Con Coughlin: ‘US has given Middle East on a plate to Putin’

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New player: Vladimir Putin has been in demand in the Middle East. Photo: Reuters
New player: Vladimir Putin has been in demand in the Middle East. Photo: Reuters

The one world figure who has emerged as the undisputed beneficiary of Donald Trump’s decision to disengage from the Syrian conflict is his Russian opposite number, Vladimir Putin.

The precise nature of the relationship between the American and Russian leaders remains one of the great unknowns of the Trump administration.

And if Mr Trump was minded to give Mr Putin an early Christmas present, it is difficult to imagine a more bountiful gesture than gifting the Russian leader the entire Middle East on a plate.

One of the core strategic principles that has driven American foreign policy since the end of World War II has been to deny Moscow access to the region’s oil wealth.

Now, thanks to Mr Trump’s mercurial conduct over the fate of the Syrian Kurds, it seems that – to judge by the speed with which Mr Putin has moved to consolidate Moscow’s influence in the region – the American leader has given Russia carte blanche to assume the role that was once Washington’s exclusive preserve.

Even before Mr Trump’s potentially calamitous decision to acquiesce to Turkey’s long-held desire to occupy Kurdish-held territory in northern Syria, he had been critical of America’s involvement in conflicts in the Middle East, which he claimed had cost American taxpayers $7tn in recent decades.

Despite the cross-party outcry over his betrayal of allies, Mr Trump’s great unhappiness with America’s continued involvement in the region appears to remain undimmed. In one tweet he declared: “The stupid endless wars, for us, are ending!” His mission is now to “slowly and carefully” bring home “our great soldiers and military”, fulfilling his campaign promise to end America’s involvement in costly overseas military adventures. Precisely how this will affect another of the White House’s key objectives – its much-vaunted peace plan for the Middle East – remains to be seen.

Russia’s stature as an important player in the region’s affairs has been steadily on the increase since Moscow decided to intervene militarily on behalf of Syrian dictator Bashar al Assad, helping to turn the tide in the Assad regime’s favour.

At a time when Western democracies are reluctant to become involved in regional conflicts the fact that Moscow is prepared to act decisively has not been lost on the region’s rulers. Hence Mr Putin can now claim credit for brokering the deal between the Syrian Kurds and the Assad regime, which may well succeed in thwarting Turkey’s military incursion. Mr Putin has found himself in great demand in many other Arab capitals in the region. Earlier this week he received a warm welcome in Saudi Arabia, where he met Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, before moving on for talks with the UAE. Following Washington’s lack of enthusiasm for responding to the recent attacks on Saudi’s oil infrastructure, Arab leaders have concluded that, in terms of safeguarding their security, Moscow could prove to be a better bet. However, Russia’s support for the Assad regime, which is widely reviled by the rest of the Arab world, has deepened the Kremlin’s relationship with Iran, which is also at loggerheads with other Arab nations. For Russia to deepen its stake in the Middle East, therefore, it needs to demonstrate that its relationships with Damascus and Tehran are nothing more than a marriage of convenience.

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