Abdollahian in Damascus, A message of Iranian anger and determination to stay

The Iranian Foreign Minister meets al-Assad in Damascus - February 11, 2024 (Syrian Presidency/Telegram)

The Iranian Foreign Minister meets al-Assad in Damascus - February 11, 2024 (Syrian Presidency/Telegram)


Enab Baladi – Hussam al-Mahmoud

Over the past few days, the Iranian Foreign Minister, Hussein Amir Abdollahian, conducted a tour of the region that included what is known as the “Axis of Resistance.” In addition to meeting officials in Syria and Lebanon for discussions addressing regional developments and Israeli attacks on Syria, and the war on Gaza, meetings with leaders of Palestinian factions were a common denominator among the three visits.

Syria was the middle stop in Abdollahian’s tour, as he arrived in Damascus on February 11, and held a meeting with his counterpart Faisal Mekdad, in addition to meeting the Syrian regime leader, Bashar al-Assad.

During a joint press conference, Mekdad said that the reason for repeated Israeli occupation attacks on Syrian territory is Syria’s resistance to Israel and its schemes, noting that resistance takes various forms. He considered that Syria has fought several wars against the Zionist entity, and is fully prepared to fight other wars, determining when, where and how, emphasizing that ending the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan is a priority and a sacred duty to the Syrian people, as reported by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).

For his part, Abdollahian said that he relayed an official and written invitation from the Iranian President, Ebrahim Raisi, to al-Assad, to visit Iran, and discussed with him the latest developments in the region as well as regional and international topics. He stressed the importance of following up on agreements signed between the two countries, pointing to a prospective enhancement of relations between the two sides in various fields. He emphasized the continued support for Syria in “combating terrorism.”

In the same context, al-Assad considered the behavior of the United States toward what he described as the “escalation” of the ongoing Israeli assault on the Gaza Strip as a harbinger of expanding the scope of the conflict. He said that “the Zionist entity and the West are in a quandary, and the western requirement is to rescue this entity, and the escalation in Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon is but an attempt to escape from this predicament.”

Abdollahian met with about 15 officials from various Palestinian factions in Damascus, discussing and exchanging views about the latest developments in Palestine, how to end the war on Gaza, and how to stop the genocide committed by Israel against the Palestinians, according to what the Iranian News Agency (IRNA) reported.

During the meeting, Abdollahian praised the support provided from the “resistance” in Lebanon, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria to the Palestinian people, noting that the Palestinian issue has become the world’s foremost cause. He also participated in the celebrations of the 45th anniversary of what is called the “victory of the Islamic revolution” in Iran, saying “the resistance is in its best conditions, and there is no doubt that the victory in Gaza is very near and the end of Netanyahu and the Zionist criminals is closer than that.”

Amid simmering tensions

The Iranian visit to Syria comes at a time when Israeli air attacks continue on military and vital points controlled by the regime.

The latest in this regard were two consecutive attacks on February 9 and 10, in the form of raids by Israeli warplanes in the vicinity of the Syrian capital, Damascus.

Israeli warplanes also struck targets in the vicinity of Homs in central Syria on February 7, killing two members of the Lebanese Hezbollah.

Israel did not claim responsibility for the attack, but the Israeli Alma research center said that the attack in Homs likely targeted a logistics complex that housed warehouses and a parking area for trucks and tractors, adjacent to the highway linking Deir Ezzor in the east with Homs, which is a central transit passage for the “Iranian land corridor.”

The repeated targeting has resulted in the death of several “advisers” from the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

On January 20, an Israeli raid killed five members of the IRGC in the heart of the Syrian capital, Damascus, Iran announced at the time.

A statement by the IRGC at the time said, “As a result of the brutal and criminal Zionist aggression in Damascus, five military advisers and shrine defenders, and a number of Syrian forces were martyred.”

On December 25, 2023, an Israeli aircraft bombed a house in the town of Sayyida Zaynab in Rif Dimashq province, killing Sayyed Razi Mousavi, one of the oldest IRGC advisers in Syria.

These repeated attacks prompted Iran to withdraw its officers from Syria without announcing intentions to withdraw. Reuters reported at the beginning of February, according to informed sources, that the Revolutionary Guard Corps reduced the deployment of senior officers in Syria due to the wave of Israeli strikes, and that it will rely more on allied Shiite factions to maintain its influence in Syria.

The sources said that while hardliners in Tehran call for retaliation, Tehran’s decision to withdraw its senior officers is partly due to its aversion to being directly drawn into an escalating conflict in the Middle East.

While the sources said that Iran has no intention of withdrawing from Syria, which is a key part of Tehran’s sphere of influence, they did not mention the number of Iranians who had left. Reuters did not receive a response from the Syrian regime’s Ministry of Information and could not reach the IRGC for comment.

Another source said that the Iranian officers remaining in Syria have left their offices and gone into hiding, emphasizing that the Iranians will not abandon Syria, but they have minimized their presence and movements to the greatest extent.

Since the beginning of February, the American warplanes have carried out dozens of raids and strikes on targets of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and its affiliated militias in Syria and Iraq, according to the US Department of Defense.

The US attacks came in response to a drone strike that killed three American soldiers and wounded more than 40 others at a military point known as “Tower 22” on the border triangle between Syria, Iraq, and Jordan on January 28.

Reuters quoted US officials as saying the United States believes that Iran made the drone that attacked the US base.

A Tehran message of discomfort

Marwan Farzat, a political analyst specializing in Iranian affairs, explained to Enab Baladi that the main reason for the visit of the Iranian Foreign Minister to Damascus may be the continuous Israeli bombing of Damascus, and the repeated assassinations of leaders in the Revolutionary Guard Corps, which constitutes a source of annoyance to the latter.

Farzat outlined that the IRGC is convinced that officers from the Syrian regime are complicit in leaking coordinates that facilitate targeting those Tehran and the Syrian regime call “advisers,” and the Iranian Foreign Minister came to deliver this message.

At the beginning of February, Reuters reported from unnamed sources that the IRGC raised its concerns with the Syrian authorities that information leakage from within the Syrian security forces played a role in the recent strikes, which forced the Revolutionary Guard Corps to move operation locations and residences of officers amid fears of an “intelligence breach.”

Sources pointed out that the IRGC are recruiting Shiite fighters from Afghanistan and Pakistan to deploy in Syria, repeating an earlier phase when similar factions played a role in turning the tide of battles in Syria, in addition to relying heavily on Syrian Shiite factions, according to the sources.

Regarding the invitation conveyed by Abdollahian from the Iranian President, Ibrahim Raisi, to al-Assad for a visit to Tehran, the researcher believes that it allows al-Assad to justify his position in front of the Iranian leadership. It also falls within the Iranian strategy of connecting axes and sending a message that from Tehran to Beirut to Gaza to Damascus, there is one axis, and there is readiness for cooperation if the battle on the borders of Lebanon escalates, as the Iranian minister visited Beirut before Damascus.

In turn, the researcher in Iranian affairs, Mustafa al-Nuaimi, linked Abdollahian’s visit to Damascus with strengthening the partnership between the Iranian axis with its components and the Syrian regime, since it began from Beirut, which is a hot front, lending the visit political connotations aimed at enhancing Iran’s position in this axis, first and foremost, and sending a message to the Israelis saying Tehran, “We are present and ready, capable of changing the scene, and will not abandon our tools in the region.”

The visit also represents a message to the American side, expressing the Iranian determination to enhance military and combat capabilities, despite the withdrawal of many “experts and advisors.” Tehran brags about its ability to change the Syrian, Lebanese, Iraqi, and Yemeni scenes and suggests that pressure on it means expanding the scope of response, making the visit strategic in nature, represented by supporting multi-national “allegiance.”

Lebanon first, Qatar at the end

Abdollahian started his tour from Lebanon on the 10th of February, meeting with the caretaker Prime Minister, Najib Mikati, his Lebanese counterpart, Abdallah Bou Habib, the Speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, and the Secretary-General of Lebanese Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah.

The Iranian minister stated that Hezbollah and the “resistance” in Lebanon played their influential role “with all wisdom” in the battle of “Al-Aqsa Flood”, as he emphasized Iran’s support for Lebanon, government, army, and resistance, considering Lebanon’s security to be the security of Iran and the region, according to what was reported by IRNA.

During a joint press conference with his Lebanese counterpart, Abdollahian considered that the key to the solution for stabilizing the region is ending the war in Gaza, pointing out that he had a new round of very constructive and significant talks with the senior authorities in Lebanon.

According to the Iranian minister, the Hamas movement acted with wisdom and precision, whether at the level of confronting the Zionist entity and its crimes or at the political level, explaining that the war in Gaza did not achieve tangible results for Israel and its supporters.

In Doha, on February 13, Abdollahian met with the Emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad, after a meeting with his counterpart, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani.

On the same day, he met with the head of the political bureau of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, and discussed the Gaza war on the political and field levels and the necessity of stopping the war and sending immediate humanitarian aid to Gaza.


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