After the killing of Iran’s Soleimani, Moscow appeared to take a stance on the matter. Accordingly, it condemned the actions taken. However, behind the curtain, the Kremlin will have appreciated Soleimani’s death as increased tensions between Iran and the US equal have not only increased opportunities for Russia in the region but left a void the Kremlin is more than inclined to fill.
Soleimani’s authority over Bashar al-Assad was well documented, as Soleimani supported Assad with Hezbollah and Shia militias that have been fighting side by side with Assad’s army. Moreover, Soleimani is also said to have played a role in Russia’s intervention in the war.
The killing of Iran’s terrorism hydra has temporarily ceased Iran’s influence in the region. Conducting geopolitical shenanigans is not accessible if one is right in the US’ crosshair.
Moscow is cognizant of it and has the opportunity to expand its influence in the region, particularly in Syria.
Despite all the Russian support for the Assad regime, the Kremlin has kept its interest in mind and thus remains not only a partner but a competitor of the benefices in the post-war Syrian order that will provide access to mineral resources and the port of Latakia. Moreover, and more importantly, it is about the geopolitical priorities of the Russians and Iranians in Syria, which Except for the support for Assad, are downright asymmetrical.
Moscow advocates a decentralized state model in which the reformed Syrian People’s Army is in command. Teheran seeks to not only integrate its Shiite brigades in Assad’s army but to infiltrate the Syrian government similar to Lebanon, in order to act as a puppet master in the background.
The latter would pose severe implications for the Kremlin’s geopolitical interests in the region, as so far, Putin has been able to balance between the major actors in the region, namely Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Israel.
Hence, Putin has cultivated more or less amicable relationships with Israel, Iran’s primary enemy, and does not intervene even when Israel conducts its regular strikes against Shiite militias in Syria. Why? It stops Iran from becoming too powerful – a scenario both Putin and Netanyahu seek to prevent. Moreover, Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main competitor for hegemony in the region, has little to no interest in a more influential Iran either and willingly purchases Russian arms.
With Soleimani out of the picture, Moscow will reattempt to persuade Assad into a paradigm shift: away from decades of dependence on Iran and towards a stronger relationship with Russia and its Arab neighbors – naturally via Russian mediation.
However, there is also the worst-case scenario in the aftermath of Soleimani’s death. Tehran could increase its engagement in Syria and the attacks on Israel to demonstrate that the mullahs will not be put under pressure by the US. Though this scenario appears to be highly unlikely at this point, it would not be in Russia’s interest if Iran cemented its influence over Assad. Worse yet, a regime change in Iran and an increased US presence in the region would be severely detrimental to Putin’s achievements and his puppet mastery in the past half-decade and would put Putin in a position where he would have to support Iran clandestinely without risking a confrontation with the US.
So far, however, Putin’s strategy of the past, the balancing of the powers, while continuously expanding his influence, has worked brilliantly. The death of Soleimani, as well as a regime in Teheran that has lost prestige when falling victim to the US deterrence, has provided Putin with the chance of taking this one step further. Moreover, if the US were indeed to continue its retreat in the region, Moscow’s work would come to a positive conclusion.