After years battling to assert the Kremlin’s power on the international stage, Vladimir Putin is now on what seems like a victory lap of the Middle East.
On Tuesday, Kremlin-backed forces further stepped up to fill the vacuum left in northern Syria by the US. Russian military police units patrolled the contact line between Syrian and Turkish forces, while Putin-backed Bashar al-Assad troops gained full control of the town of Manbij and surrounding areas, according to a Russian defense ministry statement published on its website.
The fast-shifting geopolitical sands have already handed huge territorial gains to the pro-Moscow Assad government who opportunistically forged a new alliance with US-abandoned Kurds over the weekend.
The unfolding events in northern Syria come after Moscow stayed the course with its ally Assad despite international criticism and sanctions, leaving it as the only force willing and able to protect the Syrian Kurds from a Turkish onslaught. With the US withdrawal increasingly seen as a betrayal of the Kurds, it is the Russians who look like the only reliable allies in this fight.
It was against this backdrop that Putin toured the capitals of two key Gulf states — the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday and Saudi Arabia on Monday.
In Saudi — one of America’s closest allies — the Russian president received a warm welcome during his first visit to the kingdom in over a decade. The Kremlin called it a “return visit” after Saudi’s King Salman visited Moscow in 2017 to broaden the key oil producers’ relationship.
It is a “natural partnership,” one Russian official told me ahead of this week’s state visit. The “world’s biggest oil exporters cooperating to stabilize the markets”.
But the significance of this burgeoning Russia-Saudi friendship should not be understated or limited to just conversations about oil. [Continue reading…]