A Russian soldier on the advance in Syria, following the US pullout from this region, near Aleppo, in November 2018. US missteps in the Middle East are offering opportunities to Russia. Photo: AFP/Bekir Kasim/Anadolu Agency

The US assassination of key Iranian General Qasem Soleimani potentially favors Moscow’s game in Syria, while the collateral benefits of Baghdad-Washington tensions offer the Kremlin opportunities in Iraq.

The killing, on US President Donald Trump’s orders, brought Tehran and Washington to the brink of open conflict which potentially could have had catastrophic consequences for the balance of forces promoted by Russia in the Middle East.

However, Iran’s retaliation against the US has so far been limited to a weak missile attack on American military bases in Iraq, which caused no casualties. With the risk of an escalation fizzling out – at least for now – the crisis is increasingly looking like an opportunity for Moscow.

Russia is already reaping economic benefits. Oil prices have soared, leading to the strengthening of the Russian ruble, a currency closely linked to energy exports.

Moscow wasted no time painting Washington, its key geopolitical adversary, as an irresponsible, erratic aggressor, while reinforcing its own self-perceived role as a grown-up actor.

In that framework, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s trip to Damascus was deft – showing an assured world leader being welcomed to a Middle Eastern capital as a player for stability. That should win traction at home, where Russians love Putin for raising their country’s global status, as well as across a region and a world that is weary of US militancy.

Also, the removal of the highly competent Iranian general may weaken the role of destabilizing militias in Syria, while US-Iraq tensions are opportunities for Moscow to leverage.

‘Grave consequences’

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov minced no words. The assassination “grossly violates the principles of international norms and deserves condemnation,” he told his American counterpart, Mike Pompeo.

Moscow also warned that the attack could have “grave consequences for regional peace and stability.”

The ministry’s high-profile spokesperson Maria Zakharova suggested the attack was designed to win US President Donald Trump a domestic consensus. “Everyone should remember and understand that US politicians have their interests, considering that this year is an election year,” she said.

Experts joined the barrage of condemnation.

“The US has proved several times to be a highly unpredictable actor that cannot be trusted,” Nikita Smagin, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council think tank, told Asia Times. “By contrast, Moscow has an opportunity to underscore its role as the most reliable  player in the region.”

Russian state media talked up what it saw as a humiliation for the US.

“Iran demonstrated to the whole world that the hegemon could be kicked,” said Yevgeny Primakov, Russian State Duma deputy and host of the state TV program International Review.

Olga Skabeeva, another prominent TV host on state television, claimed that “Trump got scared of Iran” and described Tehran’s retaliation in glowing terms.

“What other examples could you give when some country, some regional power that doesn’t possess nuclear weapons – as far as we know – delivered a strike at the United States of America?” she asked.

The Moscow-Tehran axis

Since its intervention in the Syrian civil war in 2015, Russia has partnered with Iran to support the regime of Bashar Al-Assad.

As reported by Reuters, Soleimani was among the main architects of the Russian intervention in Syria. According to unconfirmed sources, he met with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in summer 2015, convincing him that Assad’s regime could still be saved with Russia’s help.

Allegedly, Soleimani traveled several times to Moscow in the following years to coordinate joint military efforts with senior officials.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry praised his “well-deserved authority and significant influence” in the region.

Yet Soleimani’s killing, despite his apparently close ties to senior Russian officials, offers some pluses for Russia – which is far from being entirely on the same page as Iran.

Moscow-Tehran tensions

According to Leonid Isaev, associate professor at the Asia and African Studies Department of the Higher School of Economics University in St Petersburg, Soleimani’s killing is likely to weaken Iran’s influence over the Syrian government, giving Moscow greater freedom to maneuver in upcoming Syrian political settlements.

Isaev notes that Iran’s uncompromising stance in negotiations has been a frequent complication for the Kremlin, especially over the conflict in the Idlib region.

“Soleimani’s death represents a serious loss for Iran,” Isaev told Asia Times. “He played a key role in coordinating the various Iranian proxy groups in the region and especially in Syria.”

The pro-Iranian militias handled by Soleimani have triggered multiple sectarian conflicts on liberated Syrian territories, which has long concerned Moscow.

“Now that Soleimani is dead, it will take time for Tehran to restore the same level of coordination among its proxies across the region,” said Isaev.

Despite their strategic partnership aimed at shoring up Assad’s regime, Moscow and Tehran are not full-fledged allies. In fact, they diverge on many issues.

Tehran’s hegemonic ambitions in the Middle East and its ceaseless hostility towards Israel are out of sync with Russia’s attempts to preserve a balance of forces.

“Moscow is deeply worried about Iran using its proxies on Syrian territory to threaten Israel,” said Marianna Belenkaya, an expert on Gulf affairs and a journalist at Kommersant publishing house. “Moscow wants to avoid at all costs any escalations between Israel and Damascus.”

Last November, Israel launched airstrikes on the outskirts of Damascus, allegedly in retaliation for attacks carried out by pro-Iranian forces the day before. Russian air defenses have not been used to shield pro-Iranian forces.

A US withdrawal?

The latest crisis might generate opportunities for Moscow beyond Syrian borders.

Soleimani’s killing on Iraqi soil without authorization from local authorities prompted the Iraqi Parliament to ask US troops to depart. Even though that demand was non-binding, the status of GIs on Iraqi soil now looks shaky and a future withdrawal cannot be ruled out.

That would create another vacuum that Russia could exploit – if not exactly fill.

“Russia’s ambitions in the Middle East are hardly limited to Syria …  Moscow clearly aims to drive the United States out of the whole region, and affirm its own role as the architect of a multi-polar world,” said Farhad Ibragimov, politologue and expert at Moscow-based think tank the Valdai International Discussion Club.

“Iraq could be another piece of the puzzle in achieving this goal.”

Still, Russian analysts agree that Moscow’s involvement in Iraq is likely to be limited to diplomatic moves and arms sales. Direct military involvement in Iraq is unlikely for two reasons.

One is that overseas interventions have faced huge domestic sensitivities ever since Moscow’s disastrous 1979-1989 Afghan adventure. The second is that Russia’s armed forces have limited resources, which are already stretched.

A military intervention in Iraq “would require military capabilities Russia simply cannot afford,” said Belenkaya.

Isaev agreed. “Syria is already draining the bulk of Russia’s military capabilities,” he said. “It doesn’t have the resources to establish itself as a key player in other countries in the region.”

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