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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 18 November 2018

Russia will emerge from US-Turkey fallout as an even more potent actor

Putin stands to gain from a whole array of Trump policies, from trade tensions with Europe to undermining Nato allies, writes David Rothkopf

Presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia pose before their meeting in Ankara earlier this year. Tolga Bozoglu / pool via Reuters
Presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Vladimir Putin of Russia pose before their meeting in Ankara earlier this year. Tolga Bozoglu / pool via Reuters

There is one clear winner from the increased tensions between the United States and Turkey that were ratcheted up this week by, naturally, a tweet from Donald Trump: Vladimir Putin.

Mr Putin seems to be the big beneficiary of a whole array of Trump policies and postures, from trade tensions with Europe and undercutting the Nato alliance, to dragging his feet on implementing sanctions on Russia, to defending Mr Putin’s direct attacks on US democracy.

In the Middle East, Mr Trump has also served Mr Putin’s objectives. He has talked often to Mr Putin about “co-ordinating” approaches to Syria. But this code language is not very hard to figure out. With few exceptions (like the US military rebuffing with prejudice an ill-considered direct attack by Russians against US troops), the Syrian policies out of the White House have all essentially had the US pulling back to enable the Russians to do whatever they wanted to on behalf of themselves and their dependent dictator, the architect of Syria’s catastrophe, Bashar al Assad.

Syria is, of course, one of the areas in which deteriorating US relations with Turkey will help Mr Putin most. As US sanctions weaken the Turkish economy, they will both weaken Turkey’s ability to sustain its opposition to the Assad regime in its last remaining strongholds like Idlib and thereby increase the likelihood of Russia’s success in restoring Mr Al Assad to power throughout the country.

At the same time, paradoxically, were the US-Turkey relationship to continue to circle the drain, it would push Turkey closer to Mr Putin. This would be a big win for the Russian president as Turkey is a Nato member (and a place where the US stores an estimated 50 nuclear warheads as well as the resources associated with forward military deployments like Incirlik airbase).

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Read more from David Rothkopf:

Cyber warfare: The dawn of a new era for which we are thoroughly ill-prepared

Great civilisations are built on the legacy of thought leaders, not warriors

We are witnessing the death throes of the US as the dominant power of the free world

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Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has already begun to hedge his bets with Russia, purchasing Russian missiles and developing closer ties with Mr Putin. His grasp on power in his country despite his authoritarianism and round-ups of thousands of perceived opponents is not so strong that he could afford long-term sanctions from the US without assistance from countries like Russia. So he has triangulated with these major powers, quite effectively so far and as the current impasse with the US illustrates.

It is clear the breakdown of US-Turkish relations was not Mr Erdogan’s plan A. He has long sought to be a hub for natural gas flows from Central Asia that would compete with Russian pipelines to Europe and to maintain a more balanced relationship with the West as well as the East.

When Mr Trump came to power with a Turkish lobbyist, general Mike Flynn as his national security adviser and with Trump-branded properties within his borders, he felt the prospects of a great relationship was on the horizon. Barack Obama had started out the same way, once saying early in his presidency that Mr Erdogan was the world leader he felt closest to.

But with the apprehension of a number of Americans in Mr Erdogan’s round-up of alleged coup-plotters, including an evangelical pastor named Andrew Brunson, the stage was set for worsening relations with Mr Trump.

Yet it was only at the last Nato summit that Mr Trump was fist-bumping Mr Erdogan. And with Mr Trump maintaining good relations with Turkey, even after Mr Erdogan's bodyguards attacked peaceful protesters in Washington DC during the Turkish president's state visit in May 2017, it is worth asking what is really going on here.

Could it be that someone is feeding Mr Trump the narrative that standing tough on Brunson could win him a victory with the Turks – one that seemed nearly achieved in recent negotiations before they broke down? Who would benefit from that – Russia or the US evangelical right? (Communities that are strangely linked in these times.)

Or alternatively, is Mr Trump angry with Mr Erdogan because he thought he could strike a deal that would give him a much-needed foreign policy win – only Mr Erdogan just played a little too hard ball for the American president’s taste and the threat of deepening sanctions was simply a fit of pique?

As of now, we don’t know which of these it is. We just know that one of the most important strategic relations the US or Turkey have is on the rocks, a situation that did not seem likely just weeks ago. And we know, with the fight for Idlib ahead, the timing of US pressure is definitely in Russian interests, as is the tension it causes within the western alliance. So whether Mr Trump is consciously acting on Mr Putin’s recommendation or behalf or not, he is certainly serving his goals, yet again.

And from a practical sense, in a roiling region, that is what matters for now. Russia is likely to emerge from this episode as an even more potent actor in one part of the Middle East.