Russia assumes mantle of supreme power broker in Middle East as US retreats from Syria

Roland Oliphant
Oleg Blokhin, a Russian war correspondent, filmed himself inside a hastily abandoned US base in Manbij on Tuesday morning

Russia’s status as the undisputed power-broker in the Middle East was cemented as Vladimir Putin continued a triumphant tour of capitals traditionally allied to the US and Russian troops entered a hastily evacuated US base in Syria

The Russian president, who spent Monday in Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, landed in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday morning.

He was met at the airport by Abu Dhabi’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan and fighter jets coloured the sky white blue and red, the colours of the Russian tricolour, as they traveled to the Royal palace.  

Mr Putin presented the crown prince with an endangered gyrfalcon bred at a Russian breeding centre in Kyrgyzstan. 

It is Mr Putin’s first visit to the UAE since 2007. 

Russian and Syrian forces driving near Manbij on Tuesday morning Credit: OMAR SANADIKI/ REUTERS

Part of the visit is about business. Russia’s sovereign wealth fund said a dozen agreements worth more than $1.3 billion were to be signed during the visit. 

But the visit also underscores an attempt by Russia to strengthen ties with traditional US allies in the Middle East following Donald Trump’s decision last week to pull troops out of Syria

The move leaves Moscow the decisive military power in Syria, and US allies, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are likely to see friendship with Moscow as important if they are to contain regional rivals Iran and Turkey. 

Kremlin has worked closely with Iran to prop-up Bashar Assad in Syria, leaving it with valuable diplomatic leverage on either side of the conflict between Tehran and Riyadh. 

The shift in power has implications for conflicts in the wider region. 

Mr Putin said he and his opposite numbers were "intensively coordinating in the regional and international issues that are related to the situation in Syria, Libya, Yemen and the situation in the Arab Gulf.”

A symbolic confirmation of Russia’s new role as regional power broker came when Russian forces entered a hastily abandoned US base in Syria. 

The Russian take over of the base near the strategic town of Manbij was captured by Oleg Blokhin, a veteran war correspondent who has often embedded with the Russian army and private military contractors in Syria, who filmed himself exploring the base on Tuesday morning. 

“Good morning everyone from Manbij!” he said in the video. “I’m standing in an American base. There were here just yesterday, and today it is us. Let’s have a look at how they lived here.”

In a second video he played with raising and lowering the electronically-operated barrier at a base checkpoint. “It’s all in working order,” he remarked. 

Vladimir Putin gave Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of Abu Dhabi an endangered Gyrfalcon, from a Russian breeding centre in Kyrgyzstan Credit:  Alexei Nikolsky/TASS

The American-led coalition later confirmed it had abandoned the area as part of staged a “deliberate withdrawal” from northeast Syria. 

“We are out of Manbij,” it said on Twitter. 

The move puts Russian troops in a buffer zone between regime forces and Turkish-backed rebels. It is speculated that they may also assume a role separating Kurdish militias from Turkish forces. 

Russian and Syrian regime forces moved into strategic border cities in northern Syria after the formerly US-allied Kurdish-led administration of the region struck a deal to halt Turkey’s offensive there.

Under the agreement, troops loyal to the Assad government and backed by Russian forces are to secure the border with Turkey, allowing Damascus to regain control of a region it lost nearly ten years ago. 

Such an outcome may satisfy Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who launched his offensive into Syria on Wednesday last week in a bid to crush the autonomous administration in the area run by the Kurdish YPG, which has links to the banned Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party. 

However, in a sign of tensions with Turkey, Mr Putin’s Syria envoy said that Russia considered the Turkish military operation in northern Syria “unacceptable.”

Asked whether the Kremlin had given Ankara a green light for the operation in advance, Alexander Lavrentiev said: "No. We had always urged Turkey to show restraint and always considered some kind of military operation on Syrian territory unacceptable."