Russian President Vladimir Putin made an unannounced visit to Damascus, Syria on Tuesday after celebrating Russian Orthodox Christmas (on Jan.7 every year) in St. Petersburg earlier in the day. In a clear signal to the West amid soaring tensions with Iran, Putin attended a high level military briefing at a headquarters in the Syrian capital.
Putin met with Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in what Russia's Interfax acknowledged as "a working trip". The timing of the visit is sure to be noticed in Washington, given it comes amid soaring tensions with Iran over the killing of Qasem Soleimani, and as thousands of additional US troops are deployed to the region ahead of looming potential Iranian reprisal attacks.
It marks Putin's first visit to Syria in two years, the last time being December 2017. As part of this latest visit, the Russian president briefly toured the streets in and around Damascus' city center, where he said it's clear that "peaceful life is returning to the streets of Damascus," according to TASS.
The two leaders also discussed the retaking of all of sovereign Syria, after over the past month Syrian and Russian air operations over Idlib have stepped up dramatically.
"Talking to [Syrian President Bashar] al-Assad, Putin underlined that it can certainly be said now that much ground was covered to restore Syria’s statehood and territorial integrity," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.
"The Syrian president showed appreciation for Russia and the Russian troops’ help in fighting terrorism and restoring peaceful life in Syria," he stressed. "Al-Assad also extended warm wishes to Putin and the whole Russian nation on the occasion of the Christmas," Peskov said.
Putin’s surprise visit to #Syria involved meeting Assad at the Russian forces assembly location in Damascus— EHSANI2 (@EHSANI22) January 7, 2020
Both leaders listened to military briefing by the commander of Russian forces operating in Syria
Putin hailed the “huge progress” made to restore territorial integrity pic.twitter.com/O9qNBn1cuU
Crucially, the ad hoc trip did not fall on Putin's standard schedule of executive level meetings; instead, it was likely initiated to underscore Russia's military commitment to Syria at a moment the White House has vowed to roll back Iranian influence in the Middle East.
Over the past years both Washington and Tel Aviv have consistently condemned Iran's military presence in inside Syria — which had even included past visits by now slain IRGC Quds Force General Qasem Soleimani.
Putin and Assad visited the Marian Cathedral, the oldest Cathedral in Damascus which dates back to the beginning of Christianity pic.twitter.com/OV7uSMzX9G— Ali (@CoolHuh_) January 7, 2020
The trip also comes at a moment that America's continued troop presence in neighboring Iraq is in doubt. Currently, a political fight is emerging in Baghdad and Iraqi parliament, with momentum definitely on the side of those desirous of telling the Americans to leave sovereign Iraqi soil.
Later in the day Tuesday, Putin visited religious and historic sites in Damascus, including famous churches and Umayyad Mosque.