How Putin stands to gain, a month after Soleimani's assassination

How Putin stands to gain, a month after Soleimani's assassination
Comment: As the dust settles on the US assassination of Soleimani, Putin is poised to secure influence in the region, writes Nizar Mohamad.
7 min read
29 Jan, 2020
Moscow is a global power, uniquely positioned to negotiate in the region [Getty]
On 3 January, a drone strike authorised by US President Donald Trump assassinated the leader of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) elite Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani.

The operation, in addition to killing the Islamic Republic's 
second most powerful man, took out the deputy commander of Iraq's IRGC-backed Hashd al-Shaabi militias, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. With one directive, Trump effectively shattered the rules of the game that had emerged between Washington and Tehran in the aftermath  of his administration's "maximum pressure" campaign, escalating tensions in the world's most volatile geopolitical arena.

But while civilians are bound to bear the brunt of any reverberations, as evidenced in the downing of the Ukrainian passenger jet, one pragmatic global player stands to gain from the death of Soleimani: Russian president Vladimir Putin. For him, this latest US blunder provides an opportunity to further penetrate the region.

It is no secret that Russia has gradually expanded its footprint in the Middle East over the years. Beginning in Syria, Moscow's strategic partnership with Tehran developed as a result of their joint efforts to prop up the emaciated regime of Bashar al-Assad in Damascus, which had all but collapsed during the Syrian civil war.

Cooperation between the two players reached its height in October 2015 shortly after Putin militarily intervened in Syria, a decision that was allegedly motivated by the 
advice of Soleimani himself, who had travelled to Russia to meet with him a few months earlier.

Since 2015, the Russian-Iranian nexus of cooperation has tipped the scales in favour of Assad. Through their support for his regime - often in the form of relentless airstrikes and attacks on civilian populations - Moscow and Tehran fractured and effectively quarantined the opposition while lobbying endlessly to rehabilitate the disgraced Syrian regime into the regional order.

For him, this latest US blunder provides an opportunity to further penetrate the region

However, significant cleavages have since emerged in the Moscow-Tehran partnership owing primarily to their competition over the fate of post-war Syria. Putin's apprehensions over Iran's campaign to dominate Damascus by strategically embedding its network of militias, commanders, and businessmen led to Russian attempts to purge Iranian influence from the institutions of the Syrian state.

This intra-alliance rivalry was on full display by early 2019, when Putin began accelerating campaigns to restructure the Syrian regime's military and security apparatus. He even went as far as to sponsor warlord Suhail al-Hasan's Tiger Forces against Maher al-Assad, Bashar's younger brother and leader of the Syrian military's elite Fourth Armoured Division. Maher's perceived proximity to Iran prompted Putin to instigate efforts to dislodge him as part of a wider process to forge a centralised and cohesive Syrian state over which Russia could preside as the uncontested patron.

Against this backdrop, in Syria, Soliemani's death is likely to result in the decline of Iranian influence, effectively fortifying Putin's position in the Kremlin's rivalry with Tehran. A leaked audio recording suggests that militias overseeing military operations in the regime's offensive on Idlib still follow directives laid out by Soleimani.

However, amid uncertainty regarding the 
IRGC's potential for operational recalibration under its new leader, Esmail Qaani, the segments of the Syrian regime's elite that are close to Iran, particularly those within the Alawite officer corps, may feel impelled to gravitate towards Russian sponsorship instead. 

In Iraq, Soleimani's death is likely to generate anti-American sentiment at a time when the country is undergoing a nationalist awakening premised in part on the rejection of foreign interventionThough enveloped in calls to overhaul the US-instituted muhasasa (ethno-confessional quota) system, the youth-driven protest movement sweeping Baghdad and the southeast has not been overtly anti-US. Instead, demonstrators have broadly directed their resentment towards the country's corrupt political elite, as well as to their subjugation at the hands of Iranian interference in their internal affairs.

Trump's decision to assassinate Soleimani on Iraqi territory elicited a backlash from mostly-Shia parliamentarians in Baghdad, who cited the violation of their sovereignty as a justification for reflexively voting to pass a non-binding resolution aimed at expelling US forces. If Iraqi MPs meant to exploit the incident - and divert attention away from their failure to address the legitimate grievances of the protestors - Trump's threat to impose retaliatory sanctions if US troops are forced to withdraw did just that: it afforded them a convenient distraction.

Additionally, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's outright refusal to acknowledge Iraq's sovereign wishes to evict US troops reinforced in the eyes of many Iraqis the notion of the US as a foreign occupier. Last week, influential Shia cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called for a "million-man march" in Baghdad, prompting hundreds of thousands of Iraqis to demonstrate against the presence of US forces. And on Sunday, rockets fired by unknown actors targeted the US embassy in Baghdad for the third time this month.

As tensions grow, Russia may seek to expand its limited role in Iraq in order to pre-emptively fill the void generated by any sudden US disengagement. Putin has already seized the political opening caused by the region's post-Soleimani tensions to launch talks with Baghdad over the purchase of his country's S-300 missile defense system - a move which if enacted may precipitate US sanctions.

So long as Iran's political elites feel threatened, their reliance on Russian brokerage is reinforced

Even if unimplemented, the spectre of sanctions is sufficient to evoke painful memories of the draconian United Nations sanctions regime of the 1990s, the enforcement of which caused suffering to Iraqis on a genocidal scale. Reopening these old wounds is likely to alienate Iraqis and play into Putin's hands, whose country's relations with Iraq, though minimal, aren't stained by the same legacy of intervention and occupation as those of the US.

Ironically, increased Russian influence, as we have seen in Syria, would in turn compromise Iraq's sovereignty, at a time when its people are fighting to reclaim just that.

In Iran, the assassination of Soleimani triggered three days of national mourning, ostensibly to pay homage to the general's martyrdom. But Tehran's attempts to utilise the funeral processions to shift domestic discontent onto Trump, were short-lived.

A poorly organised funeral event saw at least 56 killed in a stampede. And separately, when Iranian officials did finally acknowledge responsibility for the downing of the Ukrainian airliner, crowds of protesters in Tehran demanded an 
end to the clerical order, a growing sign that the Islamic Republic's inability to cope with hyperinflation, coupled with its authoritarian policies, have made the theocracy deeply unpopular.

As the disconnect between regime and society continues to widen, the periodic outbursts of protests that have occurred since the 
2009 Green Movement will likely continue to increase in frequency and intensity.

So long as Iran's political elites feel threatened, their reliance on Russian brokerage is reinforced, as they pursue avenues to circumvent mounting pressure, particularly in the form of US sanctions.

Read more: The story of Idlib's 'ceasefires' is the story of Syria's war

In December, 
six European states joined a multilateral barter system designed to bypass US sanctions, known as the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges, or Instex.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zariff recently 
extended the platform to India, which in January of 2019 began purchasing Iranian oil in Rupees. These limited transactional victories notwithstanding, Iran's leadership is keenly aware that it requires the Kremlin in its corner to escape isolation: Moscow is a global power - and the only mediator uniquely positioned to negotiate with every country in the region.

At the time of his death, Soleimani was in Iraq as part of a covert diplomatic mission reportedly intended, via Baghdad, to defuse tensions with Saudi Arabia. Had this mission succeeded in establishing a preliminary framework towards regional cooperation, it would have drastically reduced the need for Russian brokerage and may have even potentially laid the groundwork for a geopolitical configuration with less polarity.

But Trump's actions now mean that Russian diplomacy in the region may be viewed as the preferred alternative to American recklessness. As in 
Syria, Putin is poised to once again reap the fruits of Trump's regional missteps.

Nizar Mohamad is an MA student at the University of Waterloo where his research focuses on geopolitical trends in the Middle East's evolving security landscape. His thesis examines the mobilization of pro-government militias in Syria and Iraq, and he is currently co-authoring a chapter on Canadian foreign policy in the Middle East.

Follow him on Twitter: @NizarMohamad1

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.