Syrian president Bashar Assad’s visit to Tehran on Feb. 25, which was presented as a spur-of-the-moment event, was in fact thoroughly prepared both by the visitor and his host, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources can reveal. Indeed, each had a list of demands and conditions ready to pull out.
Assad laid five demands on the table backed by an emergency:
1. Syria is left with just a few weeks’ supply of flour; its coffers are bare, and the government in Damascus is too broke to supply the army and the population with the day’s bread.
2. Sugar too is running out fast.
3. Fuel reserves are in the same low state. Gasoline has been cut back for the security forces’ vehicles.
4. The population is being kept short of cooking gas.
5. Help for covering these fundamental shortages is urgently required. People are becoming restive and in some places on the point of open protest.
6. The Governorate of Dar’aa on the Jordanian border, which lit the first match of the civil war in 2011, is again on the march and threatens to ignite other towns. Two new underground groups are operating in the Governorate, pledging to go back to the uprising and calling on young men to join. The Popular Resistance in Daraa, about which not much is known, claims to be reacting to the “false promises” of the Russians and the regime and the regime’s failure to uphold “reconciliation agreements.”
The Daraa group does not confine its operations to civil protest. Violent attacks in the last two months against regime forces and allied militias, among them Hizballah, have included the assassination of military officers and attacks on military convoys and positions, although this group makes no claims of responsibility.
Assad warned the ayatollah that spreading unrest and possible mass bread riots in Syrian towns, spurred by underground groups, would in no time wipe out the eight years of military success achieved by Iran, Syria and Hizballah. The Syrian ruler, in hailing those successes, notably omitted mention of Russia’s pivotal role in the alliance which defeated the insurgency and restored most of the country to his rule.
This was no chance oversight. Bashar Assad and Iran are now cozy bedfellows in the forthcoming post-war scenarios for Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. They have cast aside any Russian or American intervention in their plans and excluded Turkey as well. The Assad-Khamenei meeting on Feb. 25 marked the birth of a joint venture in new directions, and their non-alignment with any other power, global or regional, excepting only Iraq and the Lebanese Shiite Hizballah.
Khamenei, who had likewise prepared for his encounter promised Assad that Iran would help Syria as best it could, but strings were attached to this assistance:
a) Iran’s daily quota of oil for Syria would be increased from 23,000 pbd to 185,000 bpd, representing 18pc of Iran’s total daily oil exports of a million barrels. Tehran anyway has a surfeit of unsold oil due to US sanctions and President Donald Trump’s new plans for tightening them.
b) In return, the Syrian ruler must guarantee that Iranian firms get the first pick of the contracts Damascus signs with financial and engineering bodies for the restoration of the war-ravaged country, including contracts for rebuilding the Syrian army and purchasing new arms. Iranian experts are to sort through the various propositions so that Tehran can choose which projects to take over and which to send back to Damascus for other bidders.
c) Iran’s priority status must also apply to contracts in which the Russian defense ministry is involved. This will give Tehran a chance to edge Moscow out of the running for Syria’s vast program of reconstruction.
d) Iran’s assistance for rebuilding the Syrian army from scratch is predicated on six conditions:
• The incorporation of 5,000 fighters of the Afghan Liwa Fatemiyoun and Pakistani Liwa Zainebiyoun militias who took part in the war for the Assad regime.
• Their payroll will be covered by the Syrian military budget.
• Their families, presently encamped in Iran, are to be resettled in Syria in housing projects located between Damascus and the Israeli Golan and granted Syrian citizenship.
• These Afghan and Pakistani militias will be formally invited to Syria by the regime in Damascus in the same way as Moscow and Hizballah.
• Thousands of Hizballah fighters, instead of returning home to Lebanon, are to be accommodated on the Syrian side of the Lebanese border in special villages which Iran will build for them.
• The special committee led by the Iranian, Syrian and Iraqi military chiefs of staff was was entrusted with reopening the Syrian-Iraqi border after five years. The three generals had their first meeting in Damascus on Monday, March 18. (The ground they secretly covered is revealed in a separate article.)
Needless to say, President Assad was quite ready to bow to all the Iranian leader’s conditions for assistance.