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Syria's President Bashar al-Assad meets Iran's leader in rare foreign visit

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Iran and met with officials there on a rare trip abroad in which he thanked the Islamic Republic for its support throughout Syria's conflict, official news agencies in Syria and Iran say.

Meeting comes as Iran foreign minister announces resignation via Instagram

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met with Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani on the trip — the first time he has travelled anywhere other than Russia since the Syrian civil war erupted nearly eight years ago. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via Associated Press)

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Iran and met with officials there on a rare trip abroad in which he thanked the Islamic Republic for its support throughout Syria's conflict, official news agencies in Syria and Iran said.

Assad met with the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Hassan Rouhani on the trip — the first time he has travelled anywhere other than Russia since the Syrian civil war erupted nearly eight years ago.

Tehran has given the Syrian government billions of dollars in aid since the conflict began and sent Iran-backed fighters to battle alongside his forces — assistance that has helped turn the tide in Assad's favour. 

Syrian state TV said Assad "thanked the Islamic Republic's leadership and people for what they have given to Syria during the war." Assad's office said "both sides expressed their satisfaction with the strategic levels reached between the two countries in all fields." 

Move comes as Iran's foreign minister resigns

The visit comes the same day that  Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif submitted his resignation, according to the Iran state-run news agency IRNA.

IRNA cited a spokesperson, Abbas Mousavi, confirming Zarif resigned after an Instagram post from the longtime diplomat offered an "apology" for his "inability to continue to his service." There was no immediate reason offered for what prompted Zarif's resignation.
 
Zarif was the driving force behind Iran's 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. That deal is now on the verge of collapse after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord last year.

On Monday, Syrian and Iranian media released photos showing Assad, in a dark suit, in an embrace with Khamenei and shaking hands with Rouhani, both of them smiling.
Assad was quoted by Syrian state TV as saying he told Khamenei that regional countries should not heed the wishes of Western powers led by the United States to 'sow chaos' against Syria and Iran. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via Associated Press)

Assad was quoted by Syrian media as saying he told Khamenei that regional countries should not heed the wishes of Western powers led by the United States to "sow chaos" against Syria and Iran.

"Western escalation will not steer (Iran and Syria) away from defending their own interests," a state television statement quoted Assad as saying.

Zarif's resignation, if accepted by Iran's relatively moderate Rouhani, would leave the cleric without one of his main allies in pushing the Islamic Republic toward more negotiations with the West.

U.S. buffer zone should be rejected, Assad says

Iran's semi-official Fars news agency said Khamenei told the visiting Assad that "the buffer zone that Americans are after in Syria is among dangerous plots that should be rejected," and that the U.S. plan to maintain a presence in Syria near the Iraqi border "is another sample of their designs."

Trump announced in December that all American forces would leave Syria, but he recently backtracked in the face of intense criticism, saying about 200 soldiers would remain indefinitely to help keep the peace alongside Syrian partners and prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State group.

U.S. officials have said Trump's decision authorizing a small number of U.S. troops to stay is a key step in creating a larger multinational observer force that would monitor a so-called safe zone along Syria's border with Turkey. The buffer zone is meant to prevent clashes between Turkey and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces. It is also aimed at preventing Assad's forces and Iran-backed fighters from seizing more territory.

Syrian officials have blasted Turkey's plans for such a safe zone, saying both Turkish and U.S. troops are occupiers. 

The Syrian president also accused the U.S. and its regional allies like Saudi Arabia of creating rifts among various religious and ethnic groups in Syria, saying such efforts have backfired. 

Khamenei 'proud' of helping Syria

"Today in Syria, Kurds and tribes have good relations with the government," he said, according to Fars.

Syrian state TV said Assad "thanked the Islamic Republic's leadership and people for what they have given to Syria during the war." Assad's office said "both sides expressed their satisfaction with the strategic levels reached between the two countries in all fields." 

Khamenei said Iran is "proud" of the assistance it offers to Syria, Fars reported.

Syria's conflict began almost exactly eight years ago, when Arab Spring-inspired protests broke out against the Assad family's decades-long rule.

The protests prompted a harsh response from Syrian security forces, which led to the emergence of an insurgency. The resulting war has killed some 450,000 people and driven millions from their homes.

Assad has only ventured outside his war-ravaged nation twice since the conflict began — both times to Russia. This week's visit to meet Iranian leaders is his third since protests against his family's decades-long rule broke out in March 2011.

The visit to Iran comes a day before a trip by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Russia for talks expected to focus on Iran's role in Syria. Israel has said it will not tolerate a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria, and it has carried out scores of air strikes against Iran-linked targets there. 

With files from Reuters

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