(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on September 6, 2018 shows (L to R): Iran's President Hassan Rouhani speaking on September 22, 2016 in New York; Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan during a press conference on May 15, 2018 in London; and Russian President Vladimir Putin during a televised phone-in on June 7, 2018 in Moscow. - The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey meet on September 7 in Tehran for a summit set to decide the future of Idlib province amid fears of a humanitarian disaster in Syria's last major rebel bastion. (Photos by various sources / AFP)

Between Sochi and Tehran, the untold story

(Damascus) In a surprise foreign visit, the third of its kind in 8 years, Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad traveled to Tehran on February 25th, with the previous 2 such international visits being to Sochi, Russia, to meet with President Vladimir Putin.

The Syrian President met with Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani on the trip which carried multiple messages in all directions. Whilst the official reason for the rare visit was to congratulate Iranian leaders on the 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution, the visit seems to have gone beyond a courtesy thank you call to one of Syria’s prime allies in the war. One such strong indication was the presence of General Kassem Soleimani, during Assad’s meeting with Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani. The infamous Iranian military commander is widely believed to have played a strategic roles in crucial counter-terrorist operations in Syria and Iraq.

Assad meeting with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at the outset of this landmark visit is of special significance. The embraces and smiles reflected the warmth with which the Syrian leader was welcomed in Tehran, reviving memories of similar visits made by the late Syrian president Hafez Al Assad to Tehran when meeting with Iran’s Supreme Spiritual Leader in the 90s. “It is only natural to come and thank our allies in Tehran for standing with us throughout these 8 years of war”, Assad told Khamenei. The Iranian Leader responded by saying “we are proud to have helped Syria. Today in Syria, Kurds and tribes have good relations with the government,” he said, according to semi-official Iranian news agency Fars.

Tehran is believed to have given the Syrian government billions of dollars in aid since the conflict began in 2011, and sent Iran-backed fighters to battle alongside Syrian Army forces — assistance that has helped, along with that of the Russians, to turn the tide in Assad’s favor.  “Both sides expressed their satisfaction with the strategic levels reached between the two countries in all fields.” Assad’s office said in a statement after the visit.

Assad was quoted by Syrian media as saying to Khamenei: “Regional countries should not heed the wishes of Western powers led by the United States to “sow chaos” against Syria and Iran. Western escalation will not steer (Iran and Syria) away from defending their own interests,” a state television statement quoted Assad as saying.
Iran’s Fars news agency said Khamenei told the visiting Assad that “the buffer zone that Americans are wanting to create in Syria is among a number of dangerous plans that should be rejected,” and that the U.S. plan to maintain a presence in Syria near the Iraqi border “is another example of their schemes.”

It is believed that president Assad was not particularly happy with the outcome of the last trilateral summit in Sochi, Russia, particularly regarding Erdogan having recurrently fallen short on commitments and pledges to Russia and Iran within the agreement regarding Idlib and the demilitarized zone. Turkey has failed to curb terrorist attacks on Syrian Army positions in the area, and to contain hardline fanatic groups there, which are widely believed to operate at Ankara’s discretion.

Therefore, the Syrian leader wanted to hear first-hand what exactly happened at the Sochi summit, and to then act accordingly. The mere presence of General Soleimani at the meeting points in the direction of something to come, beyond politics, and most likely relating to an imminent major joint operation to liberate Idlib and neighboring hotbeds of terror, still controlled by hardliner Islamic fanatics. With potential political moves and diplomatic endeavors being severely limited, the chances of a looming major operation to end the deadlock in those parts of Syria seem higher than ever.

Syrian officials have blasted Turkey’s plans for a safe zone within Syrian territories, saying both Turkish and U.S. troops are occupying the area illegally. “Those invading forces have to leave Syrian territory sooner or later, either through diplomacy or by force if necessary”, Syrian UN ambassador and other Syrian officials have stated on several occasions.  
Was Assad’s watershed visit to Tehran, and its timing only one day ahead of a trip by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Russia for talks expected to focus on Iran’s role in Syria, a coincidence? Israel has said it will not tolerate a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria, and has carried out scores of air strikes against Iran-linked targets there. Has the time come for a joint Syrian-Iranian retaliation against these repeated Israeli aggressions?

After Assad’s first trip to Sochi, the Eastern Ghouta was soon regained by the Syrian Army. Following his second trip to Sochi, vast areas in the south of the country were recaptured by the same army. So, is Assad’s historic visit to Tehran an indication that the final showdown to liberate Idlib and eradicate terrorist groups in the region is knocking at the doors?