Assad takes victory lap in Tehran amid power struggle among Iran’s elite

The 1-day-trip to Tehran was a public demonstration by the Syrian leader that he will stick to his partnership with Tehran.
Sunday 03/03/2019
Syrian President Bashar Assad (L) and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei before their meeting in Tehran, February 25. (SANA)
Thank-you visit. Syrian President Bashar Assad (L) and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei before their meeting in Tehran, February 25. (SANA)

ISTANBUL - A visit to Tehran by Syrian President Bashar Assad highlighted both the growing confidence of the Syrian leader and an escalating power struggle among his Iranian hosts.

On his first public visit to Iran since 2010, Assad met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei; President Hassan Rohani; Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s al-Quds Force, an overseas arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC); and other officials in Tehran on February 25.

Assad has made only two other known trips abroad — both to Russia, his other major international backer — since the start of Syria’s war in 2011.

Notably absent from Assad’s talks in Tehran was Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who announced his resignation shortly afterward, in what observers said was a sign of the waning influence of Iranian moderates and ascendency of hardliners. Rohani did not accept the resignation and Soleimani said Zarif had not been snubbed intentionally.

The message was clear all the same. “Zarif’s pro-West diplomacy failed terribly, whereas Qassem Soleimani’s has been triumphant,” Joshua Landis, a Middle East expert at the University of Oklahoma, said via e-mail.

After coming close to defeat in his war against insurgents, Assad has regained the upper hand since 2015 with the help of Russian air power and Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces, retaking all main cities from rebels and militants backed variously by Western powers and Gulf Arabs.

Iran, squeezed by US sanctions that increase economic hardship for many citizens, has spent billions of dollars to support Assad. Based on reports about funerals in Iran, Ali Alfoneh, of the Gulf States Institute in Washington and a columnist for The Arab Weekly, said at least 561 Iranians had died in combat in Syria.

“This trip is particularly important for Iran at a time when it is under severe economic pressure and facing political changes,” Landis wrote. “Khamenei and Soleimani want to highlight their victory in Syria.”

Soleimani has been a key figure in organising Iran’s role in the Syrian conflict, where regular Iranian Army units, IRGC members and pro-Iranian militias have been fighting on Assad’s side. Tehran also built up military assets in Syria that could threaten Israel, triggering several Israeli air strikes.

Soleimani has appeared on front lines across Syria, where his presence infuriated Sunni-led insurgents who oppose what they view as Shia Iran’s expansion in the region.

Syrian and Iranian state television showed Assad and Khamenei smiling and embracing. Syrian television said the two leaders agreed “to continue cooperation at all levels for the interests of the two friendly nations.” Khamenei was quoted as saying the two countries’ military victories in Syria had dealt “a harsh blow” to US plans in the region.

Like other regional powers, Iran, which forms an alliance with Russia and Turkey in the so-called Astana process, is trying to work out how to further its own interests given the upcoming US withdrawal from Syria. Tehran is eager to create a “Shia Crescent” from Iran via Iraq and Syria to its ally Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency said Khamenei told Assad that “the buffer zone that Americans are after in Syria is among dangerous plots that should be rejected” and that the US plan to maintain a presence in Syria near the Iraqi border “is another sample of their designs.”

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Centre, said during a panel discussion that Iran is expected to stay in Syria for the foreseeable future. “The Iranians will stay, somehow, in Syria,” he said, pointing to Iran’s view of its own security interest in the region. “Syria is considered to be Iran’s strategic depth.”

However, Fathollah-Nejad predicted that Iran’s rhetoric about its engagement in Syria would be scaled back because of growing opposition at home against “Iran’s Syria adventures.” In a sign of that dissatisfaction, Iranian authorities banned a reformist newspaper, Ghanoon, because it called Assad an “uninvited guest.”

For Assad, the 1-day-trip to Tehran was not only a thank-you visit, it was a public demonstration by the Syrian leader that he will stick to his partnership with Tehran even as his efforts to end his isolation among Arab countries gather pace. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have reopened their embassies in Damascus and several Arab League members are calling for Syria’s suspension from the bloc to be lifted.

As Assad cements his ties to Iran and Russia, pressure could increase on Turkey, allied with Tehran and Moscow in the Astana process, to rebuild relations with the Syrian leader as well. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of the most outspoken foes of Assad on the international stage, has said there have been contacts between Turkish and Syrian intelligence services but insists he will not talk to Assad himself.

Landis pointed out that Turkish priorities in Syria could lead to a change in Erdogan’s position. “If Turkey wants to get the US out of north Syria, it will have to coordinate with Assad in order to up the pressure on [US] President [Donald] Trump,” he wrote. “This will put pressure on Erdogan to climb down from his blanket opposition to the government in Damascus.”