Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei met with Syrian President Bashar Assad and his delegation in Tehran on Sunday. Iranian media put up images of the meeting, showing that they consider it to be important.
Assad has not traveled often since the Syrian civil war began in 2011. He visited Moscow in 2015 after Russia agreed to intervene and help him fight the rebellion. In 2017, he again met Russian leader Vladimir Putin. Assad met the Iranian supreme leader in 2019, one of their few meetings since 2011.
This means the Iranian trip was important. While Assad has received Iranian delegations, including the foreign minister of Iran recently, he rarely goes anywhere. He knows that despite having defeated the Syrian rebels, his place in power is not totally secure.
Assad has problems at home, there is an upcoming election in Lebanon, Turkey occupies northern Syria, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces run eastern Syria, and there are frequent clashes in southern Syria with former rebels.
In addition, Jordan says militias backed by the Syrian regime are smuggling massive amounts of drugs across Jordan to the Gulf. Assad must also contend with continued airstrikes by Israel against Iranian entrenchment in his country.
The Syrian regime is concerned that Russia could be shifting its focus to Ukraine. That means Syria's regime will have to go it alone on some issues. It is concerned and wants to showcase some legitimacy.
Fearful that Russia is focusing on Ukraine, Assad is reaching out to Iran, Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE.
As such, Assad has done some outreach. He has been talking to the Egyptians and Jordanians, and he even visited the UAE on a major trip. The Syrian regime would like to normalize its relations with the Arab League. Assad spoke to King Abdullah of Jordan last October, but the kingdom is nonplussed by Syrian regime-backed drug smuggling.
So what does Assad want from Iran? He wants to showcase that he has some power and equality in the relationship, when he knows that his regime is weak and poor. He is boasting to have won the war for Syria's "prestige and pride."
That doesn't help Assad because it means Russia's foreign minister and others can't run the ball for the Syrian regime in international forums. It also means Russia can't concentrate as much on Syria.
Iran spent time blabbing to Assad about the importance of defeating the "Zionist regime" and slammed regional countries that "sit and drink coffee with the Zionist regime," an apparent reference to the Gulf states and the Abraham Accords. The Iranian regime claimed that during the recent Quds Day, people had filled the streets to slam Israel. "This is the reality of the region today," the Iranians said.
But Assad knows this is not true. The region doesn't appear to care as much about Israel. In fact, people are angry about poverty and environmental problems, such as Iraq drying up due to a lack of water and Turkey damming rivers that feed Syria and Iraq.
Iran is in chaos because it, too, is poor. Turkey wants to force a million Syrian refugees back to Syria. People are fleeing Lebanon's economic chaos. Meanwhile, Lebanese citizens abroad are seeking to vote in record numbers in their country's elections, portending interesting developments.
Iran complains about Israel, but Syria needs more than this talk-talk about nothing that helps Damascus.
Assad has said Syrian morale is high and that he is trying to rebuild the country. Iran turned attention back to Qasem Soleimani, the IRGC Quds Force commander killed in Iraq by the US in 2020. Soleimani had flown to Baghdad from Damascus.
Iran wants its bond with Syria strengthened, but only on its own terms of weakening the regime.
Iran wants its bond with Syria strengthened, but on its own terms. That means weakening the regime to some extent so that proxies from Lebanon and Iraq can use parts of Syria to threaten Israel. What has become of the T-4 and Imam Ali air bases and other places where Iran seeks to build its infrastructure in Syria? This was not mentioned, but these are key issues.
If Russia is distracted, the regime needs Iran more than ever. But it doesn't want to be swallowed by the Iranian regime; it wants Russia as a balance. Now that balance could be shifting. Iran may be chomping at the bit to move more resources to Syria.
Syria talks about Israel because it is wary of the real Iranian agenda. It must focus on a largely fake threat, that of Israel, rather than the real threat of Iran swamping the Syrian regime with militias, leading to chaos and weakness that will invite more troubles.
If Iran stirs up trouble with Jordan via the drug smuggling, moves its 3rd Khordad air-defense system to T-4 or does other nefarious movements, it could create tensions with the US or Israel.
This means the regime could also face hurdles. It doesn't want more troubles in the south, in the Houran or with Russian-backed units near the Golan. It doesn't want more unbridled attacks on Tanaf and the US garrison in Syria near the Jordanian border.
The regime has too many problems, so it has cut a devil's bargain with Iran. But how can it balance this with outreach to the Gulf and Egypt? How can it balance this with investment it wants from China and other countries?
It faces challenges, and being mortgaged to Iran's "resistance axis" is a huge problem. But it has fewer choices because Russia's focus is elsewhere.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.