(CNSNews.com) – Two major beneficiaries of Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani’s military intervention in the Syrian civil war, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin, met in Damascus on Tuesday to discuss “recent developments in the region.”
The Kremlin and the Assad regime have both characterized the killing of Soleimani in a U.S. airstrike in Baghdad last week as a violation of international law.
Under Soleimani, the Qods Force, the external operations wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is implicated in the deaths of hundreds of U.S. soldiers during the Iraq war, and thousands of Syrians in the civil war in that country.
Russia, Iran, and its proxies led by Hezbollah in Lebanon, have been Assad’s main military allies in the war that erupted in 2011. They are credited with turning the convoluted conflict in Assad’s favor, pushing back and regaining territory captured earlier by a variety of mostly Sunni rebel and jihadist groups.
On Tuesday, Assad thanked Putin and the Russian military “for their assistance in the fight against terrorism and the restoration of peaceful life in the republic,” the Kremlin said in a statement.
The brief statement did not mention Soleimani by name, but his death was certain to have featured prominently in the talks, some of which were held behind closed doors.
Soleimani oversaw Shi’ite militias from Iraq, Lebanon, Afghanistan, and Iran itself, fighting to keep in power the Iranian regime’s only ally in the region – and a key component of the “Shi’a crescent,” an Iranian sphere of influence stretching through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean.
Russia has its own long-standing strategic interests in Syria, where it has maintained its only naval base in the Mediterranean since the Cold War.
Overt Russian military involvement in the war began with an airstrike campaign launched in September 2015, ostensibly directed against ISIS terrorists but according to the U.S. military targeting Assad’s foes of all stripes.
Two months before the Russian strikes began, Soleimani reportedly visited Moscow and held talks with Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.
That trip was in violation of a 2007 U.N. Security Council travel embargo, imposed for Soleimani’s alleged involvement in smuggling nuclear-related materials.
On the eve of the airstrike campaign launch, American journalist Charlie Rose asked Putin in an interview about Soleimani’s visit.
Putin did not comment directly, but said that Russia had a duty to join countries in the region in their “fight against a common threat – terrorism in general and ISIS in particular.”
The start of the Russian air campaign coincided with the biggest deployment as of that date of Iranian troops to Syria.
Putin then visited Tehran in November 2015, for the first time in eight years, and met with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and others.
A month later, Soleimani reportedly visited Moscow for a second time, holding three days of talks with Putin and senior military and security officials, the IRGC-affiliated Fars news agency said at the time (although that visit too was denied).
‘Law of the jungle’
In Damascus on Tuesday, Putin visited a command post for Russian forces in Syria, where he praised the troops for helping Syrians to “liberate” their country from “terrorist groups and gangs.”
“The Russian Navy personnel near the Syrian coast continue to defend our national interests in the Mediterranean,” he added.
Putin and Assad also visited the Great Mosque in Damascus, and met with a Greek Orthodox patriarch – one of three traditional church leaders who in April 2018 denounced U.S. cruise missile strikes against regime targets after chemical weapons attacks blamed by the U.S. on the regime.
Putin has visited Syria only once before as president, in December 2017 where he – prematurely, it turned out – signaled an end to Russia’s military intervention.
On Friday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Trump of violating international law by ordering the killing of Soleimani.
“Lavrov stressed that the purposeful actions of a U.N. member state on eliminating officials of another U.N. member state, especially on the territory of a third sovereign state without giving it prior notice, blatantly violate the principles of international law and should be condemned,” the foreign ministry in Moscow said after Lavrov spoke by phone with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
The same day, Assad sent a cable to Khamenei in which – according to the regime’s SANA news agency – he called the killing “a criminal act committed by the U.S. administration [which] reaffirms its approach of supporting terrorism, destabilizing the region and spreading chaos and law of the jungle in the service of Zionist projects and colonialism in the region and the world as a whole.”