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Iran and Syria Tout A Defense & Reconstruction Deal

The Islamic Republic is determined to stay in Syria and ‘participate’ in rebuilding the country as well as the Assad regime’s armed forces

The Iranian defense minister met with his counterpart in Damascus earlier this week to sign a military cooperation and reconstruction deal to help Syria begin to look ahead after the country’s eight-year civil war, Iranian state media reported.

Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami traveled to Syria’s capital on Sunday for a two-day visit, meeting with President Bashar Assad and Syrian General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub as well as other high-ranking military officials.

Of the signed agreement, Hatami remarked that it will “define the areas of bilateral presence, participation and cooperation,” pledging Iran’s support for a new era of “reconstruction” that Tehran will help guide.

For his part, Abdullah Ayyoub stressed the importance of keeping outside powers from causing “damage to the strong and firm relations of the two countries,” a clear reference to both the U.S. and Israel. The ministers then touted the 40 years of military cooperation between the two countries.

Aside from the show of solidarity between the two regimes, details of what the military pact contains, as well as purported plans for military “technology” exchanges between Damascus and Tehran, all remain murky. In recent days, Iran claims to have reached new capabilities in its development of warplanes and short-range ballistic missiles.

However, one point of the meetings was made abundantly clear: Iran is determined to stay in Syria and “participate” in the rebuilding of the Syrian regime’s armed forces. It is no secret that Tehran has backed Assad with generous political, financial, and military support throughout the country’s bloody civil war, which, as of late, is titling heavily in favor of the regime. The regime’s forces are preparing to subdue the final pocket of rebel resistance in Idlib province in the country’s northwest.

Since breaking out in 2011, Syria’s civil war pitting pro-regime forces—including the regime’s army, Russian air power, and Iranian-backed groups like Hizbullah, against anti-regime rebel fighters has left more than 350,000 people dead and displaced millions. It also saw the rise and near fall of Islamic State, one of the most brutal terrorist regimes in modern times.

The current agreement allowing Iran’s continued “presence and participation” in the country’s affairs flies in the face of recent Israeli and U.S. efforts to keep Iranian-backed forces from operating in the country. Both Jerusalem and Washington have repeatedly demanded in the past months that Iran’s forces must vacate the country.

U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have been working with the Russians, a key ally of the Assad regime, to limit Iran’s ambitions in Syria.

For its part, Israel has said it will not tolerate Iran’s meddling in Syria, especially along Israel’s northern border in the Golan Heights. Israeli forces have already carried out dozens of airstrikes in Syria to prevent advanced weaponry from falling into the hands of Hizbullah fighters.

Analysts are asking why Iran and Syria felt the need to showcase their military alliance when such cooperation has been a mainstay in their bilateral relations. Is this a sign of desperation as U.S. sanctions once again begin to take a bite out of the Iranian economy?

An Iranian analyst based in Europe who requested anonymity told The Media Line that Iran likely wanted a more formal pact with Syria because Israel and other countries have been pressuring Russia to keep Iranian-backed forces out of the war-torn country.

“Iran needs to make a pact with the Syrian government so it could officially stay there,” the analyst said. “Previously, the Iranians were always saying ‘we are here because Syria wants us here.’ Now, they can say that the alliance is official.”

Ali Fathollah-Nejad, an Iran expert at the Brookings Doha Center, told The Media Line that the “accord comes at a time of a number of meetings involving Israel, the U.S. and Russia, which, out of differing motivations and objectives, want to push back against Iran’s military and economic footprint in Syria.”

He explained that agreement thus sends a signal to those powers that Iran is going to stay in Syria.

“Since earlier this year, Iran has found itself under some pressure by Israel, the U.S. and to some extent Russia to reduce its military and economic footprint in Syria,” Fathollah-Nejad said.

The latter scenario could materialize, Fathollah-Nejad concluded, but it would depend on “the extent to which Moscow and Tehran retain their overarching strategic aim to keep Assad in power and keep the influence of antagonistic powers out of Syria.”