Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise stopover in Syria on Tuesday—accompanied by his minister of defense, Sergei Shoigu, and other high-level officers—for a meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad at Moscow’s military headquarters in Damascus, made minor headlines in both countries so as not to betray the Kremlin’s true concern: that the entire Middle East could erupt into flames at any moment, following the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
Putin’s fear that the region is perilously close to a conflagration is evidenced, among other things, by Russia’s reserved response to the assassination. Iran and Russia are, supposedly, allies. Only recently they conducted a joint military exercise in the north Indian Ocean. One might have expected Putin to castigate U.S. President Donald Trump for his “irresponsible act,” express some measure of empathy for Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, or publicly come out in support of Iran’s right to exact harsh and painful revenge. None of this happened. The Russians anemically condemned the assassination and sufficed with offering condolences to Iranian diplomats in Russia. And none of this is a coincidence.
We need to remember that Putin isn’t just the world champ of exploiting opportunities for political gain; he is also a master of spotting danger in time. A wild Iranian retaliation against Americans stationed in the Middle East would assuredly compel a disproportionate response from the preeminent global superpower. The distance between that and all-out war, which could also harm Russian interests, would be exceedingly short.
Naturally, Putin’s two most pressing concerns pertain to Syria, which is Russia’s primary outpost in the region. First: American forces are still stationed in the country’’s east. If the Iranians try harming them, the United States will act in Syria—and not just in the east but wherever they find pro-Iranian militias. This would greatly embarrass the Russian forces currently in Syria.
Putin’s other concern is that those Iran-backed militias will receive orders from Tehran to act against Israel, from Syrian territory, as part of Iran’s revenge. Putin understands that Israel would retaliate against any such aggression, and would perhaps even cross certain red lines established by Jerusalem and Moscow—for example, targeting symbols of the Assad regime.
Russian sources on Tuesday indicated that Putin’s surprise visit to Damascus was an attempt to ensure that Assad would try to restrain and assuage the pro-Iranian militias on his soil. Putin wants quiet in Syria, and will also discuss the issue with his Israeli hosts during his upcoming, pre-planned visit, which has become even more pressing and pertinent in the wake of Soleimani’s demise.
From Damascus, Putin continued on to Ankara, Turkey, to alleviate tensions in yet another region. In Libya, a war is on the verge of erupting between Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s secular army, supported by Russian mercenaries, and the Islamist government in Tripoli, supported by Turkish mercenaries.
Putin will try persuading Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan that the battle is already lost because Haftar’s army has already seized the vast majority of Libyan territory, and that Moscow and Ankara should focus on cooperating to stave off a larger conflagration, if possible, along the Turkish frontier with Syria.
If he succeeds on his missions to lower the flames, Libya could become Russia’s second naval foothold in the Mediterranean basin, after Syria.
Oded Granot is a journalist and international commentator on the Middle East.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.