Russia gets the upper hand in the Middle East


After years of long-list sanctions by the U.S. and the EU to Russia and huge efforts to stop Putin, who would have believed that they would hand over the reins to him?

Right after an assassin shot Andrey Karlov, the Russian ambassador to Turkey, in Ankara last week, many were quick to speculate the shooting would initiate a huge crisis between Russia and Turkey comparing the killing with Franz Ferdinand's assassination in 1914, which triggered World War I.

Russia and Turkey, a long-time member of NATO, back opposing sides in the more than six-year-old civil war in Syria. The two, who did not fight each other after World War I and have developed strategic relations over the last decade, came to a point of freezing relations in November 2015 after a crisis triggered by the Turkish military shooting down a Russian jet that violated Turkish air space during the aerial bombing campaign of Russia against Syrian opposition positions.

The two countries sought to resolve the crisis and mend ties after several months. The talks between Turkey and Russia gained momentum in the wake of the failed Gülenist coup attempt on July 15, while Turkey lost patience with its Western allies, who have repeatedly let Ankara down again and again over the few last years. The feeble reaction from the West to the coup attempt and the U.S.'s attempts to whitewash the crimes of Fetullah Gülen, the leader of the Gülenists, which was followed by the support given by Western countries to the outlawed PKK's Syrian offshoot the Democratic Union Party (PYD), ignited a new wave of anti-American and anti-Western sentiment among the Turkish public, even with long-time nationalist and secular opponents of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government.

Despite the predictions of an emerging conflict between Russia and Turkey after the assassination, the leaders of both countries immediately gave messages of calm, peace and unity. Russian President Vladimir Putin and President Erdoğan both condemned the attack as a "provocation" planned to damage their relations. While the shooter, Mevlüt Mert Altıntaş, who was identified as a member of the Gülenist Terror Group (FETÖ), Turkish authorities pointed out the leads regarding the assassin's foreign connections. Several Russian politicians, in the meantime, claimed the West was responsible for orchestrating the assassination. Some said it was the "NATO secret services" that designed the shooting.Two Turkish pilots, who were arrested over links to the July 15 coup attempt, are believed to have played a role in the downing of the Russian jet last year. It indicated then that the shooting down of the Russian jet was not ordered and performed through the chain of command. Turkey was right that the Russian jet violated its airspace but the downing of it stirred up the tensions in the region and it limited Turkey's efforts to reduce the chaos and violence in Syria. Putin said at the annual press conference last week, "Frankly, I used to be skeptical about claims that our jet was shot down without an order from Turkey's top leadership but rather by people who wanted to damage Russian-Turkish ties. But the attack on the ambassador by a special operations officer got me thinking: I feel now it is possible that destructive elements could have found their way into social structures, including the law enforcement and the army," revealing that he has been getting closer to the fact that the Gülenists, who are protected by Washington no matter what the allegations are, infiltrated Turkey's state apparatus years ago in order to try to control the state's domestic and foreign affairs.

It will not be a surprise to see an acceleration in the warming of the two countries' relations as well as the Turkey's shifting orientation toward Russia and away from the West after last week. The high-level Russian-Turkish-Iranian summit over the civil war in Syria, which excludes the U.S., which had led all Syria-related talks, took place as planned the day after the assassination, exemplifying that the assassination could not even pause dialogue. Turkey was pushed to change its priorities in Syria last year as a result of being left alone by its Western allies. Forty days after the failed coup attempt by FETÖ members nested inside the Turkish military, it started the ongoing cross-border operation inside Syria, code named Operation Euphrates Shield, backing the Free Syrian Army (FSA), in order to cleanse its border from Daesh terrorist elements and secure it. The operation aimed to liberate al-Bab, the northern Syrian city, which is located 30 kilometers south of Turkey and administratively belongs to the Aleppo governorate, is getting close to its end, while the city of Aleppo has fully come under the control of the Assad regime after months of storms of airstrikes. Many civilians had to leave their hometown while the opposition fighters withdrew from Aleppo after an agreement was reached between Russia and Turkey.

By the fall of Aleppo, it was proven that the coalition backed the Assad regime, formed by Russia's air force, Iran's Quds Force, Hezbollah and Shiite militias backed by Iran worked hard against the Syrian people, the majority of whom became refugees in the bloody fight. In the meantime, the supporters of the Syrian people, the U.S.-led coalition, first encouraged them to stand up against the non-proportional power of the army and its backers, and then abandon them to their fate. While doing that, the Western countries also left Turkey alone in this mess leaving it no choice but to sit at the table and seek solutions with Russia.

Aleppo may have fallen but looking at the situation on the ground there is no way to end the conflict and bring peace in Syria for as long as Assad stays. Meanwhile, while Barack Obama, who first said Assad must go and repeated it numerous times, leaves the White House to Donald Trump, who explicitly declared that he was ready for a nuclear arms race with Russia, Washington has already left its advantageous position in the Middle East to Moscow. After years of long-list sanctions by the U.S. and the EU to Russia and huge efforts to stop Putin, who would have believed that they would hand over the reins to him?

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