Iran’s foreign minister met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad today amid a fragile cease-fire in Syria’s embattled northwest and a crippling coronavirus outbreak in his own country.
In his first meeting since April 2019 with Assad and his Syrian counterpart Walid Moallem, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif traveled to Damascus to “discuss bilateral relations, regional developments, as well as the latest political developments in Syria's fight against terrorism,” Iran’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
Iran and Syria use the term “terrorists” to describe the various rebel groups fighting against Assad.
As the closest regional ally of the Syrian regime, Iran and its affiliated militias have helped the Syrian dictator retake swaths of the country seized by rebel fighters during the grinding nine-year war that has plagued the country.
The visit today was Zarif’s first with the Syrian president since a US drone strike in Baghdad killed Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s elite Quds force who commanded legions of foreign fighters backing Assad.
Syria’s other key military backer, Russia, and Turkey, which supports the opposition, brokered a cease-fire early last month to halt the fighting in Idlib province. Ankara accused the Syrian government today of breaking the truce, warning it would suffer “heavy losses” if the violations continued.
Zarif, according to Syria’s state-run SANA news agency, also “denounced the West’s current attempts to re-exploit the issue of ‘chemical weapons,’” referring to a recent watchdog report that found the Syrian regime used banned weapons against its own people.
The Iranian foreign minister also called on the United States to lift economic sanctions on his country amid the coronavirus pandemic. The White House has resisted calls from some world leaders and human rights organizations to ease its “maximum pressure” campaign of sanctions against Iran, which Tehran says is hampering its ability to contain the virus.
Iran is experiencing the region’s worst coronavirus outbreak, with more than 83,500 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and over 5,200 deaths. Despite its rising death toll, Iran is slowly reopening its virus-ravaged economy, starting with some major highways and shopping centers today.
Assad, according to state media, expressed his condolences to Zarif over Iran’s outbreak and said the pandemic exposed the “immorality” of the West. Syria has reported just 39 cases and three deaths from the virus, although experts believe the number is much higher than Damascus will admit.