With the world on edge over rising tensions in the Middle East Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Damascus in just his second visit to Syria since the start of the country’s civil war nearly nine years ago. The Russian president traveled from the Damascus airport to a command post of Russian forces where he met his counterpart and ally Bashar al-Assad. The two leaders listened to a military presentation by the commander of Russian forces in Syria, the Syrian presidency said in a statement along with a picture of the two leaders shaking hands. Putin extended his greetings to Russian forces for Orthodox Christmas which is celebrated on January 7. The visit came amid heightened tensions between Iran and the US, following the killing of a top Iranian general in a US air raid in neighbouring Iraq. Revolutionary Guard General Qassem Soleimani’s death has sparked calls across Iran for revenge against the US. Later Vladimir Putin visited Turkey. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin called for a ceasefire in Libya after talks in Istanbul, where they also inaugurated a historic gas pipeline. Earlier, they inaugurated the TurkStream pipelines, which will deliver Russian gas to Turkey and Europe via the Black Sea. Since its pivotal intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, Russia has sought to position itself as a major player in the Middle East. Now Moscow has a fresh chance to solidify that reputation. Russian President Vladimir Putin will look to boost his country’s standing in the Middle East following the Trump administration’s decision to assassinate the Iranian military leader Qassem Suleimani last week and Iran’s missile attack against U.S. air bases in Iraq. The escalating situation raises the stakes for Moscow’s calculus in the region significantly, but it also provides Putin with new opportunities to achieve two of his long-standing goals: undermining U.S. credibility and expanding Russia’s footprint across the Middle East. How to respond to the US killing of Soleimani poses a serious challenge to Moscow. On the one hand, it raises the opportunity to solidify its relationship with Tehran. On the other hand, Moscow does not really want to see (much less get involved in) a major conflict between the US and Iran which despite however much its ends up hurting the US raises the possibility of gravely weakening the Iranian regime and reducing its ability to support the Assad regime in Syria which Moscow does not want to have to undertake on its own. Further, Moscow does not want to damage the good relations it has built up with Washington’s anti-Iranian allies such by increasing Russian military support for their arch enemy, Iran. This would threaten Putin’s two decade-long effort to cultivate good relations with them. Thus, despite its condemnation of the US killing of Soleimani, Moscow can mainly be expected to urge both Washington and Tehran to act with restraint, and to do so itself. Moscow may also offer to mediate between Washington and Tehran. But in the event that Moscow does not make such an offer or the Trump administration does not accept it, Russia at the very least is likely to portray US actions against Iran as raising the prospect of a larger conflict that the US will be unable to prevent its allies from being negatively affected by. The US killing of Soleimani, then, is one more factor challenging the assumption about how just because Putin supported Trump’s 2016 campaign means that Moscow will also support his 2020 one. Russian reaction to this event, though, might not be limited to just the Middle East. Russian Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Zakharova’s comments highlight her objection to the United States “killing of a representative of a government of a sovereign state, an official,” indicates that what Moscow may really fear is that the Trump administration intends to target more Iranian government officials. There is another factor that trump’s refusal to accept Putin’s repeated offers to renew the New Strategy Arms Reduction Treaty limiting US and Russian strategic nuclear forces which expires in February 2021 can be a reason why Putin may wish to see Trump replaced.
Writer is the Assistant Editor ‘Mélange int’l Magazine’, ‘The Asian Telegraph’ & Project Coordinator (COPAIR); a degree holder in communication & media sciences.