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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Trump-Putin entente shakes American trust

Russia could be a bigger threat to Syrian conflict after US president’s acquiescence

US President Donald Trump received a football from his Russian counterpart in Helsinki. AFP 
US President Donald Trump received a football from his Russian counterpart in Helsinki. AFP 

Donald Trump once declared confidently that he could “shoot somebody” in the middle of New York city and still not lose the affection of his supporters. But on Monday, as he concluded a press conference with the Russian president Vladimir Putin after a summit in Finland, Mr Trump found himself assailed, for the first time since he assumed the presidency of the United States, by opprobrium emanating from his core backers. Newt Gingrich, the former Republican speaker of the US House of Representatives and a prominent Trump partisan, branded the news conference “the most serious mistake of his presidency”. Popular hosts on Fox News dissented openly on a news channel notorious for being a cheerleader for Mr Trump. One called the summit “disgusting”.

A dozen Russian officials have been indicted by Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor appointed by the US Justice Department to investigate charges of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, and allegations of collusion between Moscow and Mr Trump’s campaign continue to swirl. Against this background, Mr Trump’s denunciation of America’s intelligence agencies in the presence of Mr Putin felt "nothing short of treasonous" to his critics, among them former CIA director John Brennan. It came just days after he alienated Washington’s closest allies at the Nato summit and undermined British prime minister Theresa May. Now Mr Trump’s conduct in Helsinki, from his repudiation of the findings and consensus of his own nation's intelligence officers to the deferential body language as he clutched the football Mr Putin handed him with the words “now the ball is in your court” – in an apparent reference to Syria that reveals the Russian government’s gross insensitivity to a humanitarian catastrophe partly of its making – will have the effect of weakening the image and reputation of the US at a crucial juncture in world affairs.

Mr Putin has signalled without saying as much that the condition for improved relations with Russia is surrendering to his vision of the world. To get a sense of what this will mean in practice, we need look no farther than the Middle East. If Syria continues to smoulder, it is because of Moscow’s support for the murderous regime of Bashar Al Assad. Save for the tokenistic airstrikes in response to the regime's use of chemical weapons, the US has largely looked the other way in Syria. It has abandoned the Syrian civilians and rebels it once supported in order not to offend Russia. Given all this, an expanded Russian footprint in this region, chilling to contemplate, would lead to dangerous instability. People who have been Mr Trump’s most devoted champions over the past three years have broken with him on this issue. He should try to see the world from their eyes, not Mr Putin’s.