Iran’s President Ebrahim Raisi visited Syria on May 4, with the rare visit happening against the backdrop of Damascus’ resumption of ties with the Arab world and rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Representing the first visit by an Iranian leader to Syria in over a decade, the trip was a far cry from where Iran stood over a decade ago. Back in 2010, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to Syria to offer support before the outbreak of the Syrian civil war. Iran’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad led to the breakdown of Syria-Arab relations as Arab countries condemned overt Iranian interference in Syria as well as the deployment of Iranian proxies that plunged the country into a vortex of sectarian violence.
Iran’s Ambassador to Syria Hossein Akbari said that the latest presidential visit would have regional and extra-regional ramifications. Tehran signaled its desire to ease regional tensions after the trip which came following a meeting between Syrian and Arab foreign ministers in Jordan in early May. The foreign ministerial multilateral meeting between Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq also led to a joint statement highlighting the need for a comprehensive strategy to improve regional security and discussions on a new roadmap to end the 12-year Syrian civil war to reintegrate Syria into the Arab League; Syria’s membership was suspended in 2011.
Earlier in April, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud met with President Assad in Damascus to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict. The Saudi foreign minister also met with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Beijing, China, and they agreed to resume direct flights between Tehran and Riyadh. Another meeting of nine Arab countries in Saudi Arabia was held in mid-April to discuss the possible return of Syria to the Arab League. In February, Riyadh made it clear that the Arab world was considering a new approach to Syria that necessitated negotiations.
Tehran now insists that building better ties with its neighbors is pivotal to its foreign policy approach. Iran’s Foreign Ministry expressed hope that Saudi-Lebanese relations would improve, and it offered Beirut help to resolve a political impasse over the election of its future president. Additionally, Tehran said that it would advance talks with Russia, Syria and Turkey to ensure the restoration of peace in Syria. President Assad said that improved Syrian-Turkish ties would depend on Ankara pulling out thousands of troops in the rebel-held northwestern regions of Syria.
Raisi’s trip to Syria also led to deals to expand economic cooperation and the Iranian state-owned railway network has always aspired to link Syria’s Mediterranean region through Iraq. Tehran said that the deals should be viewed positively by other regional countries if they desire wider regional commercial cooperation. Tehran and Damascus signed 14 cooperation agreements, including their first comprehensive strategic cooperation plan.
Iran and Syria intend to use local currencies for trade, and they also signed a memorandum of understanding for oil industry cooperation to circumvent the US-led sanctions. Raisi praised Syria’s victory in its civil war despite the sanctions. He further emphasized the importance of mutual resistance against external pressures and attempts to isolate Iran and Syria, and said this resistance ensures success on the diplomatic front as it pushes the regional states to be flexible and enter talks.
Tehran aims to strengthen its so-called axis of resistance in Syria, which involves boosting cooperation with pro-Syrian Palestinian groups and the Lebanese Hezbollah. It promises also to increase cooperation with Damascus in the security and defense sectors.
Raisi’s visit to Syria is reflective of a “strategic victory” in the eyes of Tehran, especially if Iran and Syria exit their regional isolation amid unprecedented regional shifts. To achieve this goal, Iran is likely to continue to show commitment to reducing the cost of the conflict in Syria by encouraging Damascus to end its civil war and use the country as a bridge linking itself to other Arab capitals. However, this “strategic victory” was short-lived with Arab foreign ministers voting on allowing Syria to reenter the Arab League on May 7 in Cairo. Although Syria’s reentry is conditional, (for example allowing refugees to return without retribution, cracking down on drug trafficking and complying with UNSC Resolution 2254 of 2015) it is quite significant as it reflects an Arab desire to counterbalance the weight of Iran and its proxies in Syrian territories as well as an intent on taking a leading role in resolving all aspects of the Syrian crisis.