rferl.org – Iran’s Defense Minister Amir Hatami has arrived in Syria on a two-day visit aimed at further developing bilateral cooperation, Iranian media report.
“We hope to have a productive role in the reconstruction of Syria,” Hatami was quoted as saying upon arrival in Damascus on August 26.
Iran, along with Russia, has backed President Bashar al-Assad in the seven-year Syrian conflict, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and uprooted millions since it began with a government crackdown on protesters in March 2011.
Iran’s semiofficial Tasnim news agency reported Hatami was scheduled to hold talks with Syria’s top military and political officials on the latest developments in the region, joint action against terrorism, and ways to deepen military cooperation between Tehran and Damascus.
The Iranian minister was also scheduled to hold talks with Assad, according to the state-run IRNA news agency.
The visit comes as the conflict in Syria has turned heavily in Assad’s favor, with rebel forces being routed in many parts of the country. Syrian pro-government forces are preparing to launch an assault on the northwestern province of Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold.
Last week, White House national security adviser John Bolton urged Moscow to help end Iran’s military presence in the war-ravaged country.
The United States supports rebels fighting against Assad’s government.
After meeting with Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Security Council, Bolton said in Geneva on August 23 that the two had discussed a “series of steps” that would lead to the removal of Iran’s military presence in Syria.
Before the meeting, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said the U.S. insistence on the withdrawal of Iranian forces is a “reflection of the dominating aspiration in Washington to dictate to everyone else their own beliefs about what is good and what is bad.”
Israel has also expressed concern over Iran’s growing influence in Syria, accusing Tehran of seeking to establish a foothold near the frontier with the Jewish state.
During a visit to Lithuania on August 24, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticized an EU economic aid plan for Iran, saying the money will “go to the missiles and the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East.”
In recent months, Israeli jets have carried out a number of air strikes against suspected Iranian forces in Syria.
Iranian officials say their military presence in Syria is at the invitation of the Damascus government and they have no immediate plans to withdraw.
“No third party can affect the presence of Iranian advisers in Syria,” Hatami told reporters in Damascus.
More than 1,000 Iranians, including senior members of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), have been killed in Syria since 2012, according to Reuters.