Iran’s president heads to Syria for first trip since war, eyeing rebuild
Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi is set to travel to Damascus Wednesday in the first visit by an Iranian president since Syria’s civil war broke out and as regional engagement with the two allies expands.
During 12 years of conflict, Tehran has provided economic, political and military support to Syria, helping Damascus claw back lost territory and positioning Iran in a leading role as President Bashar al-Assad seeks to focus on reconstruction.
The visit comes just weeks after Iran’s landmark agreement to restore ties with regional rival Saudi Arabia and amid a flurry of diplomacy in the Middle East as regional relations with Iran and Syria shift.
Raisi and Assad would discuss “bilateral ties, shared economic and political issues, and positive developments in the region”, Syria’s state news agency SANA said.
Preparations for Raisi’s visit have been underway for days in the Damascus district housing Iran’s embassy, with concrete barriers in front of the mission removed, an AFP correspondent said.
Iran’s president would lead a senior “economic-political delegation” for his two-day trip at Assad’s invitation, Iranian state media reported.
The last Iranian president to visit Damascus was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in September 2010, while Assad has officially visited Tehran twice since the war broke out, the last time in May 2022.
Damascus-based analyst Osama Danura said the visit “will open a new page in the close relationship between the two countries”.
It “could focus on long-term economic strategies”, he added, noting Iran “has put itself forward strongly as a contributor to the reconstruction phase”.
– Deals expected –
Syria’s war has claimed more than 500,000 lives, displaced millions and ravaged the country’s infrastructure and industry.
Swathes of territory remain outside government control.
“A large number of agreements and memoranda of understanding” will be signed during Raisi’s visit, including on “energy and electricity”, Syria’s pro-government Al-Watan newspaper reported.
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 of understanding, including a “long-term strategic economic cooperation” deal.
Both Tehran and Damascus remain under heavy Western sanctions.
The regional atmosphere following the Saudi-Iran rapprochement has made Raisi’s visit “more appropriate”, analyst Danura said.
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.
“Fighting terrorism is one of the successful examples of cooperation between the two countries,” Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said this week.
“We were with the Syrian nation during the difficult years caused by the organised attacks of multinational terrorists… and we will be with the Syrian nation during the construction period,” he added.
Damascus considers all those who oppose it as “terrorists”.
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.
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