Russia and Syria's Presidents Meet After U.S. Kills Iranian General That Fought Their War

Russian President Vladimir Putin met Tuesday with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad less than a week after the United States killed a top Iranian military commander who helped lead their war against rebels and jihadis.

Putin met with Assad at the Russian military headquarters in Damascus, where the two men "heard military reports on the situation in various regions of the country." Their delegations then engaged in bilateral discussions in which Putin remarked that "a huge distance has been traveled towards restoring Syrian statehood and the country's territorial integrity," particularly in Damascus, according to a Kremlin readout.

"The Syrian President expressed gratitude to Russia and the Russian military for their assistance in the fight against terrorism and the restoration of peaceful life in the republic," the readout said.

A separate statement by Assad's office said the pair "also discussed plans to eliminate terrorism that threatens the security and safety of the Syrian citizens in Idlib, the developments in the Syrian north and the measures that Turkey is doing there, in addition to supporting the political track and preparing conditions are right for it."

The visit marks only the second time Putin has traveled to Syria, where he last visited two years ago. This time around, the two leaders exchanged Christmas wishes and Putin went on to tour Christian and Islamic holy sites. However, the Russian leader's trip was also a sign of unity amid recent, dangerous escalations in neighboring Iraq that threatened to once again to destabilize two major Arab countries.

russia, putin, syria, assad, military, meeting
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meet at the Russian armed forces headquarters in Damascus, January 7. The Russian leader's rare visit comes less than a week after the U.S. killed a top Iranian general that supported Moscow and Damascus' war effort. Presidency of the Syrian Arab Republic

Russia's 2015 military intervention in Syria helped Assad's armed forces and their allies beat back advances made by scores of insurgent and militant groups, including the Islamic State (ISIS). Even before the Russian entry into the fight, however, Syria's closest regional partner, Iran, came to the government's aid in the form of Tehran's top military figures, Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani.

Iran officially entered the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria in June 2014, with a U.S.-led coalition soon following suit. Since then, Soleimani attended up to two dozen major meetings across Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and even in Russia, coordinating efforts to mobilize mostly Shiite Muslim militias from as far away as Afghanistan and Pakistan to back Baghdad and Damascus.

Soleimani's presence earned him both fame and notoriety across the Middle East, but his campaign ended abruptly Thursday as a U.S. airstrike took out his convoy, killing him along with Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces militia deputy leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis at Baghdad International Airport. The operation came amid a deadly escalation in violence between U.S. military and Iraqi militias backed by Iran and it shook the region.

While the Iraqi parliament voted Sunday to oust U.S. forces in response to President Donald Trump's unilateral operation, and others before it, the Syrian government has long called for the Pentagon to withdraw. The U.S.-led coalition against ISIS coordinated its fight in Iraq with Baghdad, but ignored Damascus, whose government Washington has sought to oust since 2011 over war crimes allegations.

The rise of Islamist forces in Syria led the U.S. to shift its priorities away from backing the Syrian opposition and instead support a more neutral, majority-Kurdish group known as the Syrian Democratic Forces focused on fighting ISIS. With the jihadis defeated in Iraq and Syria and the Trump administration's withdrawal from a 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, however, new fronts were opening in the longstanding U.S.-Iran rivalry.

Both Moscow and Damascus have been deeply critical of the Trump administration's decision to kill Soleimani and have only bolstered their relations with the Islamic Republic. Russia and Iran have no formal military agreement, but they recently waged their first trilateral drills alongside China and, on Monday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu spoke by telephone with the Iranian military's chief of staff Mohammad Bagheri.

"The military leaders discussed practical steps during the conversation for prevention of escalation of the situation in the Syrian Arab Republic and the Middle East in connection with the killing of commander of the Quds special unit General Qasem [sic] Soleimani near Baghdad," the Russian Defense Ministry said, according to the state-run Tass Russian News Agency.

syria, protest, assad, khamenei, nasrallah, soileimani
Syrian demonstrators wave portraits of Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanese Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah and slain Iranian Revolutionary Guard Quds Force commander Major General Qassem Soleimani in protest of the latter's assassination in Iraq, as well as U.S. and Turkish military presence in Syria in the central Saadallah al-Jabiri square in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, January 7. Soleimani played a role in the Syrian government's recapture of the major city. AFP/Getty Images

Iranian leaders, along with political and military officials, have sworn revenge, however. In Syria, the U.S. military's presence was largely limited to the east, where Trump said his focus was controlling oil, and in the far southwest, in a desert outpost manned by U.S. troops and Syrian insurgents near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders. While the U.S. and Iran have mostly avoided conflict in Syria, isolated clashes between their partners have erupted.

As tensions between Washington and Tehran worsened, Moscow was already playing a frontline role in attempting to prevent violence between Iran and one of its other top foes, Israel. Israel has waged a semi-covert campaign of airstrikes against targets suspected of being under Iranian command in Syria and recently expanded this campaign to Iraq.

As recently as Christmas Eve, strikes attributed by Syria to Israel struck Damascus and just a month before a similar attack struck the very same international airport at which Putin arrived Tuesday. Israel acknowledged its role in that series of strikes, accusing Soleimani's Quds Force of launching rockets toward Israel and blaming the Syrian military for firing anti-air batteries at the invading warplanes.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has long warned of the Quds Force plots across the Middle East, publicly praised Trump's decision to take out Soleimani. Citing two unnamed Israeli ministers Monday, Axios quoted Netanyahu as telling a private cabinet meeting that the "killing of Soleimani is a U.S. event, not an Israeli event, and we should stay out of it."