Soleimani’s killing strengthens Putin’s hand in Syria and Iraq

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On January 7, Russian President Vladimir Putin travelled to Syria for the 2nd time in 3 years. During his previous journey to Syria in December 2017, Putin landed at Russia’s Hmeimim airbase for security reasons.

This time he took the ostensibly riskier step of touching down at Damascus International Airport, which had formerly been the target of attacks, including by Israel trying to hit pro-Iran militias.

While back in 2017 Russian media held back on reporting on Putin’s trip until after he departed, there was no such hold-up this time around.

Putin’s option of location and timing is barely accidental. It was implied to reveal that he has absolutely nothing to fear when visiting a key regional ally. The gesture is much more poignant thinking about the recent assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani at Bagdad airport.

The death of the Iranian general might cause more instability in the area, but for Russia, this might indicate more chances to grow its influence in the Middle East

Iran’s power broker

Soleimani played an essential role in Russia-Iran relations. It has actually been rumoured that he encouraged the Kremlin to intervene in the Syrian war on behalf of Bashar al-Assad‘s regime throughout an informal see to Moscow in July 2015.

For most Russian security analysts, however, this variation of events seems implausible. It was reported that in June 2015 Moscow’s military experts had actually already taken a trip to Syria and identified an area for a Russian military base near Bassel al-Assad International Airport in Latakia. By late July, unique forces units were sent to clear land around the airport to establish what would be called Hmeimim airbase.

In other words, Russia plainly planned to intervene militarily in Syria before that declared go to.

But while the degree of Soleimani’s influence may have been overemphasized, it was by no ways negligible. The Kremlin discovered him to be a reputable partner on whose support it might count, especially during the preliminary stages of its troop implementation to Syria.

Regardless of its close cooperation with Iran in the Syrian war, Russia did not hesitate to turn a blind eye when Israel began assaulting Iranian-backed militias, which Soleimani directed. From Iran’s perspective, Russia might have avoided the attacks because it purported to safeguard Syrian airspace.

The Iranians repeatedly revealed their annoyance at the absence of aerial security for the positions of the forces it backs in Syria, but, through different channels, Moscow explained that it did not want to step in in the dispute between Iran and Israel in Syria and did not wish to get involved in the transit of weapons to Lebanon.

And even though Russia deployed an S-300 missile system to Syria following Israel’s role in the downing of a Russian airplane in September 2018, these attacks continued.

In spite of officially maintaining cordial attitudes towards one another, Russia and Iran do not see eye to eye on numerous aspects of the Syrian dispute. While Moscow has been dedicated to strengthening Syria’s official security and military organizations, Tehran has been attempting to develop alternative ones. Soleimani, in particular, had been attempting to enhance the position of Iran-backed militias in Syrian state structures, which had displeased the Russians.

On the ground, there has actually been persistent tension in between Iranian and Russian-backed forces. There have been assassinations in both camps and fierce competition for territory and credit over the battle against ISIL(ISIS). The friction ended up being especially obvious in Deraa province, where rebels accepted reconciliation with the program under Russian sponsorship. There, Russian forces expelled some units of the 4th Department, which is known to have close ties to Iran, to keep its impact over the area.

On The Other Hand, Iran has looked for to strengthen its grip on the capital, Damascus, by purchasing land to successfully create a security zone around it. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps ( IRGC) has actually likewise handled to strengthen its position in Homs province, where the Russian business Stroytransgaz mines phosphates for export.

Soleimani had actually played a special role in these tensions, often acting exterior of his official required as IRGC commander. By cultivating relations with pro-Iran militias, the leader sought to grow his influence and protected take advantage of over local elites.

New chances for Russia

Immediately after the news broke of Soleimani’s assassination, both the Russian defence and foreign ministries condemned the act. Yet the Russian presidency refrained from commenting directly on the matter.

It is likewise informing that images of a small Russian delegation revealing condolences to Iranian authorities at the Iranian embassy in Damascus were released on social media and not on any of the state news companies.

While Soleimani’s death might lead to an escalation of stress between Iran and the United States and worsen instability, for Russia, this may present brand-new chances.

Up till his assassination, the Iranian commander served as a de-facto guarantor of stable relations in between the Iranian federal government and its proxies, including Syrian militias. After his death, it stays to be seen if Iran will have the ability to keep the very same level of close coordination with these forces or manage their activities in Syria and other countries.

If the Iranian grip over these forces falters, Moscow could exploit it to grow its impact in Damascus. With his Iranian allies rushing to control the situation after Soleimani’s death, Syria’s al-Assad might end up being a lot more based on Russia’s assistance.

Putin’s visit to Damascus must be seen in this context – it was planned to show Russia’s dominance in Syria and convey its confidence in its approach to the area.

His decision to utilize Damascus airport might indicate that Russia is pushing for a greater financial function in Syria. In 2015 numerous airline companies, including Bahrain’s Gulf Air and UAE’s Etihad, mulled resuming flights to Damascus.

Russian businessmen have already revealed interest in bankrolling the airport’s expansion with a new terminal. According to some reports, Russia even asked Israel to cease targeting the airport and in return, it stated it may help in reducing the volume of Iran’s supplies through Damascus, the really supply path that till just recently had actually been managed by Soleimani’s Quds Force.

Yet Russia’s financial activities in Syria drag Iran in terms of scale and scope. Being taken part in a wide variety of sectors – from building and realty to manufacturing industries – Tehran has actually played a significant role in the Syrian economy after2011

While there are company chances for Russian business, particularly as the Assad program has assured to provide them favoritism, lots of hesitate to engage for fear of Western sanctions and uncertainty over returns on any investment.

So far the main Russian gamer in Syria is Stroytransgaz, connected to Russian oligarch Gennady Timchenko, which is primarily engaged in establishing oil and phosphate deposits.

Soleimani’s death also unlocks for Russia in Iraq, which is contemplating expelling American soldiers from its soil. The step was supported by some Iraqi parties and the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMFs). It is true that the Iraqi parliament’s resolution getting in touch with the government to eliminate United States soldiers lacks legal force. Nevertheless, it is a sign of interruption in the US-Iraq relationship.

Over the last few years Russia has actually demonstrated its ability to turn such crises in Iraq into chances. In 2017, for example, Russian energy giant Rosneft expanded its operations in Iraqi Kurdistan amid stress in between Erbil and the main federal government over the independence referendum.

Unpredictability following the Soleimani killing may trigger Iraq to buy Russian anti-defence systems, whether the S-400 system or other designs. Bagdad has actually already revealed interest in purchasing Russia’s systems. Talks initially began in August in 2015 following Israel’s air raids versus pro-Iran militias in Iraq.

More just recently, PMF Commander Qais al-Khazali recommended Russia and China can change US military assistance and suggestions in Iraq, a deal which will no doubt please the Kremlin.

The bottom line is that Moscow continues to show its capability to transform Washington’s mistakes in the area into political and diplomatic gains. Soleimani’s assassinations brought catastrophe to Iran and its fallout will position new difficulties to the Trump administration. For Russia, nevertheless, the Iranian leader’s death indicates a fresh set of opportunities in Syria, Iraq and beyond.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial position.

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