Russian President Vladimir Putin

Against the backdrop of the Khashoggi affair, Putin must be smiling

If Washington cannot refresh its Middle East policy, particularly on Syria, Putin may use it as an opportunity to gain more influence in the region

Let me explain: King Salman had to get involved in the Khashoggi affair by calling President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and U.S. President Donald Trump. After all, it is no secret that many people hold Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responsible for Khashoggi’s disappearance.

In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia’s international image has been seriously stained. Western governments and media have also mounted the pressure on Riyadh. The governments of Germany, France and the U.K. issued a joint statement urging the Saudis to explain themselves.

Although President Trump does not want to lose Riyadh’s business to Russia or China, he finds himself in a tight spot ahead of next month’s midterm elections. In the end, Trump said he would “severely punish” the Saudis if Khashoggi were proven dead. The Saudis, however, responded to Trump’s warnings by threatening with more serious retaliatory actions.

Riyadh mouthpiece Al Arabiya fueled a heated debate by suggesting that Saudi Arabia could retaliate in more than 30 ways – among others by increasing the oil price to $100 or even $200, use Chinese Yuan rather than the greenback in oil sales, reconcile with Iran, reduce intelligence cooperation with the West, allow Russia to set up a military base and halt arms purchases from the U.S. In other words, the Saudis threaten to hurt the U.S. economy and closer cooperation with Russia and Iran. Riyadh’s reaction shows just how seriously the Khashoggi scandal has damaged Saudi interests.

Is Washington doing any better though? The answer is no.

Trump will presumably exploit the situation to force the Saudis into making new concessions – which is why he dispatched Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Riyadh. Yet the situation is far more complicated. The Khashoggi affair doesn’t just show that Saudi Arabia’s greedy crown prince is out of his depth, but at the same time, it highlights the fragility of Washington’s partnership with Riyadh. The House of Saud has not forgotten Trump’s remarks about them being toppled within two weeks in the absence of U.S. support. This sense of uncertainty forces the Saudis to diversify its relations with the U.S. – by knocking on Moscow’s door.

Having sold the Saudis on a pricey alliance and threatened Riyadh on a number of occasions, Trump forces even traditional U.S. allies to turn to Russia and China. Yet he desperately needs Saudi Arabia and Israel to be in Washington’s corner when he unveils the “deal of the century” later this year. The problem is that the Saudis, having been disproportionately pampered by the Trump administration, are drunk with power and out of control.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, on the other hand, patiently waits for Trump to make mistakes and employs diplomacy to exploit them. As a leader who knows the Western alliance’s weaknesses, he never misses an opportunity. In recent years, Putin has taken a series of steps to strengthen Moscow’s hand in the Middle East – as he did during the Obama presidency. He recently hosted Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and had his aides hold talks with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Washington has been withdrawing from its former sphere of influence, and the Russians replaced the U.S. at a low cost. To be clear, Putin’s influence is not limited to Saudi Arabia and Egypt. When the White House was busy celebrating Andrew Brunson’s release, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov continued making statements about the east of the Euphrates. He accused the Americans of creating a de facto state through the proxy of thePeople’s Protection Units (YPG) militants just as many observers expected a rapprochement between Turkey and the U.S. following the Brunson episode.

We have no way of knowing whether Lavrov’s timing was pure coincidence. Yet the Russians know perfectly well that talking about the east of the Euphrates could fuel tensions between Ankara and Washington. The U.S. must closely monitor Moscow’s efforts to mount pressure on the YPG militants. Turkey considers the YPG, the designated terrorist organization PKK’s Syrian branch, an existential threat. Erdoğan has repeatedly said that Turkey will send troops to the area when it gets the chance. If Moscow presents the Turks with an opportunity in Tal Rifaat or the east of the Euphrates, Ankara’s relations with Washington could once again be strained.

[Daily Sabah, 18 October 2018]

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