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Long IslandColumnistsDan Janison

For now, Turkey and Erdogan seem to sway U.S. more than Russia and Putin

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seen on Jan.

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, seen on Jan. 13. Credit: AP/Bingol

From the outset of the Trump administration, Turkish intrigue has rivaled Russian intrigue.

For a while, both story lines involved Michael Flynn, the ex-Army lieutenant general, who boosted the Republican ticket in the 2016 campaign and became Trump's first national security adviser. He was gone weeks later and later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russia.

Federal prosecutors charged Flynn’s former business partner Bijan Kian with illegally lobbying on behalf of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — and trying to get a political nemesis of Erdogan's, Fethullah Gülen, extradited from Pennsylvania.

Despite more than a year of continual White House embarrassment from Flynn's Turkey entanglements, Erdogan's influence with Trump on strategic issues appears intact.

One sign is in Trump's announcement that U.S. troops will soon leave Syria — a move Erdogan had urged the previous week in a phone call, saying the Islamic State group had mostly been defeated.

According to The Associated Press, the call ended with Trump telling Erdogan that the U.S. would pull out, officials said.

A tweet from Trump on Sunday night sounded like more than mere acceptance of Erdogan's advice. It had the ring of a campaign-style endorsement.

"President @RT_Erdogan of Turkey has very strongly informed me that he will eradicate whatever is left of ISIS in Syria,” Trump tapped. “And he is a man who can do it plus, Turkey is right ‘next door.’ Our troops are coming home!"

The Kurdish population, for years aligned with the U.S., represents another thorn in Erdogan's side. “We see the security and peace of the Arabs in Syria as our own. We consider the Kurdish problem as our own matter," he said on Monday. 

Turkish military forces have been threatening an operation in areas where U.S. forces are present. It has reportedly been put off. “Our phone call with President Trump, along with contacts between our diplomats and security officials and statements by the United States, have led us to wait a little longer," Erdogan said last week.

All of this has sent Trump's critics on the political warpath, especially after Trump's Syria decision led Jim Mattis to quit as defense secretary.

"There doesn’t seem to be any strategic rationale for ...[Trump's withdrawal] decision. And if there’s no strategic rationale for the decision then you have to ask, why was the decision made?" retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander, told CNN Monday.

"People around the world are asking this and some of our friends and our allies in the Middle East are asking, did Erdogan blackmail the president? Was there a payoff or something? Why would a guy make a decision like this? Because all the recommendations were against it."

But Russian President Vladimir Putin, who still has his own troops in Syria, is also seen as a winner in Trump's decision.

John McLaughlin, former deputy CIA director, wrote over the weekend on the website of  OZY, an international magazine: "It plays into Russia’s hand in that Putin has long been seeking to go global. His diplomacy in the Middle East has been impressive. Russian diplomats have been all over the region building relationships and seeking arms contracts."

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