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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 20 January 2019

Donald Trump has destroyed America's credibility with one tweet

Following the president's shock decision to pull out of Syria, the US can wave goodbye to the respect of the world

President Donald Trump's latest decisions have pushed a large portion of the world to the edge of chaos. AP
President Donald Trump's latest decisions have pushed a large portion of the world to the edge of chaos. AP

The arbitrary, isolationist tendencies of the 45th American president culminated last week with a tweet that proved his contempt for the US military establishment and his determination to subvert the current international order.

With his shock announcement that the US would withdraw its 2,000 troops from Syria, Donald Trump not only exposed himself as politically ignorant of – or disinterested in – the geopolitical equation underpinning US decision making, he also appeared not to comprehend that the return on the small investment of resources America made there has, by all measures, been monumental.

It is impossible to understand Mr Trump’s logic either as a businessman or a statesman. His tweet radically undermined America’s credibility and gave a boost to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has shown allies and friends that America’s reputation for sudden betrayal and abandonment is well earned. He also decimated his own administration’s strategy of containing Iran, ignoring his top aides and advisers. Mr Trump does not care whether or not he and his team are respected, and does not care if he ends up destroying people who have served in his administration and their country.

So far, narcissism and arrogance have shaped most his decisions, forcing those around him to continuously try to adapt to his mood and temperament. In fact, by placing his pledge to bring American troops back home above US strategic imperatives, he has come to be exactly like Barack Obama – the predecessor he so despises.

Both men fled strategic arenas of vital importance – Obama from Iraq and Trump from Syria – without any logical justification, empowering Iran’s agenda, compounding the conflicts there, and giving room for extremism and terrorism to grow and metastasise.

Trump’s decree-by-tweet was also a blow to the Kurds, who once thought they were a friend, partner and ally of the US, with far-reaching implications not only in Syria and Iraq, but also Turkey and Iran. This does not mean that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has won. Mr Trump’s delegation of the Kurdish issue to him could be a time bomb.

As for allies in the Arab Gulf, their pragmatic line has helped them anticipate US abandonment. As a result, many Arab Gulf countries have been keen to launch deeper relations with Russia and China and to avoid having to rely exclusively on Mr Trump’s temperament.

At a special session in Washington a few weeks ago, one of Mr Trump’s closest associates spoke about the importance of the foreign policy “golden team” – consisting of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, National Security Adviser John Bolton and Defence Secretary James Mattis – and how its members had the president’s full confidence. He stressed that all talk of Mr Mattis’s departure was behind them, and said that the trio had developed clear strategies in the Middle East and chosen skilled envoys such as Brian Hook for Iran and James Jeffrey for Syria.

Mr Mattis’s resignation came 24 hours after Mr Trump’s tweet, reversing the policies of his administration’s team on Russia, Turkey, Iran and Syria. Others may follow suit. They could, on the other hand, persuade the president to rein in his tweets by highlighting the damage they are causing, and force him to change tack and reconsider his decisions, as he has before. But this seems unlikely now, particularly since the international outrage over the shock reversal of US policy could make Mr Trump more stubborn and determined not to appear weak in the face of pressure, or strategically ignorant for having improvised the Syria withdrawal.

Russia seems to be the biggest winner, followed by Bashar Al Assad, Iran and Hezbollah. Turkey, in the short term, also stands to make gains. But what if the US president wants to entrap those mocking him today in a way that will force them to see him as a shrewd actor? Theoretically, the withdrawal of US forces from Syria could lead to a gradual phasing out of the international coalition and the revival of extremist groups such as ISIS and the Nusra Front. If so, the US would have withdrawn from a terrorist hotspot and left Russia, Turkey and Iran to run a fragmented Syria that cannot be rebuilt.

In other words, Mr Trump would be leaving the Russian-Turkish-Iranian trio in a costly quagmire, presided over by Mr Al Assad, dealing a blow to Washington’s foes, without having to sacrifice a single soldier. That is, Mr Trump could have come to see that Mr Obama was right to leave Syria to Mr Putin, as a booby-trapped gift, without any regard for America's moral responsibility in relation to the nation’s humanitarian tragedy.

James Jeffrey spoke a sharply different language from the policy implications of Mr Trump’s tweet. Indeed, he repeatedly said that the US was in the most important and richest parts of Syrian territory, with only a small amount of troops stationed in strategic bases. He spoke about the heavy burden for Russia – especially after Iran suffers the full brunt of US sanctions. He also said that Syria was now an arena for major global and regional powers – including the US, Russia, Turkey, and Israel – and stressed Washington’s determination to remain until Iran was driven out. All this just weeks before Mr Trump’s seismic tweet.

Republican Senator Ben Sasse said that the military brass “have no idea where this weak decision came from”. Top military minds are still unable to understand it, with one describing it as “borderline insane”. Another source said that Mr Mattis and Mr Bolton must have tried to dissuade their boss, because, among other things, it undermines the US strategy on Iran. Mr Mattis has now resigned, but Mr Bolton’s history suggests he will not quit. Still, anything is possible in the Trump era.

Even Mr Putin suggested that he did not understand the decision. So far, many observers have pointed to Mr Trump’s campaign speeches, when he said he did not want to have American troops in Syria. At any rate, the decision was not anticipated in Russia, despite the Kremlin’s insistence that US deployment in Syria was illegitimate because it was not at the request of the Syrian government.

Prior to the tweet, the Russians were furious with the US military and the so-called deep state that is supposedly running the show in Washington. This was directly related to the issue of the US presence in Syria, bearing in mind that Mr Trump publicly spoke of his promise to Mr Putin following their meeting in Helsinki to withdraw as soon as possible.

Russian sources say that Mr Trump did not mind having Mr Putin lead in Syria, and that the reassurance felt in Moscow following the summit was a result of this. But shortly after, the US military and political establishments took charge and overturned Trump-Putin understandings, persuading the US president to adjust course, causing US-Russian relations to deteriorate again.

In principle, Russia gains the most from the US withdrawal, unless the entrapment theory happens to be true. The idea of a booby-trapped gift is not far-fetched, given that Russia will also inherit the Iranian question in Syria. Iran in the short term will also find itself able to breathe better, because the vows to teach it a lesson and drive it out of Syria will have no teeth after the US withdrawal. Sanctions will definitely hurt Iran, but being unconstrained by US military force has many implications, including the fact that it allows Iran to again move unfettered and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to grow in power in Iran and the wider region.

Israel will no doubt be troubled by the news, although not long ago it appeared calm and confident about the way things were going in Syria.

For his part, Mr Al Assad will dance to the tune of Mr Trump’s tweet, and will feel victorious and less burdened with accountability. Most likely, he will try to cast his shadow in the direction of Lebanon, with Iran and Hezbollah’s help.

All this will be at the expense of the Gulf strategy, of which US engagement was a cornerstone. There is a crisis of confidence in US promises and US leadership, and a growing conviction that Mr Trump’s policy is fickle.

The biggest loser of all will be the Kurds, who have been abandoned by Mr Trump without even moral protection. Mr Trump has forgotten that the Kurds are an important component of regional equilibrium given their presence in Iraq, Iran, Syria and Turkey itself, which could now enter into a war of liquidation against the Kurds.

An arbitrary tweet by a capricious president has thrust a third of the world to the edge of turmoil.

Updated: December 24, 2018 01:42 PM

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