How Iran's Defense Minister in Damascus sent a message to Washington
By SETH J. FRANTZMAN
Three days after US National Security Advisor John Bolton met his Russian counterpart in Geneva, the Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami arrived in Damascus to meet Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian Defense Minister General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub. The juxtaposition is important because Bolton was recently in Jerusalem where he indicated that Russia and Iran are not on the same page regarding Iran's continuing presence in Syria.
Now Iranian state media, as well as Syrian state media, are highlighting and heralding the importance of the visit. "Iran will spare no effort to maintain Syria's territorial integrity, because security in the country will help [improve] regional stability," Hatami said.
Background to the visit
TO UNDERSTAND the importance of the visit it is important to see the context in which it comes. Syria is preparing a major offensive to retake part of Idlib province. In recent days Turkey has said a "military solution" in Idlib is a disaster but there are increasing concerns among Syrian groups in Idlib and civilians that Turkey will not defend the province. This is because Turkey and Russia have grown closer amid US sanctions on Turkey and Turkey needs Russia more than it needs Idlib. It's main concern is refugees fleeing Idlib or IDPs fleeing to other areas where Turkey and Syrian rebels control in northern Syria.
The visit comes directly in the wake of Bolton's four day Jerusalem visit. The Iranian Defense Minister brought a large delegation with him and spent two days in Damascus on August 26-27. Bolton warned of Iran creating an "arc of influence via Iraq and Syria to Beirut while in Jerusalem. He said he supported Israel's air strikes on Syria against Iranian weapons transfers as a form of self-defense.
In recent months the US and Israel have both indicated that Iranian forces should withdraw from Syria. Bolton also indicated that Moscow might be willing to prod Damascus to get Iran to leave. “What he [Putin] was saying is that Iranian interests in Syria were not coterminous with Russian interests and that he would be content to see the Iranian forces all sent back to Iran,” Bolton said in Jerusalem.
The visit comes amid a flurry of activity focusing on Syria’s future. On August 22 Iran’s Press TV reported that Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman had urged the Syrian government to cut ties with Hezbollah. John Bolton also said Hezbollah must go back to Lebanon, after years of its involvement in the Syrian conflict.
On August 25 Al-Akhbar in Lebanon reported that Assad’s regime had invited Hezbollah to remain in Syria, a clear response to the Americans. At the same time Iran's Press TV has sought to highlight increasing US involvement in Syria.
US State Department envoy William Roebuck was traveling in eastern Syria over the weekend of August 24, reportedly in Manbij, Kobani and in Shaddadi (video here). The US has been openly discussing greater involvement in Syria and showing off its diplomatic footprint. Brett McGurk tweeted about Roebuck on August 15 and on August 17 a State Department briefing announced that Jim Jeffrey, a retired Foreign Service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Iraq, would rejoin the State Department as the Secretary’s Representative for Syria Engagement: "This is a new position that was created by Secretary Pompeo. Jeffrey will serve as the Secretary’s advisor for and the department’s primary contact on all aspects of the Syria conflict, apart from the Syria components of the Defeat ISIS campaign, which will remain with the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, Brett McGurk." This comes atop the new US NDAA and other indications that the US is drawing up a deeper Syria strategy.
IRAN'S MESSAGE is that if the US is staying in eastern Syria, Iran is going to up its support for Damascus and that it is in Syria to stay as well. Russia’s foreign ministry even seems to agree with this balanced equation, the Russian embassy in UK tweeted on August 24, “before demanding withdrawal of Iran troops from Syria, Ambassador Bolton should explain legal grounds for US military presence.”
Defense Minister Amir Hatami arrived on Sunday initially for what were described as meetings with “senior defense and military officials,” the Tasnim news agency said. The meetings were not only aimed at military issues, such as the Syrian regime’s upcoming Idlib offensive, but also designed to cement Iran’s role in reconstruction of Syria. Hatami has an interesting background that he brings to the table.
Iran’s defense minister has a been a constant supporter of Syria's regime and has also spread conspiracy theories about what he calls "Zionist regime's new regional scenario" in the past. He has worked to cement relationships with Iraq and Russia in April of this year and with Turkey in October of 2017. He has also been outspoken about the war in Yemen, accusing the US of supporting Riyadh and Abu Dhabi’s campaign with the Yemenite government against the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. The goal of Israel, he claimed last year, is to split up the region’s states, allying with groups such as the Kurds, or supporting Sunni extremist groups. He used the Kurdistan Regional Government's referendum in northern Iraq last year as a way to cement Iran's relationship with Turkey and Iraq.
What did they discuss, according to Iranian and Syrian regime media
According to Iranian Press TV media Hatami's delegation discussed:
The latest regional developments
The "fight against terrorism"
The strengthening of the "resistance axis"
The study of strategies for expansion of defense and military cooperation.
According to Syria's SANA regime media:
Iranian armed forces support Syria
The "war on terror"
Renewed support by Iran in preserving Syria's "unity and independence" against "external influence.
Iran will continue to act despite threats and pressure
Assad stressed the depth of relations
Assad stressed importance of developing joint coordination
Assad supported "long-term cooperation plans."
Assad condemned the US for supporting "terrorist organizations" and America's "destabilizing" role in the region
General Ayyoub discussed bilateral relations with Hatami
Ayyoub said Syria will return Idlib to the government's rule and the "entire of Syria will be cleared of terrorism either by reconciliation or field operations."
Hatami said that "the Americans are looking to stay east of the Euphrates to establish their presence in the region."
Understanding the statements
The statements transmitted by media connected to Tehran and Damascus illustrate a very clear message, primarily one directed at Washington and also at Jerusalem. Both statements use the boilerplate explanation that Syria is fighting a "war on terror" and Iran supporting Syria in this war. Both statements discuss "regional" issues, and this appears directed at the US role in eastern Syria and also Israel's public and private threats against Iran's role in Syria.
Both statements mention the importance of strengthening and expanding relations and Syria's regime media sought to illustrate that this was in light of recent pressures and threats. This is clearly a message also to Moscow that any messages sent to Washington about Moscow and Damascus not necessarily being on the same page as Iran's role in Syria are mistaken. The Iranian visit therefore is designed to shore up the Damascus-Tehran alliance after months in which reports indicated Russia was discussing removing Iran from the border with the Golan and also was amenable to seeing Iran leave Syria altogether.