As Iran’s missiles whizzed over the dark skies of Iraq, President Bashar al-Assad was hosting President Vladimir Putin of Russia who had arrived in the country secretly. It was the first time Putin was visiting Damascus since the outbreak of the uprising that sought to overthrow Assad.
Although he had visited Syria in 2017, his visit was restricted to Russia’s military base at Hmeimim on the Mediterranean coast.
Apart from meeting Russian forces, the two leaders visited the Mariamite Cathedral of Damascus, one of the oldest Greek Orthodox churches in the world.
“Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Damascus for a visit during which he met President Assad at the Headquarters of the Russian forces,” said a statement from the Kremlin.
While the statement did not mention the growing tension between the US and Iran, the timing of Putin’s visit was bound to raise eyebrows, since it happened just a week after the killing of General Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike.
According to the Washington Institute, “In carrying out Russian policy in the Middle East, Putin has always leaned closer to the Iran-Syria bloc. In particular deploying forces to protect the Assad regime has brought the Russian Iranian partnership to unprecedented heights.”
Putin’s visit could be interpreted from two perspectives. First, he was there to reinforce Russia’s strategy in Syria following the weakening of the Iranian position after the elimination of General Qassem.
Qassem was a key player in Moscow’s and Iran’s strategy in Syria and worked hard to achieve the objectives of propping up Assad and protecting his regime. Russia’s response to his death was therefore predictable.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry released a statement condemning America for “an adventurist act” adding that, “The move by Washington is fraught with grave consequences for regional peace and stability. We regard such actions as detrimental to finding solutions to complex problems of the Middle East and rather contributing to escalation in violence.”
Similar views were expressed by Russian Senate Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Mr Konstantin Kosachev, who said “The killing of Gen. Soleimani in Baghdad in no way contributes to the improvement of the situation in Iraq and the entire Middle East. Its negative implications, however, are already obvious.”
In 2011, when Assad’s regime appeared to be on the verge of collapse, Qassem as the head of the Revolutionary Guards foreign wing, Quds Force, organised hundreds of Shiite militias from Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran to bolster Assad’s military which was greatly overstretched.
In him, the Russian’s who were greatly opposed to the removal of Assad found a key ally and a military strategist with whom they could work together.
In July 2015, Qassem was invited to Moscow for a secret meeting to discuss Russia’s military involvement in Syria. The meeting resulted in Putin ordering Russian Air Force to carry out major strikes in Syria From Iran. It was the first time a military operation was being staged from Iranian soil since World War II.
Working closely with the Russians, militia forces organised by Qassem captured major cities and hundreds of rebels. When Aleppo was wrestled from the rebels in 2016, it was Qassem who visited the city. Following the victories, the Russian’s considered him a great strategist and thinker, and invited him a number of times to Moscow where he held meetings with senior military officers
His death was, therefore, a major blow to Russia’s efforts. And there was no doubt that in the long term it could disrupt the gains made in Syria. That’s why Putin had to make an unplanned visit to Syria.
However, the Washington Institute believes, “Soleimani’s killing will still present challenges to Putin given his reliance on Iran’s help in propping up Bashar al-Assad. If Iran is weekend, Moscow risks getting bogged down in the type of costly quagmire it has worked hard to avoid.”
Secondly, Putin to assert Russia’s influence in the Middle East as a global power.
A statement released after his visit to Damascus said, “Putin told Assad that a huge distance has been travelled on the road to restoring Syrian statehood and territorial integrity”
From this statement, Russia was announcing its position as a key player in the region and a reliable partner who can be counted on in times of crisis.
Russia has always used its involvement in Syria as a tool to assert its influence in the Middle East and its ambitions as a global power. Without any clear policy by the US in the region, the whole situation seemed to have worked in Russia’s favour.
“Putin doesn’t need to do much. He is just watching. Everything you’ve seen for the past year or so, since December 2018 when Trump first announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, everything has gone the Kremlin’s way. There’s not much to do, there’s nothing to activate. The Russian policy in that region has been to talk to everybody, to capitalise on an American vacuum,” said Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey
Russia’s clear policy in the region has allowed Putin to gain favour with the leaders of France and Germany who have always supported America.
He was the first leader the French President Emmanuel Macron called to discuss the situation just after the killing of General Qassem. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel was also travelling to the Kremlin to discuss with him the growing tensions in the Middle East and Iran in particular.