Tuesday to his Egyptian counterpart who attended the meeting with the Syrian foreign minister in Jordan.
  • Blinken emphasized that “those engaging with the Assad regime should weigh carefully how those efforts are addressing the needs of the Syrian people," the State Department said.

What to watch: Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu announced on Wednesday that his counterparts from Turkey, Syria, Iran and Russia will meet in Moscow next week.

  • The meeting is part of the Russian-backed normalization process between Syria and Turkey.
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