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The meeting between Assad and Khamenei: What was on the table?

With Russia occupied in Ukraine, the Syrian dictator is seeking to consolidate his friendship with Iran, something Israel should view with concern.

Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Tehran on Feb 25, 2019. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei meets with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Tehran on Feb 25, 2019. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Marta Furlan
Marta Furlan

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited his close ally Iran on May 8 for talks with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi.

Iran’s Read of the Talks

According to Nournews, an outlet affiliated with Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, at the meeting Khamenei praised Syria for its victory in the country’s civil war and expressed willingness to increase and deepen bilateral cooperation.

Khamenei also voiced his criticism of Arab countries in the region that normalized ties with Israel or had high-level meetings with its officials. He added that this does not reflect the pro-Palestinian, anti-Zionist position of these countries’ own people. Raisi said that “threats by the Zionist regime in the region must also be considered through strengthening and diversifying deterrence equations.”

The Supreme Leader’s website stated that Assad told Khamenei and Raisi that Iran’s stance on regional issues, in particular the Palestinians, over the past four decades have shown that “Iran’s path is a correct path.” Assad also said that while some believe Iran supplies the so-called “axis of resistance” across the region with weapons, its most crucial aid has been support for the “spirit of resistance.”

Assad added that “strategic” ties between Iran and Syria and the two countries’ resistance had become the primary forces that prevent Israel’s dominance of the region.

Context of the Visit

Assad’s visit came as he reaffirmed and consolidated his position after more than a decade of civil war. Parts of Syrian territory, however, do remain outside Assad’s control. The northeast is controlled by Kurdish forces of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), with its People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Women’s Protection Unit (YPJ) under the aegis of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

Most of northwest Syria is controlled by the Salafi-jihadist armed group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and the Turkish-backed Syrian Interim Government (SIG). Assad’s power center is concentrated in the west of the country around Damascus to Aleppo and the Mediterranean coast, or what the French call “La Syrie utile.”

Throughout the war, Tehran provided constant and crucial support to Assad’s military forces—directly through the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and indirectly through armed Shi’ite proxies such as the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Afghan Liwa Fatemiyoun and the Pakistani Liwa Zainebiyoun.

It is remarkable that this is only the Syrian president’s second trip to Tehran since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011 (the first was in February 2019). Before this meeting with Khamenei, Assad visited the United Arab Emirates (UAE). This visit testified to the region’s readiness to normalize relations with Assad and take part in the reconstruction effort. The UAE is willing to pursue such reconciliation to reduce Syria’s dependence on Iran.

The visit also came at a delicate moment in which Assad’s other major foreign supporter, Russia, has focused most (if not all) of its attention on the war in Ukraine and redirected resources from the Levant to Eastern Europe. As a result, Assad might have felt the need to confirm Syria’s friendship with Tehran, while the IRGC may seek to use this opportunity to fill the void left by an occupied Russia.

In addition, the war in Ukraine has come at an immense cost to Russia in terms of sanctions. Assad might have decided to cement his friendship with Tehran for fear that Moscow’s capacity to invest in Syria’s reconstruction—which was meager to begin with—will be reduced. Assad may also try to play Iran against its Gulf rivals to draw resources from both.

Significance for Israel

The meeting solidified the Shi’ite Syrian-Iranian axis. The other members of this axis are Hezbollah, multiple Shi’ite militias in Iraq and the Houthis/Ansar Allah in Yemen.

For Israel, the close ties between Assad and Khamenei are a continued source of concern. Syria and Iran regard Israel as their main enemy in the region. For obvious reasons, Assad—who negotiated with Israel through intermediaries until 2011—has never dissented from Iran’s repeated calls for the demise of the Jewish state.

However, what should concern Israel the most in the context of this Syrian-Iranian friendship is the freedom of movement that Damascus has granted in recent years to Iran and Hezbollah; in particular, in the southwestern areas of Syria that are closest to Israel’s border.

At the same time, Iran has used Syrian territory as a transit route to deliver advanced weapons and military equipment to Hezbollah. The security concern for Israel is even more acute due to Iran’s recent expansion—both quantitatively and qualitatively—of its fleet of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

In the face of this security threat, the continuation of Israel’s approach to the war in Syria seems to be the most desirable course of action. For the last eight years, Israel has been engaged in a “campaign between wars,” in which it engaged in targeted airstrikes against Iranian and Iranian-linked positions in Syria to degrade Tehran’s capacity and that of its allies to entrench themselves in the country.

Israel’s campaign has not ended the Iranian project in Syria, but it has weakened it. However, the Assad-Khamenei meeting serves as a reminder that Iran’s presence and influence in Syria will only consolidate as Tehran participates in the post-war reconstruction effort, which involves many diverse fields such as electricity, infrastructure, religious centers and schools.

Therefore, while Israel’s campaign has proved successful over the past eight years, Israel must also be aware of its limits in countering the multi-dimensional Iranian presence in Syria.

Marta Furlan holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the University of St. Andrews. Her doctoral dissertation studied governance by Salafi-Jihadist armed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen from a comparative and multi-dimensional perspective. Her research focuses more broadly on violent non-state actors, rebel governance, civil wars and political Islam.

This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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