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18 January, 2019 00:00 00 AM / LAST MODIFIED: 17 January, 2019 10:24:31 PM

The dilemma facing Washington hawks

Raghida Dergham
The dilemma facing Washington hawks
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo with Emirati ambassador to the US Yousef Al Otaiba

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and national security adviser John Bolton tried to contain the excesses of their president and offset the fallout from his shock announcement about withdrawing troops from Syria and his improvised approach to Iraq. Their tours of the Middle East this month aimed to reassure allies, discourage foes and rein in unreliable partners, such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

However, the key takeaway from the current phase of US policy, which shifts according to the mood of Donald Trump, is that the administration seems to model its Middle Eastern policy on corporate structure, behaving like a CEO delegating tasks on the ground to subcontractors. This much was clear in  Pompeo’s Cairo speech, when he said: “We strongly support Egypt’s efforts to destroy ISIS in the Sinai [and] Israel’s efforts to stop Tehran from turning Syria into the next Lebanon.” He spoke about continuing to “help our partners” tackle challenges, rather than leading and commanding, raising a question mark over the Trump administration’s pledge to “lead from the front”, itself intended as a counterpoint to former president Barack Obama’s approach of “leading from behind”.
Today, the differences between the two are no longer clear, especially in light of  Trump’s tweet about withdrawing from Syria, following a phone conversation with  Erdogan, only this marked the second time the US president has thrown the ball of leading in Syria to another head of state. The first time was to Russian President Vladimir Putin, this time it was to  Erdogan. Most likely,  Trump wants to delegate the difficult job in Syria to Russia and Turkey, a task that includes eliminating ISIS and Hayat Tahrir Al Sham and curbing Iran and Hezbollah.
However, the Russian and Turkish leaderships harbour some suspicions, not only in terms of the US intention to wash its hands of Syria but also amid fears of a possible trap the US might be setting up for them as part of a deliberate policy.
Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov has questioned the seriousness of Washington’s plans, saying: “I cannot imagine that the United States will fully and indisputably leave Syria in terms of physical military presence in the current situation. I believe the positions of those who want to maintain US military presence in Syria — illegal, breaching the international law — are quite strong in Washington.”
Turkey, too, has questioned US intentions, especially following  Bolton’s visit to Ankara.  Erdogan refused to meet the US national security adviser to discuss the Syria withdrawal after  Bolton demanded Turkey give guarantees to protest Syrian Kurdish fighters, regarded as terrorists by Turkey.
Addressing the Turkish parliament, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said: “We see that the US is having difficulties in its decision to withdraw from Syria. It must be difficult to leave after having been so intertwined with the terrorist organisation,” referring to the YPG, which Ankara views as the Syrian arm of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK.  Cavusoglu also said there were different voices within the US administration regarding Syria.
In this,  Erdogan made the same mistake as his Russian counterpart in assuming that the orders of the US president were the final word on the matter. Indeed, following the Helsinki summit between  Putin and  Trump, the Kremlin thought the bilateral relationship had taken a leap forward, with the US president deferring to the Russian president in seeking political solutions in Syria.
However, that initial euphoria soon gave way when the US establishment – what the Russians call the deep state – stepped in to rein in the president, assigning the Syrian dossier to a team of professionals from the State Department, the Pentagon and the National Security Council. The Russian leadership was furious and escalated its rhetoric, accusing the US of sponsoring terrorists in Syria, although the two countries’ militaries continued to co-ordinate as part of their deconfliction aims. 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.  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  Trump’s temperament.
At a special session in Washington a few weeks ago, one of  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  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.
 Mattis’s resignation came 24 hours after  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.

The writer is a Lebanese-American journalist based in New York




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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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