Vladimir Putin has many things to toast internationally, but domestic unrest is growing. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin
Vladimir Putin has many things to toast internationally, but domestic unrest is growing. Photo: Reuters/Sergei Karpukhin

The latest ‘upgrade’ of sanctions against Russia by the Obama administration was announced on Tuesday, which also happened to be the day the Russian-Turkish-Iranian troika of foreign ministers met in Moscow to discuss Syria. Was it sheer coincidence? Or, was it President Barack Obama’s act of revenge?

According to Wall Street Journal, the Obama administration added on Tuesday to its sanctions list Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian restaurateur who has come to be known as chef to President Vladimir Putin. Washington claims Prigozhin is the financial backer of pro-Russian propaganda.

Prigozhin is based out of St. Petersburg and owns a catering company that has “extensive business dealings with the Russian Ministry of Defense and provision of support to top Russian officials.” He previously owned a chain of fast food restaurants called Blindonalts, which served “pancakes and mini-pies stuffed with jam, meat, or potatoes.”

Obama’s sanctions prohibit Prigozhin from entering the US and conducting business with any American individuals or organizations.

Clearly, Washington has run out of ways to hit at Putin and time is running out for the lame duck president – just 28 days left before Obama retires.

Without doubt, the Obama administration feels humiliated that Russia, Turkey and Iran have formed a platform to discuss a Syrian settlement, which excludes the US. More than the humiliation, it is damaging politically.

Senator John McCain said in a hard-hitting statement on Wednesday that what is unfolding is “the predictable consequence of President Obama’s reckless policy of disengagement from the Middle East. And it is ironic that after touting the power of diplomacy for years, President Obama’s refusal to back diplomacy with strength has left the United States without even a seat at the diplomatic table.”

Washington had got wind of the trilateral initiative in Moscow but was taken by surprise at the speed with which it took off. The ‘trilateral’ was planned for December 27 but was brought forward by a full week without explanation.

The US State Department put a brave face on what amounts to a Russian-Turkish-Iranian “containment strategy” against the US. It tamely welcomed the joint statement issued in Moscow on Tuesday.

The joint statement formalizes a growing convergence between Moscow, Ankara and Tehran. The base line is their unequivocal support for a Syria that is not only sovereign, independent and united with its territorial integrity intact, but also is “multi-ethnic, multi-religious, non-sectarian, democratic and secular.”

At the core is a Russian-Turkish-Iranian willingness to facilitate intra-Syrian peace talks and to be the guarantors of a prospective agreement between the Syrian government and the opposition.

The three countries have got rid of the US mentorship in Geneva by agreeing to hold the talks in Astana, Kazakhstan.

In effect, they marginalized the US’ role so long as Obama remains in power. Washington’s capacity to play a spoiler’s role in the coming four weeks or to force Donald Trump to follow Obama’s footfalls on Syria will be severely restricted.

Significantly, the defense ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran also met in Moscow on Tuesday with a view to give strong security underpinnings to the convergence at the political and diplomatic level.

Following the Moscow meeting, at a joint press conference with his Turkish and Iranian colleagues, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov made it clear that the new trilateral format will be the “most effective” charioteer henceforth of intra-Syrian peace talks.

He said Russia, Turkey and Iran are “probably better prepared than others to contribute to the settlement of the Syrian crisis with real actions, not just words”. Lavrov debunked the Russia-US format as an unproductive exercise, voicing Russia’s “negative perceptions” of it.

To drive the point home, the Kremlin spokesman announced on Thursday that the dialogue with the US across the board remains frozen, while Moscow “looks forward to a more constructive approach” under the Trump administration.

Indeed, the US’ reputation on the Arab Street has taken a bad hit. The Obama administration’s best hope would be to wean Turkey away from the orbit of Russian influence.

But then, there is total breakdown of trust between President Erdogan and the Obama administration. Erdogan alleged on Tuesday that the assassin of Russian ambassador Andrey Karlov did not act alone and is “obviously” a member of the cult founded by the Islamic preacher Fetullah Gulen living in exile in the US.

Erdoğan said the assassin’s “international links” were being investigated by the Turkish intelligence. Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu also told US secretary of state John Kerry in a phone conversation that Turkey and Russia “know” about Gulen’s involvement in the murder in Ankara on Tuesday.

Both Moscow and Ankara suspect that the assassination of the Russian ambassador likely aimed at disrupting the Turkish-Russian rapprochement.

The US state department spokesman John Kirby has furiously retorted that “the rhetoric coming out of Turkey with respect to American involvement/support, tacit or otherwise, for this unspeakable assassination… is a ludicrous claim, absolutely false, there’s no basis of truth in it whatsoever… any notion that the United States was in any way supportive of this or behind this or even indirectly involved is absolutely ridiculous.”

But then, the damage has been done. Suffice it to say, this is not the appropriate time for the Obama administration to make overtures to Erdogan over Syria.

On a more fundamental plane, the Moscow meet on Tuesday underscored that Turkey is preparing to bury its past Syria policies. In the joint statement with Russia and Iran, Turkey implicitly accepts that the toppling of the Assad regime is not the agenda in Syria.

There could be a carefully worked out give-and-take here in the nature of some sort of understanding over the future trajectory of Turkey’s military intervention in northern Syria code named Euphrates Shield.

Conceivably, Turkey gets more space to prevent an independent Kurdish entity taking shape along its border regions with Syria. Turkey is stepping up the military offensive to capture the strategically important city of al-Bab.

US spokesman Kirby strove to convey a sense of de javu over the Moscow statement. He hinted that “there’s plenty of fault lines in Syria… there’s tension between Kurds and Turks. There’s tensions between Russia and Turkey. There’s tensions between Arabs and non-Arabs.”

He has a point there. But the big question is: Are four weeks sufficient enough for the Obama administration to exacerbate these fault lines? The answer is a categorical ‘No’ and the regional capitals understand it.

Unsurprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi telephoned Putin on Wednesday to discuss the strengthening of their countries’ cooperation with Russia in the fight against terrorism.

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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