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Iran president visits Syria for first time since civil war

May 3, 2023

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi will meet Syrian President Bashar Assad in his first trip to Syria since the war broke out in 2011. Iranian forces played a major role in defending Assad's government.

President Ebrahim Raisi, left, shakes hands with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, Syria
President Ebrahim Raisi shakes hands with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, SyriaImage: Iranian Presidency/AP

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi landed in Damascus on Wednesday for his first state visit since the Syrian civil war broke out over a decade ago.

Raisi was received at Damascus International Airport by Syrian Economy Minister Samer al-Khalil.

The Iranian president is traveling with senior officials and an economic delegation and is set to meet Syrian President Bashar Assad during the two-day trip.

Before departing for Syria, Raisi told pan-Arab television station Al Maydeeen his trip would "consolidate and develop" ties with Syria and other allies.

Raisi also called for reconstruction efforts and for refugees who fled the country's war to return to Syria.

What's on the Iranian president's agenda?

The Iranian president is set to visit the Sayida Zeinab and Sayida Ruqayya shrines, both holy sites in Shiite Islam.

He will also visit the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument dedicated to Syrian soldiers killed in battle.

Raisi's visit comes as Iran and regional rival Saudi Arabia rebuild ties after years of tensions.

Iran's support for Syria

Tehran has been a key ally of Assad's government and defended his rule when the Syrian war broke out in 2011.

Assad has relied on Tehran and allies like Lebanese Hezbollah to stay in power, though he has never publicly acknowledged the role of Iranian fighters in Syria's civil war.

Iranian forces also later fought the "Islamic State" group in Syria and its tactical military advisers remain deployed at military bases across the country.

Iranian leaders have spoken publicly about building a coalition to resist the influence of the United States and Israel. 

Israel, which has vowed to stop Iranian entrenchment in neighboring Syria, has carried out hundreds of strikes on targets in government-controlled parts of Syria in recent years.

Besides military support, Tehran has also already supplied Assad's government with credit lines and Iranian businesses have won lucrative business contracts.

Arab leaders move to normalize ties with Syria

Arab leaders largely cut ties with Assad for years following his brutal crackdown on the Arab Spring uprising in the country. The breakdown in relations culminated with Syria being ousted from the Arab League.

But with Assad having control of most of the country and no clear threats remaining, leaders are slowly moving to normalize ties with Syria.

Saudi Arabia is hosting the Arab League summit later this month. Syria’s membership is widely expected to be on the table.

rm/sms (Reuters, AP)