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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Two presidents make their moves in Syria

Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron's recent statements in Syria suggest the conflict is changing

Emmanuel Macron. Benoit Tessier / Reuters
Emmanuel Macron. Benoit Tessier / Reuters

The Syrian conflict, now in its eighth year, appears by turns to stall and then speed to new phases. Last week marked the fall of Eastern Ghouta into Bashar Al Assad’s hands. The previously rebel-held enclave had given way following a month-long campaign of atrocity that accounted for the lives of 1,600 men, women and children. The fall of the territory was deeply symbolic for those who subscribe to the regime’s narrative. It was a sign, they said, of the changing course of the years-long conflict. For almost everyone else it was another bloody reminder of the depths the regime was willing to sink to and of the utter breakdown of moral leadership within large parts of the international community. Ghouta’s fall, far from marking a turning point, further emphasised the quagmire the conflict had sunk into.

Within the past few days, two separate developments have signalled the sudden onset of a new phase of the conflict. First, the US president Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw 2,000 US troops from Syria “very soon” and to “freeze” US funding for recovery efforts in Syria. While White House observers have become used to the apparent policy by impulse nature of the Trump administration, taken together the withdrawal and freeze initiatives point to a clear marker being laid down. Mr Trump said as much, calling for “the other people” to take care of it now, while continuing a dialogue with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Separately, French president Emmanuel Macron pledged to mediate in northern Syria as he sought to rebalance the area following Turkey’s military campaign against the Kurdish YPG. Mr Macron’s argument for dialogue – and he met Kurdish fighters and Syrian rebels in Paris at the end of last week – is to curb ISIL’s ability to regroup in the area. Predictably, Ankara has rejected such overtures, stating in the most robust terms its view that the French president had overstepped the mark. Kurdish officials suggested at the weekend that Mr Macron will send troops to Manbij, a claim that has since been denied.

Taken together, the Trump administration’s pronouncements and Mr Macron’s policy initiatives are carrots and sticks being applied to Turkey. For months Ankara has acted with impunity in Syria, saying one thing and doing another. That moment might now be over.

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