Reasons for Zarif’s visit to Syria amid pandemic

MNA | Hamid Bayati: Iran Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif will meet with senior Syrian officials today in Damascus but why there is such a visit when the world is almost under lockdown and all diplomatic meetings have been canceled?

Paying a visit at this level during today’s world conditions shows that ties between Tehran and Damascus have gone beyond conventional and diplomatic equations.

The visit comes as developments in Syria during the recent weeks indicate the Arab world’s, with the leadership of UAE, coming closer to Damascus and on the other hand, there were some developments in Idlib.

Developments in Idlib

Turkey’s recent moves in Idlib and its army’s entry into Syria have made the region more sensitive. Turkish and Russian Presidents Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin agreed on a ceasefire agreement over the Syrian province of Idlib on March 5 after an unprecedented escalation of tensions between military forces of Syria and Turkey.

In the weeks leading up to the ceasefire agreement, terrorist groups had increased tensions in Idlib. Tensions further erupted after the entry of Turkish forces into Syria, their encounters with Syrian forces, as well as the shelling of areas around Idlib by terrorist groups.

Moscow and Ankara issued a statement announcing the ceasefire agreement, stating that safe passage would be established on the M4 highway in Idlib. The statement also added that Russian and Turkish troops were jointly patrolling the M4 highway. At the time, Russia’s Defense Ministry stressed that it has given Turkey the required time to prepare the grounds for patrolling on the highway by separating terrorists from armed opposition groups.

The significance of human lives

In such a situation, COVID-19 made its way into Syria, and some experts assessed that the risk of the virus spread in Idlib is higher compared to Damascus. For instance, Sabah Zanganeh, an expert on regional issues, said that “Due to the widespread sensitivity of human issues in the Idlib region, addressing these topics and consulting with the Syrian authorities has become very important and necessary.”

In the current circumstances, the situation in Idlib is such that there is a large population residing in this area; part of them are certainly terrorist groups that all international organizations and countries have recognized them as such. Other sections are original residents of the area and armed groups which have not merged with any major terrorist group. So a diverse population has been concentrated in that region; the first concern at the moment could be the spread of the coronavirus among them, which will eventually cause many problems. The outbreak is today’s first issue of the region and there is a need to address it so that the population in Idlib can have access to medical facilities and to implement other necessary measures, such as quarantine, to contain the disease.

Idlib situation on the ground

On the other hand, the security situation in Idlib must be clarified as soon as possible, and the Syrian army is trying to take control of the entire province.

The presence of Turkish armed forces in Syria and around Idlib is also in conflict with the demands of the Syrian government and with those of the other two Astana Process guarantors, namely Iran and Russia; so FM Zarif can clarify the security status in Idlib better than before.

Persian Gulf countries approaching Damascus

In such circumstances, another development has made the situation in Syria important to its old ally, and that is the approaching of Persian Gulf countries to the Syrian government.

Their efforts to coming closer to Syria comes while they were supporting terrorist groups who opposed the Syrian government since the crisis began in 2011. However, given the situation on the ground in Syria and the significant successes of the Resistance Front, Turkey and then Persian Gulf countries decided to seemingly separate themselves from terrorist groups and change their approach towards the Syrian government. For instance, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed held a phone conversation with Syrian President Bashar Assad, expressing UAE’s eagerness to support the legitimate government in Damascus.

This article is not going to discuss why bin Zayed had talked with Assad but Zarif will certainly talk with Syrian officials about their response to such conversations, given those countries’ measures against Syrian people during the past years.

Some Arab experts believe that these countries want to turn Syria into a field for settling their accounts with Turkey, and given that the Syrian army has had clashes with the Turkish army in Idlib, the Gulf Arabs tend to encourage Damascus to engage in conflict with Ankara to contain Erdogan.

The news indicated UAE’s financial aid to Syria but for sure, UAE will expect something back in return; the important thing is that Damascus did not stumble into the trap of these countries.

Dealing with US and Israeli movements in Syria

Zarif’s visit may bear another message, exclusively to the US and the Israeli regime.

Perhaps in recent months, especially after the assassination of Lieutenant General Ghasem Soleimani and the rise of the COVID-19 crisis, authorities in Washington and Tel Aviv are assuming that Iran has abandoned Syria. Now, given the Resistance’s power in Syria, it is a good time to pursue aims that have not been yet realized.

Zarif’s visit in current circumstances shows that Syria and its developments are important to Iran and that Tehran-Damascus cannot be assessed by normal diplomatic equations.