Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently met Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran. This second visit by President Assad to Iran took place amid changing regional geopolitical dynamics and reflects Assad’s intent to strengthen his control over Syrian territories. The visit mainly aimed to deepen strategic ties between Damascus and Tehran. Khamenei’s and Raisi’s remarks assured Assad of Tehran’s continual support (credit lines and military assistance) to Syria.
The Assad regime has been battling opposition forces largely with the air support provided by Russia and Iranian military ground support. However, recently several reports have indicated that Russia has withdrawn some of its troops deployed in Syria to bolster its military presence in Ukraine. Consequentially, the abandoned Russian military bases have been occupied by IRGC units and Hezbollah fighters, leading to fears of an escalation of attacks targeting US forces in Syria and an easy flow of weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon. In light of Moscow now focusing more on its military strategy in Ukraine, Iran has a valuable opportunity to expand its military influence in Syria, especially as Tehran and Moscow, although having converging interests in supporting Assad, had earlier clashed in several areas in Syrian territories.
The statements from Syrian and Iranian leaders after the visit indicate the attempts to forge deeper bilateral ties in the face of US sanctions and economic pressure on Syria. The US Department of the Treasury recently lifted sanctions on foreign investments in certain parts of Syria but it did not lift the sanctions on the Assad regime. The US Under Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland said that the aforementioned move was made to improve the economic situation in the areas previously under ISIS control. The US Department of the Treasury also confirmed that the import of petrol and other related items from Syria will continue to be sanctioned. Bearing this context in mind, Iran’s economic ties with Syria become pivotal for the Assad regime. Several reports indicate that Iran has increased its exports to Syria to help the Assad regime in controlling the massive hikes in food prices because of the disruptions in global supply chains caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. As per the data from the UN World Food Program from 2019 to 2021, prices of basic food items in Syria shot up by 800 percent and in March 2022 amid the crisis in Ukraine food prices were recorded to have increased further prompting the Syrian people to cut down their expenses in other areas such as healthcare.
In the current context, Assad’s visit to Tehran coincided with some important regional and international developments. Firstly, in recent months Syria has been hastening its efforts to normalize ties with its neighbouring and regional countries. However, this rapprochement hinges on many factors; particularly Iran’s expanding involvement in Syria. Iran intends to safeguard its influence in Syria as President Raisi’s foreign policy is largely focused on strengthening the “Axis of Resistance” alliance and extending Iran’s military footprint in the region post the US withdrawal. Syria’s prospective rapprochement with other regional countries is not conducive to Iranian interests as Tehran intends to keep in place Syria’s financial and military dependency on her. Secondly, Iran’s military assistance to its proxy groups in Syria has often resulted in clashes between Israel and Iran-backed forces. Although Iran has been cautious not to escalate the conflict into a full-scale confrontation, Tehran intends to further its military presence in the region for strategic deterrence. Israel has targeted Iranian military assets in Syria in recent months and Hezbollah has warned Israel about retaliation if Tel Aviv continues to target Iranian assets in the region. This kind of shadow war helps Iran to minimize the direct consequences of its involvement in regional conflicts. Thirdly, Assad’s visit to Tehran and the subsequent statements issued to media outlets intend to project Washington’s current limitations in the region. Assad reportedly said that the strong relations between Syria and Iran curbed US influence in the Middle East, and “America today is weaker than ever.” Such statements coincide with the constant domestic pressure on the Biden administration regarding its approach toward Tehran while Iran toughens its positions in the region and engages closely with Syria on the security front.
The Iranian remarks during Assad’s visit reflect the rhetorical Iranian threats against the United States and Israel which coincided with recent IRGC warnings to the United States. Iran’s aim to pressure the Biden administration to agreeing to a new nuclear deal which incorporates its demands will push it toward forging closer military and strategic ties with Damascus in order to expand its clout in Syrian territories, which will pose a strategic headache to the United States, Israel and the regional countries.