While everyone is keeping an eye on the border between Iran and Iraq, a short distance to the west there is some other interesting activity taking place in Syria. For once, we’re not talking about the Kurds and the Turks in the northeastern region of the largely collapsed country, but back in the capital of Damascus. Syria’s tyrannical leader, Bashar al-Assad, has a special visitor in town. Russian President Vladimir Putin has stopped by for a chat. What could those two possibly have to talk about? (Associated Press)

Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Damascus on Tuesday for a meeting with President Bashar Assad, a rare visit that comes amid soaring tensions between Iran and United States following the U.S. drone strike that killed a top Iranian general.

While the official statements made during the previously unannounced visit made no mention of the killing last week of Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the timing was conspicuous…

Putin and Assad met at a Russian command post in Damascus, and were presented with military reports on the situation in different regions of Syria, said Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov.

The AP’s description of the timing of this meeting as being “conspicuous” is a bit of an understatement. Assad is one of the bad guys and we have virtually no diplomatic contacts with the Syrian regime. But Syria has become incredibly important to Russia and Putin has been willing to invest heavily in the effort to keep Assad in power. Russia now controls a warm-water port at Tartus, something they have long desired. They also now have a strong and apparently permanent military presence at bases around various parts of the country.

Keep in mind that Iran’s now-deceased Qassem Soleimani was widely credited with galvanizing the pro-Syrian militias and funding their efforts at crushing the opposition in the Syrian civil war. It’s long been in Iran’s best interests to remain close to Assad as their general goals in the region align. The Russians are friendly with both nations in the modern era.

With Assad now effectively acting as Putin’s puppet, Russia continues to grow its new, unofficial alliance of authoritarian regimes around the world. In that region, they are aligned with Iran and Syria, along with increasingly strong ties to our former NATO ally, Turkey. That leaves the Kurds and the remaining American forces in Iraq effectively surrounded by Putin allies.

And as we’ve discussed here before, Putin has drawn North Korea and Venezuela into his sphere of influence. And China has apparently made both economic and military peace with Russia, while not being subservient to them.

All of this adds up to a very disturbing picture in general terms, and Putin’s arrival in Damascus at such a fraught time only adds to the anxiety. NATO’s influence in the region clearly seems to be decreasing and Israel is looking increasingly isolated. Many of the chess pieces on the world board have been shifting, and not in a good way for western interests.