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This was the week when Vladimir Putin set out to show the extent of Russian influence across the Middle East.
As the world watched the ongoing confrontation between Washington and Tehran, the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, set off on a tour of the Middle East, visiting both Syria and Turkey.
The Syria trip, only Putin’s second since Russia’s decisive intervention in the Syrian civil war, came as a surprise. Announcing the visit, the Kremlin website referred to the fact that it took place on the day, January 7, that Orthodox Christians celebrate Christmas.
That would have been reason enough for the president to visit the country where Russia has a significant military presence.
The timing of the trip was not all about the religious festival.
With increasing uncertainty in the region, Putin’s arrival in Syria was designed to give the world an impression of Russia as a forceful and reliable ally.
Syria Thanks Russia For Military Assistance
“The Syrian President expressed gratitude to Russia and the Russian military for their assistance,” as the Kremlin phrased it. Without that assistance, beginning in 2015, the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, might not have held onto power.
Assad now seems secure, and Putin’s presence served to remind the world of the role that Russia played in making it that way.
The visit to Damascus was followed January 8 by a trip to Turkey. There was a ceremony at which Putin and his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayip Erdogan, formally launched the TurkStream pipeline, which will send Russian gas to Europe via Turkey (about 3 billion cubic meters per year, Reuters reported.)
New Gas Pipeline Bypasses Ukraine
The new pipeline will reduce Russian reliance on Ukraine as a gas export route. That had been a source of confrontation between the two countries even before Russia annexed Crimea from its neighbour in 2014.
In addition to opening the pipeline, Putin and Erdogan also discussed the situation in one of the Middle East’s other conflict zones: Libya. The two leaders called for a ceasefire in the strife-torn nation to begin January 12.
Tensions are high in the Middle East following the killing by the United States of the Iranian military commander, Qassem Soleimani, in Iraq.
Putin’s agenda on this trip— Syria; Turkey; energy; diplomacy—reflects Russian ambitions right across the region: ambitions that Russia will continue to seek opportunities to realize, and to extend.