- Israel, the United States, Russia, and Iranian protesters are demanding that Iran leave Syria, but Iran refuses. The Iranian defense minister, at the head of a military delegation, visited Syria on August 26, 2018, two weeks after a visit by another Iranian delegation in Damascus that laid the groundwork for a “new, long-term strategic agreement” that Iran hopes to sign shortly. The defense minister also spoke of signing a new defense pact.
- An investigation reveals that Iran gave Syria at least $36 billion in aid just in the first six years of the Syrian war and that Tehran, despite all its domestic economic travails, continues to give Syria $6-15 billion per year.
- Many Iranians, witnessing the rapid economic disintegration of their country, are demonstrating and calling on their government to leave Syria and tend to the Iranian people. These calls are not affecting the strategy of Iran’s senior officials.
Iranian Defense Minister General Amir Khatami arrived in Damascus on August 26, 2018, at the head of a military delegation. In a press conference with his Syrian counterpart on the first day of his visit, he said, “Iran hopes to take an active part in rehabilitating Syria” and that “no third country will influence the Iranian advisers continued sojourn in Syria.”
The Tasnim News Agency, which has close ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, quoted Gen. Khatami at the press conference with Gen. Ali Ayoub, Syria’s defense minister, as saying that the purpose of the visit was “to upgrade the cooperation between the countries amid the new conditions as Syria begins the stage of building and rehabilitation.”
The 52-year-old Gen. Khatami, who has served as defense minister for 13 months, also met on the first day of his visit with President Bashar Assad. According to Khatami, whether Iran’s military advisers remain in Syria will be decided by Iran and Syria only, and “no third country will influence the decision at all.”
The Iranian defense minister added that during his meeting with Assad and Syria’s top security officials, the two countries would discuss further cementing their cooperation and “strengthening the resistance axis” and that a new military cooperation agreement would be signed between the two friendly countries.
Gen. Khatami added that Iran supports Syria’s ongoing efforts “to cleanse the whole country of terrorists.” He referred explicitly to Syria’s current military operation in the northern Idlib region, saying he would focus with his Syrian counterpart on the campaign against the terrorists in Idlib.
Tasnim reported that the Iranian defense minister also underlined the fact that Iran and Syria have “strong and close ties that continue at an important political stage alongside cooperation with the forces of the resistance axis.” He asserted that “the armed forces of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Arab Republic of Syria have overcome a huge plot” and that he congratulated the Syrian leadership and people for “their important military successes.”
Gen. Khatami said that “the Iranian private sector, with its strong capabilities, is prepared to help the Syrian people and government in rebuilding the friendly country” and that “the Iranian Islamic Republic is well able to help Syria expand its military equipment” though he did not go into detail on that point.1, 2, 3
Assad, in his meeting with the Iranian defense minister on August 26, 2018, emphasized the importance he assigns to continuing the cooperation between Syria and Iran. He charged that the United States, by leaving the nuclear agreement with Iran and renewing sanctions on Iran and Russia, is “destructively” undermining global stability and proving that the “resistance axis that fights terror” is justified in doing so.4
A day before the Iranian defense minister’s visit to Damascus, Iran’s media highlighted the possibility of a further American attack on Syria. News reports and commentaries condemned the words of U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton, who said that a new attack on Syria prompted by its use of chemical weapons would be much more painful than the previous one.
The Iranian media, which is mainly affiliated with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, also reported recently that Assad had rejected a generous Saudi proposal for Syria’s rehabilitation. The media said the Saudis had offered a “deal” to Assad where, in return for cutting ties with Iran and Hizbullah, he would get generous financial aid to rebuild his country. Radical Iranian media reported Assad’s rejection of the proposal in a tone of praise and admiration for the Syrian leader.
Gen. Khatami’s two-day visit to Syria began a day after the Iranian media reported that Syria had officially asked Hizbullah to keep its forces in Syria for a further period once the battles in northwestern and northeastern Syria had ended. The Fars News Agency, which is close to the Revolutionary Guard, said the Syrian government had also asked Hizbullah “to help sew up a number of local reconciliation agreements” mainly involving the return of hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees from Lebanon, as well as issues of the borders between Lebanon and Syria.
At the beginning of April 2018, Gen. Khatami said at a security conference in Russia (MCIS 2018), “In recent years, Iran has used all its might and capabilities to help Syria and Iraq in the two countries’ struggle against terror.” Gen. Khatami also visited Iraq in April, but the visit to Syria was his first as defense minister.
Before the Iranian defense minister’s visit to Syria, the Iranian Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hossein Bagheri Afshordi, visited the country in October 2017. He stated that “it cannot be that Israel will mount attacks in Syria whenever it wants” and that Iran and Syria would “fight shoulder to shoulder against common enemies—the Zionists and the Sunni terrorists.”
About two weeks before the Iranian defense minister’s visit to Syria, Tehran sent a delegation of experts to the country from several government ministries to explore ways “to continue the aid for Syria’s rehabilitation,” marking a new chapter in Syria’s life after the latest military victories.”
The news agency of the Iranian broadcasting authority reported that the economic delegation numbered 14 experts including Iran’s deputy minister of transportation and housing, Amir Amini, who said in Damascus that “Iran and Syria will soon sign a new long-term strategic agreement.” The report added that among other topics, the delegation discussed with Ms. Rania Ahmed, Syria’s deputy economic minister, the banking and customs cooperation between the two countries.5
The Iranian regime is continuing to assist Syria in different spheres while the Iranian economy is rapidly falling apart, and the Iranian rial has lost about 300 percent of its value in recent months compared to six months ago. As a result of the real and tangible disintegration of the Iranian economy, many of the country’s citizens are in various ways expressing enormous anger at the fact that the leadership is investing Iran’s meager remaining foreign currency reserves in rebuilding Syria.
In almost all the demonstrations in large and small cities, both in January this year and July-August, attending the protests were workers, teachers, pensioners, taxi drivers, truck drivers, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians whose meager deposits in the government financial funds have been pilfered by managers linked to senior officials. The citizens have been shouting that they are not happy that Tehran keeps squandering the country’s finances in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, and elsewhere while most Iranians are already living at subsistence level.
Recently, Iran’s leadership acknowledged that about 80 percent of the population are now considered poor or as living below an absolute poverty level. Amid the dizzying deterioration of the economy, the ministers of labor and of the economy (the treasury) in President Hassan Rouhani’s government were recently dismissed by the parliament in Tehran. Slogans like “Leave Syria, think about us,” which once were voiced among small circles of regime opponents, have now made their way to the headlines of editorials in Iranian newspapers, and not only reformist newspapers. It is not just the president, the foreign minister, and other senior officials as well as Revolutionary Guard commanders who are compelled in almost all their public appearances to justify the regime’s policy toward Syria and the region. Recently, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reiterated several times that “the enemies” are encouraging Iranians to utter “wicked slogans” against Iran’s presence in Syria. Even as the Supreme Leader and other senior figures charge that the slogans against Iran’s presence in Syria “serve the Zionists,” the Iranian people keep harshly criticizing this policy of their tyrannical rulers.
How Much Money Is Iran Sending to Syria?
In February 2018, an investigation by BBC Persian showed that Iran had funded the war in Syria during its first six years to the tune of $36 billion; the station said the sum was three times larger than the defense budget that Iran officially and openly announces. According to the investigation, $14-15 billion of that sum was transferred from Tehran to Assad just in the first two years of the war.6
On June 8, 2018, the Bloomberg agency quoted Staffan de Mistura, special envoy of the UN secretary-general and the Arab League for Syrian affairs, who said that Iran was still sending $6 billion per year to Syria. But Nadim Shehadi, lecturer and senior researcher at Tufts University in the United States, told the Persian website of Deutsche Welle that the Iranian aid to Syria amounts to at least twice what the secretary-general’s envoy claimed. Shehadi said that alongside the military aid, Iran is assisting Syria in various ways such as providing credit lines and loans, transferring generously subsidized oil products, and so on.7
Steven Heydemann, an American expert, had already told the Bloomberg agency in June 2015 that according to his inquiries, since the war in Syria began, Iran had been giving Damascus $15-20 billion in aid annually.8
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