Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who arrived in Damascus on Wednesday, has already received an honorable Israeli reception. This marks the second time in a week in which there has been such a “coincidence,” which is now becoming something of a ritual.
Last week, Israel bombed targets near Homs hours after Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s visit to Lebanon. Yesterday, it preceded Raisi’s arrival by striking the airport in Aleppo. But apparently, this method of messaging cannot curb the Iranian regime’s intention to showcase a prominent diplomatic presence in Syria – and to shape regional politics according to its whims.
This is the first visit of an Iranian president to Syria since 2010, and Raisi is coming to Damascus with a large delegation in order to make up for lost time. Officially, the purpose of this trip is to foster closer economic ties between Tehran and Damascus – as well as to sign a series of agreements on cooperation and for Iranian investments in Syria. But there is no need to organize an opulent official visit simply to fulfil these goals. In the past decade, the two countries have signed a series of economic agreements, even without reciprocal visits by senior officials. However, the regional rules of the game have changed.
After Saudi Arabia and Iran agreed to renew ties, and with Riyadh promoting Damascus’ return to the Arab League, Tehran – which has been pushed to the margins of Syria’s diplomatic arena, mainly by Russia, in recent years – is looking to secure its place, or at least its image, as a country with sway in Syria and beyond. This is because – even with the new alliance inked between Iran and Saudi Arabia – the countries’ mutual suspicions haven’t disappeared.
he Lebanese question
Iran wants to ensure that the question of Lebanon’s presidential appointment – an essential condition for extricating Beirut from its economic and political crisis – won’t be taken out of Tehran’s hands and passed to the Saudi domain. The Iranian foreign minister already conferred on this last week with his Lebanese and Iranian counterparts, but there has yet to be a final agreement.
It is not only rival Lebanese factions who are divided on this question. It is also a matter of dispute between Saudi Arabia and the United States – which oppose the presidential appointment of a Hezbollah candidate –and France – which is proposing an alternative: that the president will come from Hezbollah, while the prime minister will be a representative from the opposition.
However, the question of Lebanon isn’t divorced from Saudi Arabia’s push for Syria’s return to the Arab League. Here, Tehran is worried that the Saudi moves – which are actually in Iran’s interest – will be exploited by the kingdom to impose an “undesirable” solution in Lebanon. This fear was reinforced a few days ago by U.S. State Department Spokesperson Matthew Miller, who – in an unusual step – issued a carefully-worded declaration which sounded like a warning, or even a threat.
According to the press statement: “The answers to Lebanon’s political and economic crises can only come from within Lebanon, and not the international community. Now is the time for action to select appropriate leadership and save the country from further disaster.” Suddenly, two days before Raisi’s visit, and after a lengthy U.S. absence from the diplomatic arena in Lebanon, comes a clear American message cautioning against foreign intervention in Beruit’s diplomatic affairs. The warning is not solely directed at Iran. When Washington talks about the international community, it is referring mainly to France.
On the question of Syria and Lebanon, Washington must overcome not only the positions of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq and even Jordan (which has thus far opposed Syria’s return to the Arab League) – but those of Turkey too. If it were up to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan alone, ties between Ankara and Damascus would have been renewed about two months ago. Iran is interested in this rapprochement, and Russia is encouraging it – but Syrian President Bashar Assad has several conditions of his own.
Meanwhile, talks between Ankara and Damascus have been postponed until after the Turkish elections on May 14. Given the strong competition between political rivals in Turkey, with some polls forecasting a defeat for Erdogan, it’s hard to predict who will be the Turkish president holding future negotiations with Assad.
But if the agreement between the two countries works out, it’s expected to include a Turkish withdrawal from parts of Syria and an agreement to repatriate the over 4 million Syrian refugees now in Turkey. Erdogan – who had hoped to at least reach an agreement on returning the Syrian refugees before the election and prove to the public that he is thereby working to solve Turkey’s economic crisis – is concurrently dealing with medical problems which are preventing him from participating in election rallies.
The Turkish president, who on Sunday reported the assassination of Islamic State leader Abu al-Hussein al-Qurashi by Turkish intelligence forces – which made sure to describe the operation in great detail – finds himself also facing a U.S. administration which is unwilling to confirm for the time being that the militant figure really was assassinated.
This assassination, if confirmed, is also of major diplomatic significance. Erdogan has tried for years to prove to the United States that Turkey is capable of fighting ISIS effectively, and that there’s no need for Washington to rely on the Kurdish forces in Syria. Erdogan demands that they be distanced from the areas near the Turkish border. Washington is aware that if an agreement is signed between Turkey and Syria – which would include a Turkish withdrawal – the United States would also have to pull its forces out of Syria, leaving the Kurds without patronage and protection.
Washington wants to maintain the status quo in Syria, because any shifts in control or the movement of forces there could come at the expense of its interests. On the other hand, the United States will find it difficult to oppose agreements signed by Syria with the Arab countries and with Turkey. This is especially so when it has no economic or diplomatic leverage for dictating solutions of its own, while Iran is gradually crafting the Syrian, and perhaps regional, solution that it prefers.