Source: The Guardian
May 3, 2023
Raisi flies to Syria for first Iranian presidential visit since start of civil war
Tehran seeks to bolster influence over Damascus as Gulf states move to normalise relations with Assad
Ebrahim Raisi has flown to Damascus for the first state visit by an Iranian president to Syria since the civil war broke out in 2011, as Tehran seeks to bolster its political and economic influence over the Assad regime.
Iran has been a long-term supporter of Bashar al-Assad, sending Iranian militia to help defeat Assad’s opponents, and as the normalisation of relations between Syria and Gulf states nears, Iran wants to ensure it reaps the economic benefits of its support. Raisi is also making the visit now to try to build a stronger anti-Israeli alliance in the region.
Raisi’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, Mohammad Jamshidi, told the state-run news agency IRNA prior to departure that the visit was a sign of “the Islamic Republic of Iran’s strategic victory in the region”.
A group of Gulf states that had opposed Assad and sent arms to the opposition now want to bring Syria back into the Arab League as part of a wider regional convergence, but the terms of any normalisation are still in dispute. The United Arab Emirates restored diplomatic ties with Damascus in 2018, six years after closing its embassy.
Raisi (left) and Assad on Wednesday. Tehran has said the visit is a sign of ‘Iran’s strategic victory in the region’. Photograph: AP
Assad has been to Tehran and has met Iranian leaders abroad, notably in Moscow, but no Iranian president has been to Damascus since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2010.
With Russian and Iranian support, Assad controls the majority of Syria, but a large swathe of Idlib province and Kurdish territory in the north remain outside the regime’s control.
Sensing Assad’s position is now secure, some Arab countries, and especially Saudi Arabia, want to bring his isolation to an end after 11 years. Millions of Syrian refugees in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon are waiting to return home, and their presence is increasingly unpopular in some countries with strained public services.
Qatar, with the support of the US, is holding out against normalisation at present unless Assad makes political concessions that Raisi will impress on the Syrian leader he has no need to make.
A meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Jordan on Monday, including those of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq and Egypt, ended with a joint statement that said any Syrian settlement had to be consistent with the UN security council resolution 2254, passed in 2015 and setting out a roadmap for peace and reconciliation.
The US said it was encouraged by the joint statement, adding it hoped Syria would sincerely follow through on its commitments.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, urged Egypt to think carefully before any normalisation of relations with Syria. “The secretary emphasised 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 in a readout of a call with the Egyptian foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry.
The speed of normalisation efforts has caught the US on the hop. Saudi Arabia would ideally like to be able to welcome Syria back into the Arab league in the next two months. Syria’s foreign minister visited Riyadh in April, the first such visit since the two countries cut relations in 2012.
Long-term plans for the reconstruction of Syria had previously been heavily reliant on support from the EU, but the bloc is unlikely to help unless Assad agrees to share power and is held accountable for the use of sarin gas on his own population. An EU demand for UN-supervised presidential elections remains on the table, but is unachievable.
Raisi, eager to reduce the economic isolation of his country, was accompanied on the two-day visit by Iran’s ministers of oil, defence, foreign affairs and telecommunications, hoping to convince Damascus that Tehran is a viable alternative to the EU-led reconstruction, based on the so-called axis of resistance.
A central point of the agreements likely to be signed will be the operation of a single Assad-controlled reconstruction fund.
Assad has never publicly acknowledged that Iranian forces operated on his behalf in Syria’s civil war, saying Tehran only had military advisers on the ground. Qassem Suleimani, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards general killed by a US drone in 2020, was instrumental in 2015 in persuading Russia to intervene to save Assad from military defeat.