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Playing Russian roulette in the Middle East

Since Monday’s heinous terrorist attack against Russia’s ambassador to Turkey, Andrey Karlov, several analysts have compared his assassination with that of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914, which led to World War I. Despite the similarities – an assassination at a time of high political and regional tension – this analogy does not work.
The assassination of an ambassador or a significant political figure is a serious matter in international affairs. Such incidents can spark a diplomatic crisis that may even lead to war between states, as it did in the past, but only if it fits the conjuncture. If Karlov’s murder had taken place before the normalization of ties between Ankara and Moscow, particularly after Turkey’s downing of a Russian jet in 2015, we would be talking about a different picture today.
The murder did not spark a war because when looking at the brutal and complex picture in Syria and Iraq, the situation in the region already resembles a war in many respects. Some incidents lead to war, and as a result borders are redrawn. There is a long account of how borders were shaped by wars at different stages in modern history.
The focus should move beyond Monday’s incident and onto what repercussions it will have on the regional balance of power and the formation of new borders. Firstly, rather than causing a crisis, the incident provided a pretext for closer cooperation between Russia and Turkey.
Secondly, it is likely to provide Moscow with additional leverage in Syria at expense of the other actors. Given the murder, it would not be wrong to say Russia will be back in the region with potentially bigger gains than ever.
The horrific incident took place in the heart of Turkey, but its impact will be felt in the Syrian arena. It was a direct message for future plans about Syria, at a time when Moscow has increased its international status, and is in close collaboration with Turkey in efforts to evacuate civilians from the ravaged city of Aleppo.
The murder came a day before the Russians, Turks and Iranians – all influential actors in Syria – came together in Moscow for talks on Syria’s future. The meeting became even more crucial as the three countries, which have diverse motivations in Syria, agreed to sit at the negotiating table to find a viable solution to the conflict, despite the provocative terrorist attack on Russia’s envoy.
The incident was an attempt to sabotage the formation of a game-changing alliance between Russia and Turkey, as well as future plans for Syria, in which Russia has a great stake. America’s exclusion from Tuesday’s meeting was telling. Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said this week that almost “every level of dialogue” with the US was frozen. One should read this statement very carefully.
Throughout the post-World War II era, the expansion of Russian influence in the region has been a national security priority for US administrations, even after the iron curtain came down. However, President Barack Obama has handed over the keys of the Middle East to Putin after a tacit agreement between them on Syria and Iraq.
Frustrated with Obama’s reluctant policies in the region, traditional US allies such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Israel are shaping their policies in favor of Moscow. For Russia, having friendly ties with these regional actors allows the expansion of its regional influence. For those countries, good ties with Moscow are crucial for their national interests.
Their shift away from the US toward Russia will reshape the Middle East. While Russia’s star is rising, America’s is fading. Moscow will play a significant role in forming new balances and reshaping regional borders.
While the Obama administration has insisted that Syrian dictator Bashar Assad should go, Putin insists he will stay. The brutal Assad is staying put, and is happy with recent developments. While Obama remained reluctant to deploy US forces in Syria, Russia did not hesitate to provide all means of support to its Syrian ally. This strengthened Russia’s military and political position in Syria.
Obama has lost his allies, and the US has lost leadership of the Middle East to Russia. It is too early to predict the US position in the region once Donald Trump takes office, but for now, it seems Putin has won the risky game of Russian roulette that he played with Obama.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes mainly in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East. She can be reached on Twitter @SinemCngz