Tehran looks to fortify alliance supporting Syrian President Assad ahead of potential deeper U.S. involvement in conflict
DUBAI—Following a U.S. strike on a Syrian air base, Iran has sought to buttress ties with a key ally: Russia.
On Saturday, several Iranian military officials and diplomats discussed the conflict in Syria with Russian counterparts, after dozens of U.S. Tomahawk cruise missile strikes on Thursday targeted the Shayrat Airfield near Homs, Syria.
The U.S. strikes marked the first time during Syria’s civil war that the U.S. directly targeted the regime of Iran’s close ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and represented the most significant display of American military force under President Donald Trump.
The Syrian regime has remained defiant. Its warplanes continued to take off from the Shayrat Airfield on Friday following hasty repairs there, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a U.K.-based monitoring group.
On Saturday, Syrian or allied warplanes again carried out a strike in the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun, the observatory said. That is in the Idlib province, where a deadly chemical attack blamed on the Syrian regime took place Tuesday.
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In a Saturday telephone conversation between the head of Iran’s army, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Baqeri, and his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the officials described the U.S. strike on the Syrian government air base as a violation of Syrian sovereignty and a boon for terrorist groups, according to Iran’s official news agency. The sides agreed to “continue and intensify” the fight against terrorism in Syria—a rubric under which the Syrian government and many of its allies include both Islamic State terrorists and groups considered legitimate rebel factions by the West.
The generals also vowed to continue cooperating “until the full defeat of terrorists and their supporters,” the Iranian state news agency said.
The contacts show Iran seeking to strengthen the alliance supporting Mr. Assad ahead of a potential deepening of U.S. involvement in the conflict.
In addition to the discussion between the Iranian and Russian generals, at least two other high-ranking Iranian officials held discussions with Russian counterparts about Syria’s civil war, a complex six-year-old conflict in which both countries have dispatched forces in support of Mr. Assad.
Tehran has sent thousands of military advisers and proxy forces to fight for the Syrian government against a patchwork of rebel groups and terrorists, while Russia has carried out airstrikes in the country since late 2015.
The involvement of Russia’s large and sophisticated military is crucial for Tehran, which wants to keep Mr. Assad in power to expand Iran’s sphere of influence stretching across Iraq and Syria and into Lebanon, where its most cherished proxy, the Shiite militia Hezbollah, is based. Moscow is less committed to Mr. Assad, but wants to reassert its power in the Middle East and secure access to the Mediterranean via the Syrian coast.
The U.S. attack Thursday was a response to a chemical attack allegedly carried out by the Syrian government in Khan Sheikhun that killed dozens of people. Graphic images of dying civilians, apparently from exposure to a nerve agent, led to calls for a U.S. response.
Among other Tehran-Moscow contacts Saturday in the aftermath of the strikes, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, talked by phone with the secretary of the Security Council of Russia, Nikolai Patrushev, to discuss tighter cooperation on Syria, official Iranian media reported. Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, an Iranian parliamentary adviser on foreign affairs, met with Russia’s ambassador in Tehran and discussed closer ties.
Iranian officials including President Hassan Rouhani have sharply condemned the U.S. strikes and suggested terrorist stores of chemical agents could have been responsible. In a speech Saturday, Mr. Rouhani called for an independent fact-finding body to investigate the attack, casting the U.S. response as premature.
“When the issue is still not clear, Americans who suppose themselves to be the world police, leader and judge, launched a midnight missile attack on a Syrian airfield and killed innocent people,” he said, according to the Iranian news agency.
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Tags: Assad, Bashar al-Assad, Iran, Iranian military, potential deepening of U.S. involvement, President Hassan Rouhani, Putin, Rouhani, Russia, Shayrat Airfield, Syria, U. S., U.S. cruise missile attack, U.S. strike on a Syrian air base