Iran Signs Military Deal with Syria to Boost Air Defenses, Challenge U.S.

Iran has signed a new military agreement with Syria, vowing to boost the war-torn country's air defense power and challenge the U.S. presence there.

Iranian Major General Mohammad Bagheri, Revolutionary Guard commander and chief of staff of the Islamic Republic's armed forces, met Wednesday with Syrian Defense Minister Ali Ayoub to sign a new deal to strengthen defense ties between the two allies. Tehran and Damascus are partnered in the war against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) but are also part of the Axis of Resistance opposed to Israel and the United States.

Bagheri said that "the signed agreement strengthens our will and our determination to cooperate in the face of American pressure," adding that "Iran will strengthen the Syrian air defense systems in the framework of strengthening military relations between the two countries," according to Lebanon's Al Mayadeen network and Syria's state-run Al Watan newspaper.

"The peoples and countries of the region do not welcome the American presence, and our strong responses to American hostilities continue," Bagheri said.

Russia deployed S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Syria in October 2018 and has installed more advanced S-400 systems near its west coast bases but neither is believed to have been activated in response to a growing campaign of Israeli strikes against suspected Iran-linked and occasional Syrian government targets in the country.

syria, protest, iran, flag, aleppo
Syrians wave flags of Syria and Iran and wave portraits of President Bashar al-Assad along with posters condemning the United and Israel as they gather in Aleppo's Saadallah al-Jabiri square on April 14, 2018, in protest of the airstrikes carried out by the United States, Britain and France against Syrian government sites. GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images

Turkey has also bombed Syrian forces amid direct clashes over the northwestern province of Idlib, which is still mostly held by militants and Ankara-backed opposition forces. The U.S. twice struck Syrian government targets after accusing the country's military of conducting chemical weapons attacks that killed scores of civilians.

Such alleged human rights abuses served as the basis for the U.S. Congress' passage of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act last month, which is intended to punish the Syrian government and its supporters. Ayoub criticized the U.S. bill on Wednesday for attempting to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in the country, where the economy has collapsed in recent months.

He also hailed the Syrian military's campaign against insurgents and jihadis since 2011 and criticized Israel as a "powerful partner in the war against Syria."

While the Syrian government, backed by Iran and Russia, has retaken most of the country, it still faces resistance in Idlib and stretches of the border with Turkey, where Islamist militants and opposition also retain control. Other parts of the country's north and east are under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish group backed by the U.S. in the fight against ISIS but opposed by Turkey.

Moscow, Tehran and Ankara have sought to lead international efforts to resolve the conflict in Syria and their three heads of state met virtually last week in their latest attempt to advance a political solution to the nine-year civil war. The trio holds certain conflicting positions among them, however, and Turkey, in particular, has frustrated Russia and Iran by leading a rebel incursion last year that followed a U.S. repositioning of troops to oil fields in the country's east.

Bagheri weighed in Wednesday on Iran's behalf, accusing Turkey of being "a little late in implementing its commitment" to remove banned militant groups from the area surrounding Idlib and criticizing the country for occupying Syrian territory.

As Turkey and its local partners continue to battle Kurdish forces in northern Syria, Russian General Alexander Chayko met Tuesday with Syrian Democratic Forces commander Mazloum Abdi to discuss alleged violations of Ankara's ceasefire agreement with Moscow and boost cooperation between the two sides.

Despite their common foes, the Syrian government and the Syrian Democratic Forces' repeated attempts to reach reconciliation have so far been unsuccessful as the latter has sought greater autonomy denied by the central government. Both forces continue to face off with the remnants of ISIS.

The U.S.-led coalition has continued to support the anti-ISIS campaign, conducting near-daily operations, however, Washington has increasingly prioritized rolling back Tehran's influence in Syria and neighboring Iraq. Iran's Revolutionary Guard and its Quds Force have forged close ties with powerful militias in both countries.

President Donald Trump's administration, which left a nuclear deal with Iran and has imposed heavy sanctions on Tehran, attempted to disrupt this network in January by killing Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani, who frequented the frontlines in Iraq and Syria.

"This is an administration that has executed its national security function in a way that every American can be proud of, whether it was striking Qassem Soleimani or the remarkable work we did to take down the entire caliphate in Syria, terrorism, the work we've done to put pressure on Iran," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News on Tuesday.

In addition to triggering an Iranian missile strike, Soleimani's death also antagonized forces hostile to the U.S. military, which Iranian officials have vowed to expel from the Middle East. Iran, already in possession of the largest and most advanced missile arsenal in the region, showed off its anti-aircraft capabilities last year with the downing of a state-of-the-art U.S. spy drone of the Persian Gulf and the country has continued to develop new domestically-produced air defense systems.