By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif*
Two top US officials have been dispatched to the Middle East on a salvaging mission aimed at calming allies and clarifying policy following last month’s surprise decision by President Donald Trump to pull his troops from northern Syria within a few months. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday began a major tour of the region that will take him to Jordan, Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Kuwait. His agenda is full and will cover a wide range of topics. Meanwhile, National Security Adviser John Bolton has visited Israel and Turkey.
Their visits followed Trump’s declaration on Sunday that he did not tie the US troop withdrawal from Syria to a timetable. He appeared to be walking back on his initial position, which was taken without consultation with senior officials or with allies. His unilateral decision last month forced his Defense Secretary James Mattis to resign in protest and was criticized by top lawmakers in Congress from both the Republican and Democratic parties.
Trump’s tweets on the issue have rattled US allies, including Israel. Russia, Iran and the Syrian government welcomed Trump’s withdrawal decision and triggered a domino effect. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced that his troops would soon launch an operation east of the Euphrates aimed at quashing Kurdish militias who are backed by the US. Syrian Kurds, feeling abandoned and fearful of a Turkish onslaught, began negotiations with Damascus and asked for Moscow’s mediation to hand over key positions to the Syrian government in return for some form of self-rule.
Meanwhile, reports confirmed that Daesh remains active in Syria’s eastern desert and that Trump’s claim that he has defeated the terrorist organization was exaggerated. The US president was apparently assured by Erdogan that Turkey can take over from the Americans in fighting Daesh in Syria. But Ankara’s agenda in Syria has more to do with crushing the Kurds than anything else.
Now Bolton has warned Turkey not to attack the Syrian Democratic Forces and to coordinate with Washington before deploying its troops in Syrian Kurdish areas. The warning has put a damper on Erdogan’s ambitions, drawn his ire and reshuffled the cards once more.
No matter whether the damage control missions by Pompeo and Bolton succeed for now, Trump’s unpredictability and his maverick approach to complicated issues has left his allies, not to mention his foes, wondering what will come next. For Israel, the US disengagement from Syria constitutes a major blow to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has campaigned locally, regionally and internationally to warn of Iran’s menacing presence not far from his borders.
Pompeo is expected to realign US policy on a number of regional issues, from confronting Iranian threats to crushing Daesh and ending the war in Yemen. One senior State Department official was quoted as saying that Pompeo’s visit would demonstrate that the US was “not leaving the Middle East” and that there had been “false narratives surrounding the Syria decision.”
But, while both US officials will seek to explain Trump’s decision on Syria and reassure allies, the fact remains that American troops will be pulling out some time in the next few months — that is unless the president reverses his stand. One US official said last week that “we are formulating plans to withdraw in a deliberate and coordinated way,” adding that “we will be leaving in such a way that we do not leave a vacuum for terrorists to exploit.” This state of uncertainty will have geopolitical consequences for the Kurds, Turkey and the Syrian regime, as well as for Israel, Russia and Iran.
Trump’s view of the US presence in the Middle East, and the world, may reach a tipping point at any moment. His reaction toward Israel’s possible vulnerability as a result of the proposed pullout has shocked the Israeli establishment. He said that the US pays Tel Aviv billions of dollars each year and that it can take care of itself. His statement resonates with previous tweets on how the US spends billions of dollars in the region and gets nothing in return.
So, while at least some of America’s allies may be reassured by Bolton and Pompeo, for now, the reality is that, in Trump’s world, the status quo can change at any moment. The political fallout from his whimsical and rushed decisions on Syria and Afghanistan are already being felt.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010