Wednesday 13 November 2019

President's 'success' in Syria has ceded influence to the Russians

Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters
Donald Trump. Photo: Reuters

Aamer Madhani

US President Donald Trump declared success in Syria and created a bumper- sticker moment to illustrate his campaign promise to put a stop to American involvement in "endless wars".

But with his abrupt withdrawal from what he called "bloodstained sand", the Republican president ceded American influence over a huge swathe of the region to rivals and may have spun the Middle East into a new season of uncertainty.

In remarks at the White House, Mr Trump made the case that American administrations before him wasted too much money and blood on sectarian and tribal fighting in which the US had no place meddling.

"We have spent $8trn (€7.2trn) on wars in the Middle East, never really wanting to win those wars," Mr Trump said. "But after all that money was spent, and all those lives lost, the young men and women, gravely wounded so many, the Middle East is less safe, less stable and less secure than before these conflicts began."

But analysts and lawmakers said Mr Trump declared victory for a crisis along the border of Turkey and Syria that was arguably of his own making, while underplaying the reality that he has strengthened the hand of Russia.

Critics also say the move will roll back advances made by US-led forces in the fight against Isil. The president also still has work to do to repair the political damage he's done within his own base among those who say he abandoned the Kurds, long-time US allies who fought side-by-side with American forces to beat back Isil in north-east Syria.

The president's declaration of success came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan reached a deal on divvying up control of an area along the Turkey- Syria border.

Turkey is to get sole control over areas of the Syrian border captured in its invasion. Turkish, Russian and Syrian government forces would oversee the rest of the border region. And America's former allies, the Kurdish fighters, are looking to Russia and Syria to preserve some pieces of Syrian Kurdish autonomy in the region.

"The only question remaining is whether President Trump is acting directly at the behest of Russian and Turkish leaders, or whether he is wilfully blind to his own failures," said Bob Menendez, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The president punched back at his sceptics.

"The job of our military is not to police the world," Mr Trump said. "Other nations must step up and do their fair share. That hasn't taken place. Today's breakthrough is a critical step in that direction."

This is the newest version of an old Trump gripe about a penny-pinching Europe that leaves the bill for their American friends. But in this particular case, it seems he is making a virtue of having ceded political and military influence in the Middle East to Russia.

By implicitly applauding Russia for partnering with Turkey to patrol a portion of the Syrian border, Mr Trump seemed to endorse Moscow's ambition to gain greater influence in Syria.

In doing so, the president is turning upside-down Washington's previous effort to limit Russia's sway in the only Middle Eastern country in which it has a permanent military presence. The Pentagon during the Obama years refused to co-operate with Russia after it intervened militarily in Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

"The US has essentially ceded its influence and power in Syria to the Russians, the Turks and the Iranians," said Seth Jones, a counter-terrorism expert at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. "I think the biggest single issue long-term is the major great power in the region is not the United States - it is the Russians."

Mr Trump's own Pentagon chief, Mark Esper, recently bemoaned what he suggested was Turkey's turn away from the West in favour of closer relations with Russia.

"The arc of their behaviour over the past several years has been terrible," he said.

Irish Independent

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