Putin in Damascus: A Surprise Christmas Visit (and Much More)

For the Russian leader to choose Damascus among all places to celebrate Orthodox Christmas is no ordinary decision, and to hold extensive and friendly talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as the region boils and draws closer to the brink of a major military conflict, is again no ordinary event. The timing, place and circumstances both during and after the summit caused some observers to go as far as claiming the visit was no less significant an event than the Iranian ballistic missile attack on two US airbases in Iraq on the night of the same day Putin and his top military aides, including Defence Minister Sergey Shoygu, arrived in Damascus.

After the official meeting between the two leaders which took place at the newly established cutting edge Russian CCC (Command and Control Centre) in Damascus, President Assad and Putin walked in the streets of the old city, visiting the famous Omayyad Mosque, also known as the Great Mosque of Damascus, which keeps relics of John the Baptist, one of the holiest Saints in Christianity, previously visited by Pope John Paul II in May 2001. The two leaders then visited the oldest Orthodox church in Damascus, a city that is so closely tied to early Christianity. Putin presented a rare 17th century manuscript of the Quran to the Omayyad Mosque and an ancient iconic portrait of Virgin Mary to the Orthodox church in Damascus.

Putin’s visit sends messages in all directions

Thursday’s visit- which was not announced in advance for understandable reasons – marked the Russian leader’s first visit since 2017 to Syria, his closest ally in the Middle East, and his first-ever to Damascus since the war in Syria broke out in 2011. Russia and Iran have played a key role in supporting president Assad and tipping the balance in his army’s favor in recent years.

The timing of Putin’s visit coincided with mounting tension in the region on the day Iran retaliated to the assassination of Maj. General Qassim Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force, and his comrades near Baghdad airport last week. in retaliation they launching dozens of missiles on the strategic Ain al Assad air base north of the Iraqi capital, and another airstrip in Irbil, Iraqi Kurdistan province, both used by US and allied nations, sending an unmistakable message of unwavering support to Syria’s Assad by what Syrians call ‘Putin the Czar’.

The Russian gesture bolsters Assad’s stature and resolve in finishing up the war against terror and its controversial closing chapter in Idlib; the last remaining stronghold for anti-government forces including some 75,000 hardcore Nusra terrorists who refuse to lay down arms and negotiate a settlement with the government in Damascus. Putin’s other messages were to the Americans and Israelis in case the US-Iran showdown spills into a regional war. The strongest message in Putin’s address to Russian forces stationed in Syria via the new CCC’s state-of-the-art communication system was: “By joining the war effort [against terrorism] here in Syria, you are defending the security of Russia itself”.

Although Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov did not confirm that Iran came up during the meeting between the presidents in Damascus, the two leaders must have discussed the Iran-US rising tension and Tehran’s imminent retaliation.

“The president of Syria expressed his gratitude to Russia and the Russian military for assistance with combating terrorism as well as restoration and building of peaceful life in Syria,” Peskov went on to say in highlighting Russia’s critical help to Assad in turning the military tide against terrorists and radical groups fighting in Syria for the ninth year running.

Erdogan and his Syria plans under scrutiny and mockery

Another double message was sent to Turkey and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan personally during Putin’s visit to Damascus, as the Russian leader was escorted to the very Grand Omayyad Mosque Erdogan had vowed to pray at “in a few months’ time”, at the outset of Syria conflict in 2011. Many Syrians took scathing mockery of Erdogan and his famous pledge to pray in Damascus after Assad is toppled shortly. They circulated photos of Assad and Putin smiling as they left the oldest and most beautiful mosques in the world.

A cartoon displays Erdogan asking Putin “For God’s sake, tell me, did Bashar mention me at all during your visit?”. Putin replies: “Oh yes he sure did. He couldn’t have forgotten about you Recep; for as we entered the [Omayyad] Mosque, Assad asked me to take off my shoes; it’s not allowed in!”

Russia has played a key role regarding the Turkish presence in Syria, and Ankara’s military offensive in northeastern Kurdish areas last October following Trump’s sudden and controversial withdrawal decision which shocked his Kurdish SDF allies who rushed to Moscow and Damascus for protection from overwhelming Turkish military power, threatening to wipe them out.

What is after Maj. General Soleimani is different from what was before it, many observers and analysts maintain. Putin’s landmark visit to Damascus this week could well mark the beginning of a new and critical phase in the final round of war on terrorism in Syria and the region. Two events that are bound to have a sizeable impact on the ground regarding the need to uproot terrorists and end the US and Turkish military presence in Syria, once and for all.