Visiting Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi congratulated Syria’s Bashar al-Assad on Wednesday for overcoming sanctions and achieving “victory” in the country’s 12-year-long civil war, in which Tehran has been a major ally.
Tehran has provided economic, political and military support to Syria, helping Damascus claw back lost territory and positioning itself in a leading role as President Assad seeks to focus on reconstruction.
“Syria’s government and people have gone through great difficulties, and today we can say that you have overcome all these problems and achieved victory despite the threats and sanctions imposed on you,” Raisi told Assad, according to a statement from the Syrian presidency and Iran’s IRNA news agency.
Assad told Raisi that Syrian-Iranian ties “were stable and steady during difficult times despite heavy political and security storms that struck the Middle East”, according to the statement.
Assad welcomed Raisi for the first visit by an Iranian president to Syria since the war broke out, at a time when more regional capitals are re-engaging with the internationally-isolated government in Damascus.
The two-day visit comes just weeks after Iran’s landmark, Chinese-brokered agreement to restore ties with regional rival Saudi Arabia, which has sparked a flurry of diplomacy in the Middle East.
“During this trip, we will hold consultations to strengthen and improve economic, political and security relations,” Raisi said before departing Tehran, according to the Iranian presidency website, adding that ties between Syria and Iran were “completely strategic”.
The Syrian presidency said a number of agreements would be signed between the two countries, which remain under heavy Western sanctions.
The large Iranian delegation includes the ministers of foreign affairs, defence, oil, roads and urban development as well as telecommunications.
– Deals expected –
Security forces were heavily deployed in key parts of the Syrian capital, while billboards with portraits of the two presidents reading “welcome” in Arabic and Farsi lined the airport road.
Syrian and Iranian flags also flew along the road to the Sayyida Zeinab mausoleum south of Damascus, a revered pilgrimage site for Shiite Muslims that Raisi was expected to visit.
The last Iranian president to visit Damascus was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in September 2010.
Assad has officially visited Tehran twice since the war broke out, the last time in May 2022.
Iranian government spokesperson Ali Bahadori Jahromi said Tuesday that “both countries are ready for the highest level of cooperation”.
“The purpose of this trip is economic,” he said, adding that the two countries could also “cooperate” on Syria’s reconstruction.
Syria’s pro-government Al-Watan newspaper reported that deals on “energy and electricity” were among “a large number of agreements and memoranda of understanding” expected to be signed.
There would also be “discussions on a new Iranian credit line for Syria for investment in the power sector,” the daily added, in a country where blackouts can last around 20 hours a day.
In January 2019, Syria and Iran signed 11 agreements and memoranda, including on “long-term strategic economic cooperation”.
Damascus-based analyst Osama Danura said the visit “will open a new page in the close relationship between the two countries”, noting Iran “has put itself forward strongly as a contributor to the reconstruction phase”.
– ‘More appropriate’ –
Syria’s war has claimed more than 500,000 lives, displaced millions and ravaged the country’s infrastructure and industry.
The government has regained control over most of the country, but large parts in the north still remain outside its reach.
The regional atmosphere following the Saudi-Iran rapprochement has made Raisi’s visit “more appropriate”, Danura added.
Assad is hoping full normalisation of ties with wealthy Gulf monarchies and other Arab states will also help finance reconstruction.
In April, Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan made the first visit to Damascus by a Saudi official since the start of the war.
On the ground, Iran-backed groups including Lebanon’s Hezbollah continue to bolster Assad’s forces, while Iran says it only deploys military advisers in Syria.
Analyst Danura said he also expected Syria-Turkey relations to be discussed.
Tehran has been part of four-way talks with Damascus, Moscow and Ankara seeking to repair Syria-Turkey ties, which were severed at the start of the conflict.