Vladimir Putin
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Russian President Vladimir Putin looks through the windows of his plane while flying over Syria. Photo: AP

What’s Vladimir Putin up to as Donald Trump and Iran edge towards war?

  • Russia’s Putin visits Syria to meet Assad, a key Iran ally
  • Next stop is Turkey, which has drifted away from historic ally US

With the world on edge over rising tensions in the Middle East, one leader seems unfazed: Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

The Russian president arrived in Damascus on Tuesday in just his second visit to Syria since the start of the country’s civil war nearly nine years ago.

The timing is significant. The US and its allies were assessing the damage after Iran fired a series of missiles at US-Iraqi airbases early Wednesday in retaliation for the killing of Tehran’s top general Qassem Soleimani.

But Putin is pushing ahead with his own agenda in the region. The Russian president travelled from the Damascus airport to a command post of Russian forces where he met his counterpart and ally Bashar al-Assad.

“This is a clear signal to allies and opponents that when stability declines and risks rise, when uncertainty appears, Russia underlines that its presence in the Middle East is unchanging, unlike the US,” said Andrey Kortunov, director of the Russian International Affairs Council, a group with close ties to the Kremlin.

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“In contrast to Donald Trump’s unpredictability, Russia’s consistency becomes advantageous.”

Russia’s 2015 military intervention in the Syrian conflict was not only key in saving the Assad regime but heralded the arrival of a new power broker in an already volatile and crowded region.

The visit was planned in advance of a Wednesday meeting with Turkey’s Recep Tayipp Erdogan, another leader who has entered the fray with his incursion in Libya.

Turkey is a Nato member, but has been courted with increasing success by Putin in recent years as Erdogan drifts further from his country’s historic allies in Europe and the US.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meet in Damascus. Photo: Reuters
With events in Iran monopolising global attention, there was the risk of other significant developments falling under the radar, such as the capture of the coastal city of Sirte by Libyan military commander Khalifa Hifter. It has a symbolic and strategic value for Hifter – supported by Russia – and could determine the fate of a country that has been in trapped in a cycle of civil war ever since Western allies toppled dictator Muammar Gaddafi back in 2011.

Back in Washington, the US sent its own signals that it hasn’t lost its focus on the rest of the world.

Secretary of State Michael Pompeo began a relatively rare news conference on Tuesday by mentioning bush fires in Australia, China’s stand-off with Hong Kong protesters, Iran’s role in Afghanistan, the plight of Uygurs in Xinjiang, political upheaval in Venezuela and a visit by Greece’s prime minister. He even detailed his undersecretary of state’s travel plans to Europe.

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At the White House, Trump met the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who said the US could always count on his country as “a reliable and predictable ally.”

But that meeting only underscored how Iran was still foremost on the president’s mind.

After Iran’s missile strikes were announced, Trump tweeted “All is well!” and “So far, so good!” Earlier, as Mitsotakis looked on, Trump said of Soleimani: “We saved a lot of lives by terminating his life”. Other countries were “extremely happy” with the US attack, Trump added.

Qassem Soleimani was buried in Iran on Tuesday. Russia called his killing ‘short-sighted’. Photo: Reuters

Russia wasn’t one of those nations. The country’s defence ministry called Soleimani’s assassination a “short-sighted” step that will lead to a “sharp escalation” of tensions. Soleimani, the ministry said, was “a competent military leader, who had a well-deserved authority and significant influence throughout the Middle East”.

Soleimani led Iran-backed forces supporting Assad in Syria’s civil war and played a key role in shoring up his army. With some 600 American troops deployed in Syria, the country is a potential site of conflict with Iran.

In his conversation with Assad, Putin said that a lot has been done toward restoring Syria’s statehood and territorial integrity.

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“The situation didn’t just change – in fact, we’re witnessing the restoration of Syria’s statehood, Syria as a state, the country’s territorial integrity,” Putin said in video of the meeting released by Syria’s state news agency SANA.

At the same time, Putin noted that the situation in the Middle East “is, unfortunately, escalating”.

The last time Putin came to Syria was in 2017 when he announced a scale-back of the Russian military presence there. At the time, rebels were still entrenched on the outskirts of Damascus, and he only visited Russia’s Hemeimeem airbase in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia. Assad previously visited Russia and met with Putin in May 2018, November 2017 and October 2015.

Additional reporting by Associated Press

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Putin visits Syria and Turkey amid tension in region