US accuses Iran of double dealing on Syria after Assad and Zarif meeting

Syrian government says it has 39 confirmed cases of coronavirus and three dead

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad and Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, wearing face masks as protection against the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), meet in Damascus, Syria, in this handout released by SANA on April 20, 2020. SANA/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Wearing masks and adhering to social distancing guidelines, Iranian Foreign minister Javad Zarif and Syrian President Bashar Al Assad met in Damascus on Monday in what experts saw as Iran’s attempt to reassert its influence and reach in the war-torn country despite the pandemic.

The meeting focused on the coronavirus pandemic. Both men, according to the Syrian official news agency, bashed the West’s response to the pandemic.

Mr Al Assad told Mr Zarif that the coronavirus crisis has exposed the failure of the Western regimes as well as their immorality.

The Iranian top diplomat attacked the US for its “continuing refusal to lift the blockade on Syria and Iran” which he argued “has revealed its inhumane nature to the world.” Iran has largest number of cases in the region with more than 83,000 reported and at least 5,200 deaths from the virus.

The in-person visit came as representatives of Turkey, Russia and Iran prepared to meet online as part of the Astana process.

The Syrian news agency said it addressed benchmarks in the Syrian peace process and developments in the north of Syria particularly "continuing transgressions by Turkey against Syria’s sovereignty and territory".

The US was quick to denounce the meeting. US special envoy on Syria James Jeffrey accused Iran of double dealing.

“If Iran were truly concerned about the health and safety of the Syrian people, it would support the UN-led process…withdraw IRGC, Hezbollah, and other Iran-backed terrorist forces under its command from the entirety of Syria,” Mr Jeffrey said.

“Iran's only contributions to Syria have been violence and instability.”

Mr Jeffrey defended the US response to the pandemic, saying the US had allocated more than $10.6 billion in aid since the crisis. "We continue to offer humanitarian assistance to help address the coronavirus outbreak, while the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran obstruct aid and starve the Syrian people of food and medicine,” he said.

Experts saw the meeting as an opportunity for Iran to prove that its influence in Syria is not affected by the pandemic.

Nicholas Heras, Middle East director at the Institute for the Study of War, argued that Mr Zarif is signalling the US government in his visit. “Iran is using this meeting to send the signal to the US in particular that it is carrying on the business of 'resistance as usual’,” he said.

"Iran is seeking to demonstrate that the Covid-19 crisis has not impeded its ability to execute its regional strategy to confront what it perceives as its opponents, especially the US and Israel."

Elizabeth Tsurkov, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, saw the meeting as an expression of both sides “sticking together” during the pandemic.

"Both those regimes are facing unprecedented pressures due to the combination of the Covid-19 outbreak, related work-stoppages that are harming these frail and deeply corrupt economies, and the US sanctions," Ms Tsurkov told The National.  

“Iran is also suffering due to the collapse in oil prices and Syria's useful economy has been significantly destroyed.” This reality, the expert argued, makes it only logical for “both of these regimes to stick closer together as they try to weather this storm without too many other allies.”