The presidents of Iran and Syria have signed a series of long-term cooperation agreements on oil and other sectors to bolster economic ties between the two longtime allies.
Iran’s Ebrahim Raisi, leading a large economic and political delegation, met his Syrian counterpart, Bashar al-Assad, after landing in the war-torn country for a two-day visit – an Iranian president’s first visit to Damascus since 2010.
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The Iranian delegation includes the ministers of foreign affairs, defence, oil, roads and urban development as well as telecommunications. Raisi is also being accompanied by a number of private sector businessmen from Iran, according to Al Jazeera’s Dorsa Jabbari, reporting from Tehran.
“The Iranian president has … signed at least 15 documents covering several lucrative economic agreements between the two countries,” Jabbari said.
Tehran has been a main backer of al-Assad’s government since a 2011 uprising turned into fully fledged war and has played an instrumental role in turning the tide of the conflict in his favour.
Iran has sent military advisers and thousands of Iran-backed fighters to Syria to fight on al-Assad’s side against the opposition. Tehran has also provided an economic lifeline for al-Assad, sending fuel and credit lines worth billions of dollars.
Syrian government forces have regained control of large parts of the country in recent years, with the help of its two main allies – Russia and Iran.
The Iranian state-owned railway company has long aspired to expand its network through neighbouring Iraq and Syria, linking it to the Syrian port of Lattakia on the Mediterranean Sea to boost trade. Syria’s opposition and critics of Tehran see this as an Iranian attempt at growing its political influence.
The deals are important for Syria, whose economy has hit an all-time low over the past decade, with spiralling inflation, a currency plunge and rampant power cuts.
In an interview with pan-Arab television channel Al-Mayadeen ahead of his visit, Raisi called for reconstruction efforts and for Syrian refugees who fled the country’s war to return home.
“Syria’s government and people have gone through great hardship,” Syrian state media quoted Raisi as telling al-Assad during their meeting. “Today, we can now say that you have overcome all these problems and were victorious, despite the threats and sanctions imposed against you.”
Al Jazeera’s Jabbari, reporting from Tehran, said the visit signalled the Iranian leadership’s strong backing for al-Assad.
“Raisi [is] showing the international community … that Iran is very much behind Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and they will continue to strengthen that relationship,” Jabbari said.
The main purpose of Raisi’s visit is to “increase what he calls the ‘axis of resistance against the Israeli threat’ … [and] to strengthen economic ties and help rebuild the country after the devastating war,” Jabbari said.
Israel has launched hundreds of raids into Syria over the years, claiming it is targeting Iran-backed forces and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters inside Syrian territory.
“The officials here believe they are providing assistance to a country that is very much, as they put it, helpless in the face of a number of air strikes from Israel,” Jabbari said.
Raisi was also set to visit the Sayida Zeinab and Sayida Ruqayya shrines, both holy sites in Shia Islam, as well as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, a monument dedicated to Syrian soldiers killed in battle.
The last Iranian president to visit Syria was President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2010. Al-Assad has officially visited Tehran twice since the war broke out, the last time in May 2022.
Syrian activist Abdul-kafi Al-hamdo said he was not shocked that the Iranian president was visiting Syria.
Al-hamdo, who is part of a movement calling for al-Assad’s resignation, said the Iranian leader was visiting a country that Iran has been “colonising for years, even before the revolution”.
“During the revolution, they confirmed this colonisation, and they were sending fighters, money, equipment to help Assad keep his position,” Al-hamdo told Al Jazeera from opposition-held Idlib in northwestern Syria.
This visit is not to bolster their economic ties, he said, rather it is “to show [Iran’s] economic domination over Syria,” he added.
“They are asking for the return of the help they’ve been giving for years.”
Meanwhile, the US State Department has warned that deepening ties between Iran and the Syrian government should be of great concern to the world.
Raisi’s visit comes as some Arab countries, including Egypt and regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, have been opening up to al-Assad and their foreign ministers have visited Damascus in recent weeks. Syria’s foreign minister also visited the Saudi capital of Riyadh in April, the first such visit since the two countries cut relations in 2012.
In March, Iran and Saudi Arabia, a main backer of Syrian opposition fighters, reached an agreement, brokered by China, to re-establish diplomatic relations and reopen embassies after seven years of tensions.