Putin seizes on Trump’s Syria retreat to cement Middle East role
As the Russian mercenary slowly rotated his mobile phone, the camera captured rows of tents and abandoned equipment at a deserted US army base close to the Syrian city of Manbij.
“Good morning from Manbij,” private contractor Oleg Blokhin said in the video posted on Twitter. “Yesterday it was them here, and today it is us.” Russia’s ministry of defence confirmed that the base was now controlled by Syrian forces allied with Moscow.
The change of occupancy underlines how Russia has become the dominant foreign power in Syria, using the country’s more than eight-year war to project its influence in the Middle East by seizing on US reticence and leveraging a network of alliances.
As withdrawing US army trucks sped past Syrian army vehicles heading in the opposite direction on Monday, Vladimir Putin was in Saudi Arabia for his first visit to the kingdom in 12 years, courting Washington’s most important ally in the Arab world.
“All our co-operation is aimed at strengthening peace and security in the region,” Mr Putin told Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Russia and its allies in the Syrian government have been able to consolidate their gains after a decision by the US to withdraw troops and protection for their Kurdish allies based there. As a subsequent Turkish invasion bore down on their cities, the Kurdish militants were forced to strike an alliance with the Russia-backed Syrian army, paving the way for Damascus to reassert control of its large territory.
The deal, unthinkable until a few days before, bears the hallmarks of Mr Putin’s gambit in the Middle East since a high-risk military intervention in 2015 swung the Syrian war in favour of president Bashar al-Assad: rebuild Russia’s regional influence through flexible friendships and ruthless pragmatism that often embraces bitter foes.
“Russia rarely tells others what to do. It understands what each of them wants the most, and what each might afford to do without, and then seeks mutual accommodation on that basis,” Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said of its regional strategy.
Mr Putin’s heavily choreographed trip to the Gulf to visit two critical US allies while the crisis in Syria raged highlights the breadth of the Kremlin’s engagement with the Middle East.
On Tuesday, as Mr Putin talked with Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, his special envoy for Syria, Alexander Lavrentiev, said that Moscow was simultaneously brokering negotiations between Damascus and Ankara to head off a military clash.
Arab Gulf states have worried about US disengagement from the region ever since the Obama administration was perceived to have dropped Hosni Mubarak, the former Egyptian president, as he faced a popular uprising that toppled him in 2011.
Those worries intensified in 2013, when Washington decided not to enforce a “red line” set on Syria using chemical weapons.
Donald Trump’s election was seen in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi as a chance to reset relations and they welcomed his tough stance against Tehran. But doubts resurfaced after Mr Trump chose to abort strikes against Iran after a US drone was downed in June, highlighting his reluctance to use force against Tehran.
Mr Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria — a move expected to embolden the Assad regime and Iran — has been widely criticised as the latest sign of US policy incoherence. Meanwhile, relations between the Gulf and Russia have warmed despite Moscow being on the opposing side to Riyadh and Abu Dhabi in Syria.
“[Russia and the UAE] are getting closer on all fronts, including Syria,” said Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a Dubai-based political commentator. “Russia is seen as the best way to counter Iranian influence in Syria, and to help stabilise the situation there.”
While the deal with the Kurdish forces, struck on Sunday evening at a Russian air base in Khmeimim, expands Damascus’s authority and cements Moscow’s role as the pre-eminent powerbroker in the Syrian conflict, it is not without dangers.
Uncertainty clouds its implementation and whether or not it will halt the Turkish advance. The rapid redrawing of alliances also means that Russian troops fighting alongside Mr Assad’s are theoretically at risk of being drawn into a conflict against Turkey, or forces backed by Ankara.
Russia’s defence ministry said on Tuesday that its troops were patrolling the contact line between Turkish and Syrian forces outside Manbij, while Ankara has vowed to continue the assault despite US sanctions announced on Monday.
Analysts say the agreement between Damascus and the Kurdish forces hands more responsibility of the larger conflict to Moscow. By committing Russian troops, fighter jets and bombers to a larger battlefield, it could drag Mr Putin deeper into a conflict he has been keen to replace with a political settlement.
Russia also risks upsetting Ankara, which is both a military partner and a Nato member, by opposing the invasion: relations between the countries were frozen for a year after Turkey shot down a Russian jet in 2015, but have been rebuilt in the past three years through co-operation in Syria and energy and defence deals.
“Russia’s challenge now is to help work out an arrangement among three players: Turkey, the Kurds, and Syria: Hard, but not impossible,” said Mr Trenin. “It looks like Russia’s military deployment and diplomatic involvement in the Middle East will become permanent.”
In addition to the territorial gain for Mr Assad, Moscow’s role in brokering the deal will allow it to portray Washington’s abandonment of the Kurds as evidence that the US is an untrustworthy ally.
It also ushers in a potential solution to a problem long overlooked by Moscow in its post-conflict road map. The Kurdish fighters’ previous alliance with the US was an obstacle to negotiations with Damascus. Russia had largely excluded the group from a stalled process aimed at drawing up a new constitution.