Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has held meetings with Iran’s supreme leader and the country’s president during a surprise visit to Tehran, a key military backer of the Syrian regime.
Assad met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Ebrahim Raisi after making an unannounced visit to the Iranian capital on Sunday morning and then left for Damascus the same day, according to Nournews, an outlet affiliated with Iran’s Supreme National Security Council (SNSC).
The supreme leader’s website confirmed the meeting. Its readout of the rare sit-down quoted Khamenei as telling Assad that his “victory in an international war” has increased the credibility of Syria, and that Iran wishes to boost bilateral ties.
“Today’s Syria is not Syria before the war, even though there was no destruction back then, but now the respect and credibility of Syria is much more and all look to it as a power,” Khamenei was quoted as saying.
Khamenei also took aim at countries in the region which have normalised ties with Israel or hold high-level meetings with its officials, saying this is while their own people are chanting anti-Zionist slogans on Quds Day.
This is the Syrian president’s second trip to Tehran since the start of Syria’s war in 2011. He had previously met the Iranian supreme leader, his biggest regional ally, in February 2019.
At the time, Qassem Soleimani, the commander-in-chief of the Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), had accompanied Assad on his visit.
Soleimani was assassinated by a United States drone attack in Iraq in January 2020 under former President Donald Trump.
Iran’s stances on regional issues
During Sunday’s meeting, the Iranian supreme leader also remembered Soleimani and said his efforts in Syria were no different than those during the eight-year Iran-Iraq War ending in 1988, which Iran considers a period of “holy defence”.
“This connection and relationship is vital for both countries and we must not allow it to be weakened, but must strengthen it as much as possible,” Khamenei said.
Assad was quoted by the supreme leader’s website as telling Khamenei and Raisi that Iran’s stances on regional issues, especially Palestine, during the past four decades have shown that “Iran’s path is a correct and fundamental path.
“The destruction of war can be rebuilt, but if basics and fundamentals are destroyed they cannot be restored,” he reportedly said.
Nearly 400,000 people have been killed in the 11-year war in Syria, according to the UN. The conflict has left large parts of Syria in ruins and displaced more than half of the country’s population, with millions forced to seek refuge in neighbouring countries.
Assad also said some believe Iran supplies its so-called “axis of resistance” across the region with weapons, but its most important backing consists of supporting the “spirit of resistance” and maintaining it. He added that “strategic” ties between Iran and Syria have become the main factor preventing Israel’s dominance over the region.
Iran along with Russian military support turned the war in Assad’s favour.
In a separate meeting with Assad, the Iranian president lamented that parts of Syrian soil are still controlled by foreign forces and said “occupying forces and their mercenaries must be forced out.”
Raisi also said that “threats by the Zionist regime in the region must also be considered through strengthening and diversifying deterrence equations.”
He pledged that boosting ties, especially economic and business relations with Syria is a top priority for his administration, adding that he is also ready to cooperate more on political and security issues and fighting “terrorism”.
Assad was quoted by the president’s website as saying the US role in the region is weakening in the face of regional resistance.
“Experience has proven that cooperation among regional countries on a range of issues including Palestine has been highly effective, and Palestinian successes have shown that compromise by some Arab countries has led to opposite results,” he said.
In March, the Syrian president travelled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – his first trip to an Arab state since the Syrian war began in 2011 – during which he met Dubai’s ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan.
The UAE and Bahrain established formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020. Several other Arab countries followed suit.