Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami delivers a speech during the annual Moscow Conference on International Security (MCIS) in Moscow, Russia April 4, 2018.
(photo credit: REUTERS/SERGEI KARPUKHIN)
Days after US National Security Advisor John Bolton wrapped up several days of meetings in Jerusalem, Iran’s Defense Minister Amir Hatami led a large delegation to Damascus. The visit is meant to show that Tehran is a key ally of Damascus, and any thoughts that Iran can be removed from Syria are mistaken.
In recent months, both the US and Israel have indicated Iranian forces must withdraw from Syria. Bolton said that Iran is seeking to carve out an arc of influence from Tehran via Baghdad to Damascus and Beirut. He also indicated that Moscow might be willing to prod Damascus to get Iran to leave. “What he [Putin] was saying is that Iranian interests in Syria were not coterminous with Russian interests, and that he would be content to see the Iranian forces all sent back to Iran,” Bolton said in Jerusalem.
Hatami arrived on Sunday in Damascus for a series of meetings with “senior defense and military officials,” the Tasnim news agency said. The meetings are not only aimed at military issues, such as the Syrian regime’s upcoming Idlib offensive, but also designed to cement Iran’s role in reconstruction of Syria.
In a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hatami stressed Iran’s support of “preserving Syria’s unity and independence away from external influence,” according to SANA, Syria’s state media. In a jab clearly intended for the US and Israel, he said Iran would act “regardless of threats and pressures.”
The visit comes amid a flurry of activity focusing on Syria’s future. On August 22 Iran’s Press TV reported that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman had urged the Syrian government to cut ties with Hezbollah.
John Bolton also said Hezbollah must go back to Lebanon, after years of its involvement in the Syrian conflict. On August 25, Al-Akhbar in Lebanon reported that Assad’s regime had invited Hezbollah to remain in Syria, a clear response to the Americans.
At the same time US State Department envoy William Roebuck was traveling in eastern Syria over the weekend, reportedly in Manbij, Kobani and in Shaddadi. Iran’s message is that if the US is staying in eastern Syria, Iran is going to up its support for Damascus and will remain in Syria. Russia’s foreign ministry even seems to agree with this balanced equation, the Russian embassy in UK tweeted on August 24 “before demanding withdrawal of Iran troops from Syria, Ambassador Bolton should explain legal grounds for US military presence.”
Iran’s defense minister has a been a passionate supporter of Syria and also spread conspiracy theories about Israel in the past. He has worked to cement relationships with Iraq and Russia in April of this year and with Turkey in October of 2017. He has also been outspoken about the war in Yemen, accusing the US of supporting Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s campaign with the Yemenite government against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Hatami believes that Israel is seeking to create a new “regional scenario” and that Iran must work with Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Russia to prevent this “scenario.” The goal of Israel, he claimed last year, is to split up the region’s states, allying with groups such as the Kurds, or supporting Sunni extremist groups.
The Iranian high-level visit will therefore seek to balance the last week’s Israel-US progress on discussions about Iran’s role in Syria. Amid reports that the US is installing new air defense radar in eastern Syria and expanding its role, and US support for Israel’s “self-defense” air strikes in Syria, as Bolton called Israel’s strikes on Iranian-backed targets, Tehran is flexing its muscles in Damascus.
During the visit, Syrian state media said Iran and Syria were working to strengthen joint coordination and the “development of long-term cooperation.” Assad said the US was seeking to prolong the Syrian conflict, and that Iran and Syria’s regime were part of a “counterterrorism axis” aimed at confronting the US, which he accused of “destabilizing” the region. Syria’s Defense Minister Ali Abdullah Ayyoub said that Damascus was determined to retake the northern Idlib province. Hatami stressed that the Americans were seeking to remain in eastern Syria and deepen their presence there. The conclusion of the first day of meetings clearly showed that Damascus and Tehran sought to show that any notion Iran would leave Syria can be discarded.
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