Russia: Vladimir Putin’s show of strength

Middle East tour underlines decline in US influence and Russia’s increasing clout

 

Vladimir Putin’s one-day tour of the Middle East on Monday may not in itself have altered the regional dynamic, but it underlined two important and related trends: the decline in American influence and Russia’s increasing clout as a regional power-broker.

On his first visit to Syria since Moscow intervened in the conflict in September 2015, Putin declared that Russia had succeeded in its mission and announced a partial withdrawal of troops. Russia, alongside the Syrian army, had destroyed Islamic State, “the most capable group of international terrorists”, in just two years. Few believe the defeat of the jihadists was the chief reason for Russia’s intervention. Of more importance to Moscow was the survival of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, and that too has been achieved. Two years ago, the west insisted on Assad’s departure as a condition for peace talks; today that call is seldom heard. Moreover, Moscow will keep its military base at Khmeimin and has secured its naval facility at Tartus on the Mediterranean.

The Putin-Erdogan meeting, the seventh in 2017, showed how relations have recovered in the year since the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey

From Syria, Putin flew to Egypt, where he and President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi agreed to resume direct tourist flights between their countries and moved closer to a deal for Russia to build a $30 billion nuclear power plant in Egypt. In Ankara, meanwhile, Putin and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan appeared to make progress on the sale of an advanced Russian S-400 air missile defence system to Turkey. The Putin-Erdogan meeting, the seventh in 2017, showed how relations have recovered in the year since the assassination of the Russian ambassador in Turkey.

The symbolism of Putin’s successful tour will not be lost on the United States. Washington’s search for a coherent Middle East policy predates Donald Trump’s presidency, but Trump’s decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a move Moscow condemned – and his lack of any new ideas on the Syrian crisis have highlighted the White House’s loss of interest in dealing with the region’s problems. Putin has shown himself more than willing to fill the space the Americans are leaving behind.

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