Iran and Syria agreed to expand defense and military cooperation, seemingly pushing back against US and Russian attempts to force Iranian troops out of the country, Iranian and Syrian state-run media reported Sunday.
According to the Iran’s Tasnim news agency, a defense agreement was signed after Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami met with Syrian President Bashar Assad and Defense Minister General Ali Abdullah Ayoub.
At the meeting, the Syrian president told the Iranian defense minister that cooperation between the two countries was important in light of the US pulling out of the nuclear deal with Iran, imposing sanctions on Russia and “supporting terrorist organizations.”
Assad said this showed the “correctness of the policies pursued by the anti-terrorism axis and the importance of enhancing its strengths in the face of the subversive and destabilizing American approach in the world,” the Syrian official SANA news agency reported.
“Syria is moving out of crisis and entering the reconstruction phase,” said Hatami, also noting that the agreement will set the parameters for defense cooperation between the two countries.
Ayoub reportedly praised Iran for supporting Syria’s fight against rebel forces, according to Tasnim, also stating that “others” will not be allowed to damage the close relationship between the two nations.
Tehran has provided steady political, financial and military backing to Assad as he fought back a seven-year uprising. Israel has expressed concerns that forces loyal to Tehran are establishing a permanent presence in Syria that can be used to attack Israel, and has carried out dozens of airstrikes on Iranian army installations in the war-torn country in recent months.
As the civil war apparently draws to a close, officials in the US and reportedly Russia have looked to keep Iran’s military from entrenching itself in Syria, especially in the Golan Heights, at Israel’s urging.
Last week, US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said in Jerusalem that Russian President Vladimir Putin told the United States that his country would like Iranian forces to withdraw from Syria but claimed they cannot force them out.
Most analysts believe even with US and Russian support, forcing Iran out of Syria will be nearly impossible.
The two countries have had strong ties for years. Iran has dispatched military forces to Syria but insists they are advisers, not fighters. Iran-backed militias, including the powerful Lebanese Hezbollah movement, have also backed Assad’s troops in fighting on Syrian soil.
Hatami arrived in Damascus on Sunday for a two-day visit. According to Al-Watan, a Syrian daily close to the government, Hatami arrived in Damascus with an Iranian military delegation.
“Syria is in a very, very important juncture. It is passing through the critical stage and it is entering the very important stage of reconstruction,” he said, in comments carried by Iranian state broadcaster IRIB on Sunday.
He added it was agreed with Syria that Iran would have “presence, participation and assistance” in reconstruction “and no third party will be influential in this issue.”
Ayoub, in comments carried by Syrian state media, championed the two countries’ special relationship.
“Syrian-Iranian relations are a model for bilateral ties between independent and sovereign nations,” Ayoub said.
Since it erupted in 2011, Syria’s war has cost it approximately $388 billion, according to the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA).
Assad last month said reconstruction was his “top priority” in Syria, where at least 350,000 people have been killed, though some estimates are much higher, and many millions were forced to flee their homes.
World powers who have long called for Assad’s ouster insist reconstruction aid should only come with political transition, but regime ally Russia is pressing them to provide support.
With help from Iranian militias and Russian warplanes, Assad has recaptured around two-thirds of the country and is now eyeing the northwest province of Idlib.
“Idlib will return to the nation’s bosom, and all Syrian soil will be cleansed of terrorism, either through reconciliation or ground operations,” Ayoub said on Sunday.
He also slammed the United States, which has established military bases in Syria to fight the Islamic State group.
“The Americans are looking for a way to stay east of the Euphrates River to lock in their presence in this region,” said Ayoub.
The comments came a day after a senior US diplomat, Ambassador William Roebuck, visited territory around those bases and said the US was “prepared to stay” in Syria to defeat IS, but was also “focused” on ousting Iran.