Iran's defense minister visits Syria to boost ties

Iran's defense minister visits Syria to boost ties

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Iran’s defense minister arrived in Syria on Sunday for talks on boosting cooperation and is expected to meet with President Bashar Assad, state media reported.

Iran has provided key support to Assad in the seven-year civil war, sending thousands of military advisers and allied militiamen to bolster his forces.

Defense Minister Amir Hatami said he hopes Iran can play a “productive role” in Syria’s reconstruction, according to Iran’s Press TV. Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency reported the two sides are expected to sign agreements to expand military and defense cooperation.

Israel has expressed concern over Iran’s growing influence in Syria, accusing Iran of seeking to establish a foothold near the frontier with the Jewish state.

Earlier this year, Israeli jets carried out a number of strikes against suspected Iranian bases in Syria, including an unprecedented bombardment of Iranian military installations in May, reportedly in retaliation to an Iranian rocket barrage on Israeli positions in the occupied Golan Heights.

Iran says its presence in Syria is at the invitation of the Syrian government. “No third party can affect the presence of Iranian advisers in Syria,” Hatami told reporters in Damascus.

The two-day visit comes as Syria gears up for an expected offensive in the northern Idlib province, the last major rebel stronghold, which also has a large al-Qaida presence. The province is home to nearly 3 million people and borders Turkey, which fears an offensive may trigger a humanitarian and security catastrophe.

A Turkish, Russian and Iranian summit is expected in early September in Tehran to discuss Syria.

Idlib was on top of the agenda during talks between Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Moscow on Friday. Turkey has sought to delay any offensive, while Russia has expressed growing impatience, accusing insurgents of targeting its forces from the province.

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