In an important and symbolic visit Syria's Bashar al-Assad visited Tehran on Monday and met with Iran's Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei as well as other key officials. Iran praised Syria's "victory" as an example of Iran's victory and condemned US "plots" against the region.
In a rare trip abroad for Assad, the Syrian regime leader traveled to Iran where he held numerous meetings with Iranian officials. Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani attended the meetings, a clear indication of the important regional discussions taking place. Assad appeared to travel to Iran without a delegation and the Syrian regime flag didn't appear present at most meetings. The visit comes amid tensions between Israel and Iran in Syria. Assad rarely travels abroad. He went to Russia in 2015 and 2017 and hosted. Sudan's Omar al-Bashir in 2018, but generally the Assad regime is isolated due to the long civil war that has displaced millions and killed hundreds of thousands. The trip is a symbol of Assad's perception that he is secure in power and his desire to cement and deepen the Iranian alliance.
In a meeting with Rouhani the Iranians stressed the importance of the Russian-backed Astana process in ending the Syrian conflict. They said they stood by Syria's sovereignty and the "elimination of terrorism," according to Syria's SANA state broadcaster. They discussed "strategic" cooperation in light of recent deals between Tehran and Damascus. Tehran wants to increase economic cooperation and help rebuild Syria. Iran already has numerous bases in Syria, many connected to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Iranian officials regularly visit Damascus. Iran says it has accomplished ninety percent of its goals in Syria.
The meeting comes in the wake of the US-backed Warsaw Summit and condemnations of Iran by US Vice President Mike Pence and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. US President Donald Trump has also said that Washington is keeping an eye on Iran from Iraq. The US has slammed Iranian support for Hezbollah, Hamas and the Houthis and accuses Tehran of spreading instability. Iran says that in fact it's role in the region brings stability and that the US is a threat.
Rouhani boasted that the alliance with Syria's regime has been a "severe blow" to the West and American role in the region. The Supreme Leader, Khamenei, also hosted Assad and in an unusually pointed and precise discussion looked at the recent US statements about a buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border. The White House says up to 400 US troops will remain in Syria even as Trump wants to withdraw. US Senator Lindsey Graham has indicated that these troops will also be there to prevent Iran gaining a victory by moving into eastern Syria. US-backed partners in Syria, who have been fighting ISIS, currently control around a third of the country. Khamenei stressed that the US was creating a bugger zone that was an example of US "plots," according to Tasnim News.
Khamenei said that war in Syria had "confused some Arab countries" and led them to oppose the Iranian-backed "resistance" against the US. The victory against the Syrian rebels was an uprising in Syria against US power, he said, arguing that the Syrian regime was actually resisting US and Arab plots against Syria. The Supreme Leader also stressed the need for strengthening religious ties to Syria and that appears to imply more Shi'ite religious leaders traveling to Syria. Assad appeared to agree, saying more scholars were needed to confront "takfiri" terrorists, a term used for Sunni jihadists. According to Iran's PressTV, Assad also compared the Syrian civil war to the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 in its importance to the region. The message is clear, whereas the Iran-Iraq war generally pitted the Arab countries against the Islamic Republic's revolutionary zeal, this new conflict has enabled Iran to insert itself into a swath of territory crossing Iraq to Syria and Lebanon. In a sense Iran has achieved what it couldn't in 1988, a victory across the region.
Seth Frantzman is The Jerusalem Post's op-ed editor, a Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a founder of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis.