Tue, Dec 25, 2018 - Page 9 News List

Trump’s Syria exit hands gift to Islamic State

By Janine di Giovanni  /  The Guardian

Christmas came early in Syria. US President Donald Trump’s surprise tweet heralding the withdrawal of US troops neatly indicated the winners and losers in the murderous eight-year Syrian war. While the US never had much leverage in Syria — due to former US president Barack Obama’s disastrous 2013 decision not to act following the Ghouta chemical attacks — Trump has managed, in a 16-word message, to embolden the Islamic State (IS) group, Moscow, Damascus, Hezbollah and Iran. In a sense, he has abandoned any western influence over Syria and handed the territory to dictators, murderers and terrorists.

First up is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who began “engagements” in Syria in 2015 — relentless campaigns that targeted civilians. For Putin, US withdrawal represents a green light to remain in Syria as long as he wishes, to consolidate his power base and pursue his personal Syrian agenda without meddlesome threats from Washington.

For Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, it means more time to finish off a war that began as a peaceful demonstration of people calling for their freedom: a war that involves gulags, unimaginable torture, ethnic cleansing and the chemical gassing of civilians.

In a strange example of camaraderie, turning a blind eye to grievous human rights violations in Syria is one of the few areas where Trump and Obama meet. Still, having the US involved — even minimally — complicated al-Assad’s scorched-earth campaign against the Syrian opposition. All he needs now is the northwestern city of Idlib and the country is his (except that he has to share it with Russia and Iran).

For Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who held talks with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on Thursday last week, Trump’s message is a blessing. The US involvement in Syria meant empowering the Kurds, whom he has always seen as an existential threat.

Erdogan on Monday said he was ready to launch a new cross-border military operation at any moment against the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, which have been shielded — until now — by the US military presence.

His hawkish stance was echoed by Turkish Minister of National Defense Hulusi Akar, who said that Turkey was preparing “intensely” for a military offensive east of the Euphrates River in Syria, where Kurdish-led forces, the Syrian Democratic Front, have battled IS.

The Kurdish fighters there have already dug trenches and tunnels in anticipation of a military operation, he told Turkish reporters.

“But whatever they dig, when the time comes they will be buried in the trenches,” he added. “Of this there should no doubt.”

The Kurds have been betrayed since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, so it is not entirely surprising for them to be stabbed in the back — but it is galling. They did most of the heavy lifting in terms of fighting IS, took many casualties and, in the words of US Army General Joseph Votel, were exemplary at “living up to their word.” In short, they were important, essential military partners.

Now they are abandoned — again. A rapid US withdrawal would leave them vulnerable to the Turks, but also would lead to a disintegration of the Arab fighters who were aligned with them in the fight against IS.

Those fighters are now being courted by al-Assad.

It is all good news for Iranian militias and Tehran, but the greatest gift of all is to the IS group. While Trump boasts that it is finished in Syria, his shortsighted elation over eliminating terrorism is premature. There are still thousands of IS fighters — they hold a small area of Syria — and sophisticated recruitment continues. If anything, IS will use Trump’s withdrawal as a powerful recruitment tool.

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