Putin gains upper hand after pullout of US troops

Russia's military intervention in Syria is a major step in Russian President Vladimir Putin's bid to restore Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's control over all of the country.
Russia's military intervention in Syria is a major step in Russian President Vladimir Putin's bid to restore Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's control over all of the country.PHOTO: REUTERS

MOSCOW • The Turkish troops who poured into Syria to battle Kurdish fighters abandoned by the US may have inadvertently handed Russian President Vladimir Putin a strategic victory in the Middle East.

Less than a week after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ordered the intervention, Russia has manoeuvred to get Syrian government forces into territory held by the Kurds for seven years during the war with American support, until President Donald Trump ordered a troop withdrawal.

It is a major step in Mr Putin's bid to restore Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's control over all of the country after Russia's military intervention tipped the war in his favour.

"Putin has forced his allies and rivals to accept that he has essentially become the architect of the political and military balances in the Syrian conflict," said Mr Ayham Kamel, head of Middle East and North East research at Eurasia Group. "Attempting to manage conflicting Israeli, Iranian, Saudi and Turkish interests in Syria is far from an easy mission, but Putin's power and prestige in the region has grown," he added.

The US sought to regain the initiative on Monday by demanding "an immediate ceasefire" from Mr Erdogan and imposing sanctions that fell short of what some lawmakers in Congress were seeking.

That came a day after the Kurdish-led authority in north-east Syria announced that it had struck a deal with Damascus and Moscow for the Syrian army to protect the northern border with Turkey.

Yesterday, however, Russia's Defence Ministry said Syrian government troops had taken control of the key frontier city of Manbij.

 
 
 

The push by Mr Assad's forces towards the Turkish border signals Russia's intention to curtail the scope of Mr Erdogan's ambitions. It also gives the Kremlin undisputed leadership in shaping Syria's future, bolstering Mr Putin's image in the Middle East, where he has already forged a partnership with Iran, created an oil alliance with Saudi Arabia and built close ties with Egypt.

Mr Putin has also wooed Mr Erdogan, who defied United States opposition to buy Russia's advanced S-400 air-defence system, and they have coordinated efforts to try to resolve the Syrian war despite tensions over the Kurds.

The Russian leader arrived in the United Arab Emirates yesterday after travelling from Saudi Arabia, reinforcing the Kremlin's efforts to exploit waning US influence in the Middle East.

The Turkish attack and US pullback presented a perfect opportunity to achieve Russian goals in Syria and restore central control over the oil-rich north-east, said Moscow-based Middle East expert Elena Suponina. "Russia has always wanted the government to recover control of as much territory as possible," she added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2019, with the headline 'Putin gains upper hand after pullout of US troops'. Print Edition | Subscribe