Amir Hatami in Syria: To stay or withdraw?

Abdulrahman al-Rashed
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Iran’s Minister of Defense Amir Hatami, whose visit to Damascus last week was interesting, spoke of Iran’s desire to “strengthen Syria’s military arsenal” and help it “expand its military equipment,” as reported by the Iranian Students' News Agency (ISNA). He hinted that he’s “trying to pave the way for the next phase of cooperation.” So what is this next phase? Does it mean Iran’s withdrawal from Syria?

The attempt to end the twin-status between the Iranian and Syrian regimes has not succeeded despite the Israeli shelling of Iranian troops in Syria, and which is on the largest scale since the 1973 war, and despite Russia’s declaration that it does not support Iran’s continuous presence in Syria and will not protect it from the Israeli airstrikes. The Americans said they tried to tempt the Damascus regime but failed, and Iran’s media outlets in Lebanon had claimed that Saudi Arabia tried and failed.

Damascus’ relation with Tehran is an old ongoing problem for the region that goes back to the period of the Iranian-Iraqi war in the 1980s. It developed within the framework of the alliance of necessities, the Syrian Baathist thus allied with the religious Iranian.

In the end of the 1990s, there was no longer a reason for this relationship of necessity. The father Hafez al-Assad sought to diminish confrontations – paving the way for after his death – so he adopted a rapprochement attitude with Saddam’s besieged regime, reconciled with Turkey after handing over the leader of the Kurdish-Turkish opposition and negotiated with Israel over peace and reached an advanced stage of an agreement with it in Geneva. Israel however obstructed signing the deal under the pretext that Assad’s health was deteriorating and that it’s afraid of Syria’s future after him.

Damascus’ relation with Tehran is an old ongoing problem for the region that goes back to the period of the Iranian-Iraqi war in the 1980s.

Abdulrahman al-Rashed

As Bashar ascended to power, optimism reigned in the region until it turned out that the relation with Tehran had become deeper in secret. This was confirmed after Israel’s withdrawal from South Lebanon. The Israeli troops’ withdrawal was supposed to pave way for breakthroughs which include the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and reconciliations that are in parallel with Saudi Arabia’s peace project which Syria and all Arab and Muslim countries had approved of.

However, the complete opposite happened as the two allies, Iran and Syria, intensified their presence in Lebanon. They executed a wave of assassinations and the two regimes almost completely dominated the country. There was no longer any doubt that there is a special relation between Damascus and Tehran after the two allies’ cooperation in adopting the Iraqi resistance and supporting terror groups in Iraq, including al-Qaeda, Al-Zaraqawi and ISIS later became clear. Later on, the term “the rise of the Shiite crescent” emerged.

Today, attempts to get Iran out of Syria seem tantamount to cutting off the umbilical cord – the possibilities of their success are low. The relationship is solid rock between the two regimes and also as a result of the decline of Assad’s security and military institutions as a result of the civil war.

The calculations of the next phase have three points to take into consideration. The first one is the Trump administration’s demand from Iran to get out of Syria, as part of the 12 conditions set to end its economic war. The second one is Israel’s insistence to get Iran’s forces and militias out of Syria or else their capabilities will be destroyed. The third one is that for the Assad regime to stay, the Americans had set the condition that Iran and its militias exit the country. The Trump administration has backed down on withdrawing from Syria and decided to maintain its military and political presence there.

Theoretically, the Iranian forces’, Hezbollah’s and others forces’ exit seems like the expected result but who will believe Iran is willing to cooperate and withdraw after all the massive human and financial losses it endured in Syria’s war? Its withdrawal will be considered a free defeat and will weaken the Tehran government’s negotiating capability with Israel and the US. It will also end its investment in Lebanon, i.e. Hezbollah which it built from zero and spent billions of dollars on. As for Assad, his alliance with Tehran is old and dates back to the beginning of his years in governance. All old attempts to break this alliance have failed over the course of a decade and a half.

This article is also available in Arabic.


Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today. He tweets @aalrashed

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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