The Iranian President's Visit to Damascus: New Balances of Power in Syria
President Ebrahim Raisi's two-day (3-4 May) visit to Syria marked a significant milestone as the highest-level visit from Tehran to Damascus in 13 years. While no Iranian president had visited Damascus during the war, Bashar al-Assad had made two visits to Iran since 2011 to meet with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and other officials. This recent visit, the first of its kind since former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's trip to Syria in 2010, ushers in a new era in Tehran-Damascus relations. President Raisi's visit is significant in that it comes at a time when some Arab countries that support the opposition and have severed ties with the Damascus regime for more than a decade have begun to re-establish relations with the Assad regime. It is also clear that the Washington administration's strategy of isolating Tehran and Damascus in the region, after failing to make progress in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, has not been successful, as evidenced by the steps towards normalization with Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt. After March 10, (2023), when Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to resume diplomatic relations in Beijing and Riyadh supported Damascus' return to the Arab League, Iran, which has been sidelined in the diplomatic arena regarding Syria in recent years, especially by Russia, is trying to consolidate its position as a country with a voice in Syria in the post-war period. Following the signing of an agreement in Beijing on March 10, 2023, and Riyadh's backing of Damascus' return to the Arab League, Iran, which has been marginalized in recent years in the diplomatic sphere concerning Syria, particularly by Russia, seeks to solidify its position as a significant player in Syrian affairs. However, despite the agreement, mutual suspicions remain between Tehran and Riyadh, and Iran remains cautious of Riyadh's efforts to forge ties with Damascus. Moreover, the Lebanese issue is intricately linked to Saudi Arabia’s pressure on the Arab League for Syria's rejoinder. Tehran is deeply concerned that Riyadh's actions could lead to the imposition of an "undesirable" solution in Lebanon.
President Raisi's visit to Damascus can be considered a symbolic and strategically important step. The visit points to the strong strategic cooperation between Iran and the Assad regime and sends a message to the countries that have taken steps towards normalization with the Assad regime that they cannot ignore Iran in the Syrian equation. It is also a challenge to US isolationist policies in the region. As the influence of China and, to a certain extent, Russia in the Middle East increases, countries like Iran and Syria are trying to reposition themselves in this new regional equation. Therefore, President Raisi's visit to Damascus can be viewed as a strategic move aligning with the evolving regional dynamics. It will bolster Iran's standing in the region and contribute to a firmer stance against US influence. On the first day of Raisi's visit, US State Department Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel expressed concern over the "deepening ties" between Iran and Syria, emphasizing that such developments should be of great concern not only to regional allies and partners but also to the entire world. He criticized Tehran and Damascus for their involvement in destabilizing activities in the region.
President Raisi's visit is being portrayed in the Iranian media as a declaration of "victory" for the "axis of resistance" of Tehran against all anti-Assad parties. Mohammad Jamshidi, Ebrahim Raisi's deputy for political affairs, told the state news agency IRNA that the visit was a sign of the Islamic Republic's "strategic victory" in the region. The renewed acceptance of Syria among Arab countries also reveals that Iran sees the Syrian conflict as a victory over its regional rivals and the United States. One can speak of a geopolitical tectonic shift in the region. While many countries have made different attempts at rapprochement with the Assad regime, the Ankara-Damascus rapprochement seems to carry the most weight in the region. Notably, the Russian-led Ankara-Damascus normalization efforts stand out as the second- most important diplomatic initiative in the Middle East. The April 25 (2023) quadrilateral meeting in Moscow, attended by the defense ministers and intelligence chiefs of Russia, Turkiye, Syria, and Iran, emphasized the importance of continued meetings in the quadrilateral format to ensure and maintain stability in Syria and the region as a whole. The inclusion of Tehran in the Ankara-Damascus-Moscow talks shows that Iran's potential to undermine the agreements if sidelined was taken into account. However, the inclusion of Iran in the talks set the negotiations back, causing some issues to be discussed again in a quadrilateral format by the defense ministers and heads of intelligence.
The Iranian Ambassador to Syria, Hossein Akbari, views President Ebrahim Raisi's visit to Syria as a pivotal moment for the region. The visit solidifies Iran's strong relationship with Syria and underscores their expanding economic cooperation. Throughout the civil war, Iran has consistently supported the Assad regime, positioning itself as a key player in Syria's reconstruction efforts. Iran has ambitious plans for its ties with Syria, including the establishment of a railway network connecting Iran, Iraq, and Syria's Mediterranean port of Latakia. According to Iranian state media, President Raisi assured the Assad regime that Iran would steadfastly stand by their side in the reconstruction of the war-torn country. Accompanying President Raisi were senior cabinet members, including ministers of oil, transport, telecommunications, foreign affairs, and defense. Following the signing ceremony, Mehrdad Bazarbash, Iran's Minister of Roads and Urban Development and head of the Iranian delegation in the Joint Economic Committee, described the Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) as unprecedented in terms of both their number and significance. A significant portion of these agreements focus on facilitating trade between the two countries, aiming to enhance the quality and volume of bilateral trade. Bazarbash also mentioned that Tehran and Damascus discussed the establishment of a joint bank and a joint insurance company to further facilitate trade. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani emphasized that Tehran will play a decisive role in the post-war reconstruction efforts. Additionally, President Raisi's visit is expected to pave the way for addressing the repayment of loans and debts extended to Syria during the conflict. In addition, according to secret documents obtained by Iran International while President Ibrahim Raisi was in Syria, Tehran is allegedly procuring uranium from Syria's phosphate mines to make yellowcake. This issue was also allegedly raised during the Raisi-Assad meeting.
Upon his return to Tehran, President Raisi emphasized that the visit to Syria marked a significant milestone in the development of economic, trade, political, and security relations between the two countries. During a press conference following his trip, President Raisi highlighted key areas of cooperation, including energy production and distribution, enhanced economic and trade collaboration, the reduction of trade tariffs between Iran and Syria to zero, the strengthening and expansion of transit routes between Iran, Iraq, and Syria, as well as Iran's contributions to Syria's agriculture, industry, and energy sectors in the post-war period. The signed agreements encompassed various fields, such as capacity-building initiatives, facilitating visits to the graves of Ahlulbayt (members of the Prophet’s household), and fostering bilateral cooperation. In conclusion, President Raisi's visit to Syria, which took place after 13 years, can be considered as a timely show of strength. While steps are being taken for the regional normalization of Syria, Raisi's visit can be read as a message that we have succeeded in keeping Assad in power and that we will continue to maintain our strong presence in Syria after the war. There is also a message here for the Assad regime. Former Iranian diplomat Ebrahim Rahimpour's comments in an interview about Raisi's visit to Damascus that "if we are not careful, the regimes that we are the saviors of can sometimes be forgetful" summarize this message well. The former diplomat's warning that Iran must be vigilant to reap the fruits of its long and costly support for the Assad regime should also be emphasized.