Oped: While we were sleeping, Russia, Iran and Turkey made an ominous deal

Andrew Malcolm
Tribune News Service

There can't possibly be that many Russians of importance left to sanction. But President Donald Trump has laid more economic restrictions on Russia, Russians and Russian companies, described as the most punitive yet, for a variety of evil-doings in recent years.

Forget for a moment that every president loudly announces such sanctions, which then are largely forgotten by everybody. If there's any Russian (or Iranian or North Korean) dense enough to still keep assets in these United States, maybe they don't really care about them. And if President Vladimir Putin has buckled to pull troops out of Crimea after four years of escalating U.S. sanctions, no one's noticed.

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All this, mixed with Trump's poorly-explained trade tariff tiff with China and his abnormal normal White House chaos, has managed successfully to distract from development of an unholy Middle Eastern alliance that should cause serious concerns, not just for the White House.

Last week Putin, Iran's President Hassan Rouhani and Turkey's strongman Tayyip Erdogan completed a successful summit in Ankara by announcing their new partnership to establish a ceasefire in Syria and to start rebuilding the war-ravaged land that is ravaged in large part by their own forces.

All this without even an FYI to the U.S. administration that once played a major role in the oil-rich region. It's a continuation of Putin's deft power-plays to restore Russian influence well beyond its own borders and especially within the tumultuous Middle East. It's been years in the making and benefited from Barack Obama's inept inactions.

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Remember Obama's unscripted red-line threat about Syria's use of chemical weapons on its own people? With Russian knowledge, Syria's Bashir al-Assad defiantly did just that. Obama didn't really want to do anything. He looked weak. Putin offered to broker the phony destruction of all those lethal gases, which bailed out Obama and cemented Putin's influence in Syria.

Last year Assad gassed civilians again. Within 48 hours on Trump's orders, five dozen cruise missiles devastated the launching airbase. They repeated the attack this month. Trump has threatened new retaliation.

Nonetheless, Trump's instincts are to abandon the region, which much of his staunch base approves. He recently announced a complete pullout from Syria of about 2,000 special operations advisers helping Kurdish and Syrian rebels fight Assad and destroy ISIS, now holed up in one last hardened stronghold.

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As they had with Trump's desire to leave Afghanistan, his advisers, mainly Defense Secretary James Mattis convinced him to walk that back. Their valid argument being such hasty retreats would leave the same power vacuum as Obama's hasty 2011 troop withdrawal from Iraq, which allowed ISIS to spawn and flourish in the first place. Not to mention once again abandoning loyal Kurdish fighters.

Turkey is allegedly a NATO ally, allowing U.S. planes to fly against ISIS from Incirlik. But Erdogan regards the Kurds as terrorists and has now thrown in his lot with Putin and Iran. NATO's European members will not do much because Turkey currently houses 3.5 million Syrian refugees and if Erdogan opened that human spigot, they would flood into Europe causing economic and political turmoil.

To cement Russian influence in Turkey, Putin is building a $20 billion nuclear reactor there and has just sold Erdogan $2.5 billion in sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles to use against someone's planes.

That's the same self-serving economic infiltration Putin used to tie Iran's militant mullahs to Moscow. As the world's largest exporter of terror, Iran has sent 100,000 troops to bolster Assad. There, they buy influence with Damascus, get priceless combat experience and advanced training from Russian advisers for use someday against someone.

Iran now has a direct landline through Syria to support its terror partners in Hezbollah right on the borders of Israel, where Trump may visit next month. Much as Iran is arming and supporting Yemen's Houthi rebels to destabilize Saudi Arabia.

Still pending this spring is Trump's anticipated decision to abandon completely Obama's nuclear deal with Iran. Tehran maintains that will free it to resume full-scale weapons development, which will likely prompt the Saudis to do the same. Trump has threatened to — wait for it — slap sanctions back on Iran.

Sound familiar?

Andrew Malcolm is an author and veteran national and foreign correspondent covering politics since the 1960s.