Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi on Wednesday finished a two-day visit to Damascus after securing a long-term strategic cooperation agreement to reconstruct war-ravaged Syria. He also agreed memoranda of understanding with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad covering energy, railways, telecommunications and agriculture.
“Syria’s government and people have gone through great difficulties, and today we can say that you have overcome all these problems and achieved victory despite the threats and sanctions imposed on you,” Mr Raisi told the Syrian president, according to Iran’s state news agency IRNA.
Mr Assad, who has travelled to Tehran twice since war broke out in Syria in 2011, said that ties between their countries were “stable and steady” and praised Iran, which “did not hesitate to provide political and economic support [to Syria], and even offered blood”.
The first journey by an Iranian president to Damascus since 2010, Mr Raisi’s visit was timed to take place before the Arab summit in Saudi Arabia on May 19th during which Syria’s suspension from Arab League membership could be lifted. This could open the way for full Syrian normalisation with all 22 League member states.
Syria was widely shunned by Arab governments over Mr Assad’s brutal crackdown on political opponents. The breakdown in relations culminated with Syria being ousted from the Arab League in 2011.
Mr Raisi is seeking to solidify relations with Syria as Damascus remains Tehran’s sole regional ally and is keen to ensure Syria’s improving relationship with Arab states does not sideline Iran.
The ties between the two countries were forged during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s when Syria gave political backing to Iran, while the Gulf states supported Iraq.
When the the civil war to topple the Assad government began 12 years ago, Iran dispatched General Qassem Suleimani from the elite Quds force to advise the Syrian military and also deployed paramilitary ground forces. This intervention enabled the under-strength and over-stretched Syrian army to regain territory seized by the anti-government jihadi groups that were being financed and armed by Turkey and Gulf states.
The Turks, Saudis and Emiratis later shifted to reconciliation with Syria, a move welcomed by Tehran.
Tehran has also been an economic lifeline for the Syria leader, sending fuel and credit lines worth billions of dollars.
Syria’s war has left more than 350,000 dead, created six million refugees and six million internally displaced people and impoverished 90 per cent of the population.
A China-brokered agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia on March 10th to reopen embassies in each others’ capitals has injected momentum into regional diplomacy, which has advanced rapidly in the past two months. Nevertheless, Tehran continues to compete with Saudi Arabia and the Emirates for regional influence.
On the economic front, Iran is in an advantageous position when it comes to Syrian reconstruction. Unlike the Gulf states, which have not breached Western sanctions on Syria, Iran would be willing to provide badly needed aid to rebuild Syria.
Once its ally has recovered economically, Iran could expect an increase in trade between the two countries, both of which have suffered under the weight of international sanctions.
Tehran could also count on Damascus’ support for construction of a railroad from Iranian territory through Iraq to the Mediterranean port of Latakia. This could facilitate commerce between Iran and Europe once their relationship improves.
On the political front, Iran counts Syria as a key member of the “Resistance Axis” against Israel, which includes Iraqi Shia militias and Lebanon’s Hizbullah movement. Damascus has so far has refused to make peace with Israel while it occupies Syria’s Golan heights.