Political, economic, and military roles for Ibrahim Raisi in Syria

From the meeting between al-Assad and Raisi in Damascus - May 3, 2023 (Asharq Al-Awsat)

From the meeting between al-Assad and Raisi in Damascus - May 3, 2023 (Asharq Al-Awsat)


On the morning of Monday, May 20, the Iranian presidency announced the death of President Ibrahim Raisi and accompanying officials due to the crash of the helicopter carrying them in East Azerbaijan province.

Raisi took over the presidency in August 2021, after winning the elections with 63%, marking the return of conservatives to power in Iran after eight years of reformist rule led by Hassan Rouhani. During his approximately three years in office, Raisi played an active role in the Syrian file on political, military, and economic levels.

Transforming Syria into an international warzone

Raisi’s rule witnessed escalating military tension in Syria, which turned into an international warzone, as increased Iranian military activity in Syrian regions led to escalated Israeli targeting of military sites within Syria.

The Israeli bombing of Iranian military sites inside Syria sometimes turned into near-daily targeting, mostly affecting the airports of Aleppo and Damascus, which went out of operation dozens of times.

Israeli escalation reached its peak when Tel Aviv bombed the Iranian consulate in the Mezzeh district of Damascus on April 1, killing three Iranian officers, most notably General Mohammad Reza Zahedi.

Iran responded to the targeting of its consulate by launching dozens of missiles at sites inside Israel, prompting the latter to retaliate by bombing military locations in Iran and Syria.

Raisi transferred the military conflict between his country and the United States to Syria; in February last year, Iranian militias fired several missiles at the International Coalition base at the al-Omar oil field in eastern Deir Ezzor, in retaliation for Washington bombing Iranian military sites in Iraq and Syria.

Ibrahim Raisi also exploited the devastating earthquake that struck southern Turkey and northern Syria in February 2023 to transport weapons to Syria.

A report by the American CNN network stated that under the guise of earthquake relief shipments to Syria, Israel detected significant movements of military equipment from Iran to Syria, and most of these weapons were delivered to Aleppo airport, prompting Israel to launch airstrikes against these shipments after obtaining accurate intelligence information.

Efforts to collect the war bill

Raisi was the first Iranian president to visit Syria since the beginning of the Syrian revolution, bringing with him the ministers of Foreign Affairs, Oil, Defense, Communications, Roads, and Urban Development, and met Bashar al-Assad in Damascus in May 2023.

Raisi utilized his visit to Syria to sign 15 cooperation agreements between the two countries in the fields of agriculture, oil, transportation, free zones, and communications, according to Mehr News Agency, where Iran regards these agreements as a reward for its military support to the Syrian regime during the war in Syria.

Dr. Ahmad Qurabi, a researcher at the Syrian Dialogue Center, said to Enab Baladi, “Upon Ibrahim Raisi’s arrival to the Iranian presidency, Syria had entered a stagnation phase on the fronts, and the major military operations had ended, and therefore he did not play a significant role in the military aspect, so Raisi focused on the economic side, which represented in two roles, the first being his attempt to economically support the regime and prevent its collapse, as the latter was suffering from a fragile economic condition, alongside the destruction of infrastructure and fuel crises after years of battles.”

Qurabi added, “The second role that Raisi played was trying to collect the war bill that Iran spent due to its military support to al-Assad’s regime for years, hence we noticed his goal during his first visit to Syria was to sign long-term economic agreements, contributing to securing Iran’s influence in Syria and generating revenue for it.”

Key to rapprochement and normalization

During his meeting with al-Assad in Damascus, Raisi sought to mediate to achieve a rapprochement between Turkey and Syria. The former Iranian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hussein Amir Abdollahian, said, “We welcome the start of rapprochement between Damascus and Ankara, and the efforts initiated by Iran to achieve this rapprochement are beginning to bear fruit these days,” according to Tasnim Agency.

Al-Assad, for his part, visited Iran once during Raisi’s rule in May 2022, and al-Estiklal newspaper reported that Tehran summoned the Syrian regime leader to demand enhancing the Iranian role, security-wise and economically in Syria, taking advantage of Russia’s preoccupation with the war in Ukraine.

Raisi played a role in restoring relations between Tehran and Riyadh, which served as a gateway for Saudi Arabia to normalize its relations with al-Assad, Iran’s most prominent ally.

In March 2023, the Saudi Foreign Ministry announced the resumption of relations with the Syrian regime, noting that work will proceed in the coming period to reopen consulates of the two countries after a closure lasting over ten years following the long estrangement between the two governments.

A source close to Damascus told Reuters that the contacts between Riyadh and Damascus gained momentum after a historic agreement to restore relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Political analyst specializing in Iranian affairs, Mustafa al-Nuaimi, told Enab Baladi, “Raisi did not have a direct significant influence in the Syrian file, but he had a team that included military experts, in addition to managing the Syrian file politically through his foreign minister, Abdollahian, who had shuttle movements in the Arab region, overcoming many crises through activating the role of the multi-national loyal arms operating in the Arab region including Syria, and investing their efforts to pressure the international system to achieve the highest gains, and prevent the battle from moving from the Arab arenas to inside Iran.”

Tensions between Damascus and Tehran

The relationship between al-Assad and Raisi has been tense in recent months, especially after the attack on the consulate. Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported on May 6 that Iran suspects Bashar al-Assad is ready to strike a potential deal with the West against it.

The newspaper added that Iran felt this closeness between the West and al-Assad, due to the latter’s relatively moderate stance on the conflict in Gaza, noting that signs of a rift between Tehran and Damascus appeared after Israel bombed the Iranian consulate in Damascus at the beginning of April.

Al-Jarida newspaper in Kuwait published a report citing the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, stating that the Iranian security agencies submitted a report to the council on the potential involvement of the Syrian regime in leaking information to Israel, which contributed to the assassination of top Iranian leaders in Syria.

At the time, the newspaper mentioned that it was likely that al-Assad was aware of this matter, or that the breach was at the level of the Russian leadership in Syria cooperating with the Syrian intelligence, and in this case, it is also likely that the leakage of information to Israel was with al-Assad’s knowledge.

The tension between Tehran and Damascus has also reflected on the economic aspect during Raisi’s rule, as Iran recently started pressing to recover its $50 billion debts to Syria through securing investment projects, especially after the two sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding for Strategic Cooperation during Ibrahim Raisi’s visit to Syria, as Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported citing sources described as being familiar in Damascus.

What after Raisi’s death?

The death of the Iranian president raised questions about Iran’s future and how it will affect its dealings with the Syrian file. In this context, Dr. Ahmad Qurabi said, “Raisi did not come with a new strategy when he took office three years ago, but was continuing the approach of his predecessor Rouhani, since the supreme policies in Iran are not set by the presidents or the executive and legislative governmental institutions, but by the Supreme Leader Khamenei, therefore Tehran’s strategy based on exporting the Iranian revolution to the neighboring countries will not change with the arrival or departure of major figures, and proof is that Iran’s approach continued after the killing of Qassem Soleimani, with no change in the roles of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its militias in Syria.”

In the same context, Mustafa al-Nuaimi stated that “the death of Raisi and his companions might represent a significant setback for Iran’s project at least in this phase, and perhaps for years, and the United States and European Union countries will likely capitalize on this situation by imposing more sanctions on Iran, in case it does not comply with the international system regarding its nuclear, ballistic missiles, drones, and violations that occurred in the Arab region.”

Al-Nuaimi added, “The death of Raisi and the disturbances that might occur in Iran will make the international climate very suitable for imposing more packages of sanctions and strikes simultaneously against Tehran, in addition to cyber warfare, and also the possibility of Tel Aviv conducting assassinations inside Iran, not just in the Middle East region, which would be a change in the previous engagement rules.”

Ibrahim Raisi was born in 1960 in Mashhad, a conservative cleric and politician. He joined the judiciary in 1980, served as a public prosecutor until 1994, and also held the position of director of the Astan Quds Razavi foundation in 2016, an institution of significant influence and importance, considered by Iranian circles as a preparation and grooming for succeeding Khamenei, and in August 2021, Raisi won the Iranian presidential election with 63% of the votes.



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