By Shashi Malla
US & Syria
The United States has begun the withdrawal of its roughly two thousand troops from Syria according to President Donald J. Trump’s orders. This was also announced by the US-led coalition against the self-proclaimed Islamic State. The announcement came a day after US Secretary of State (S0S) Mike Pompeo made a major speech at the American University in Cairo on US strategy in the Middle East.
The coalition declined to provide specific timelines for the withdrawal, as well as information on troop movements. Days earlier, National Security Adviser (NSA) John Bolton had said that there would be conditions for a US pullout [Al Jazeera] and that it could take months or years. It was not only apparent that there was a complete lack of coordination between Pompeo the SoS and Bolton the NSA, there was also a glaring contradiction. In Cairo, Pompeo insisted that the decision [it was actually Trump’s lonely and singlehanded one, without recourse to consultations with his national security team] to return troops “isn’t a change of mission” and that the United States would “use diplomats and work with our partners to expel every last Iranian boot” from the country.
This is not only laughable, but absurd. SoSPompeo is trying to defend the indefensible. The same day he publicly excoriates Barack Obama, the 44th President of retreating from the Middle East, his boss President Trump begins the withdrawal from the very Middle East. This is an administration in disarray said Richard N. Haass (President of the Council on Foreign Relations).
The area in northeast Syria where US troops are deployed is highly coveted by Iran. It is rich in oil and is near the border with Iraq through which Iran has been sending into Syria its allied Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) militias under the pretext of fighting ISIS.
Pompeo took aim at two of the Trump administration’s main foes: former President Barack Obama and the theocratic Iranian regime. He invoked Obama’s speech in the same venue a decade ago to offer a point-counterpoint assessment of the two administration’s policy moves. He accused the former president of laying out “fundamental misunderstandings” in his 2009 speech.
Pompeo listed a series of alleged wrong steps by the Obama administration:
– Underestimating “the tenacity and viciousness of radical Islamism”,
– Failure to act against Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad after his use of chemical weapons,
– Silence, “as the people of Iran rose up against the mullahs in Tehran in the Green Revolution.”
“What did we learn from all this?” Pompeo asks. “We learned that when America retreats, chaos often follows. When we neglect our friends, resentment builds. And when we partner with enemies, they advance.” It is astounding that Pompeo did not realize the immense import of his words [written by a speechwriter, of course] and the yawning gulf between his own words and the actual deeds of the Trump administration – contradiction upon contradiction.
Pompeo declared that “the age of self-inflicted American shame is over, and so are the policies that produced so much needless suffering. Now comes the real ‘new beginning’ [a potshot at Obama who had said that the US and the Muslim world needed ‘a new beginning’]. Pompeo conveniently forgets that Trump has made a laughing stock of America in the world at large, the slogan “America First” has backfired. Among others, Trump has belittled Muslims and there is much repairing to be done in the future, when Trump is gone.
Pompeo also said that in “less than two years, the United States under President Trump has reasserted its traditional role as a force for good in this region, because we’ve learned from our mistakes,” claiming: “We have rediscovered our voice. We have rebuilt our relationships. We have rejected false overtures from enemies. And look at what we have accomplished together.”
The actual point is that Trump has tended to approach vital and delicate policy matters – whether domestic, multilateral or international – like a bull in a china shop. The administration’s “accomplishments” included [restricting these only to the Middle East] the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal and the re-imposition of sanctions, the move of the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem [compounding difficulties for a Middle East peace accord in general, and a two-nation solution to the Palestine conflict in particular], and the military strikes on the Assad regime [which did not deter it much].
Pompeo vowed that the US would use diplomacy and work with partners “to expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria, but he did not offer specifics on how such expulsion would take place, especially since with US military withdrawal, the ground reality would be in Iran’s favor. He also spoke extensively of the US “campaign to stop Iran’s malevolent influence and actions against the region and the world,” but offered few details beyond the use of sanctions about how the US would achieve its demands. Actually, Trump’s withdrawal of US troops from Syria will boost Iran’s fortunes. Also, the undeniable fact is that the US under Trump has been widely discredited in the region.
In the latest foreign policy bombshell, Trump has amply demonstrated that he is unhinged. Without consulting his SoS or the NSA, he tweeted Sunday night like a bolt from the blue that he would “devastate Turkey economically” if it attacked Kurdish forces in Syria following a planned pullout of US troops. He has made a very fraught situation on the ground even worse. It was thought that his lonely decision to withdraw US troops followed a key telephone conversation with Turkish President Erdogan. Now this crass and boorish threat to a strategic NATO ally [with the second highest military strength in the organization] is unprecedented, and should at the very least give thought to both Republican and Democratic leaders to immediately pursue steps in Congress to curtail the president’s ‘war powers’. Trump indeed ‘imperils the planet’ (NYT).
Trump is in a very foul mood because he is under massive attack. The majority of the American public blame him for the unnecessary government shut down – the longest in American history. Then, in an unprecedented development, it has been alleged that he has worked in the interests of Russia!
Repression in Saudi Arabia Continues
This past week, the world’s attention was riveted on the plight of a young Saudi girl, Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun who escaped from her family and country via Kuwait to Bangkok to avoid abuse. Her fate would have been certain death via ‘honor killing’ had the Thai immigration authorities delivered her to Saudi diplomats. She had forsaken Islam, a grievous sin in Saudi Arabia. Fortunately, under pressure from human rights activists, Thai officials handed her first to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and finally she could fly to Canada which had offered asylum. She was free from the long arm of Saudi repression.
This was not the case with Saudi journalist and The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Also last week, the trial began of eleven suspects accused by Saudi Arabia of helping to brutally murder him in the Saudi Consulate-General in Istanbul. Prosecutors have demanded the death penalty for five of the defendants. However, The Washington Post has characterized the trial as a travesty. It has accused the Trump administration of not upholding American values, and demanded that the US Congress must insist on real justice and take the lead on this issue.
The whole process was too opaque. The first court hearing was closed to the public, and the Saudi general prosecutor did not name the suspects on trial for the killing, which has strained Saudi relations with Turkey and others. Turkey requested the extradition of the 18 suspects arrested by Saudi authorities in late October, but Riyadh rejected the request and did not share the names of those accused.
The Washington Post believes that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (aka “MBS”) “is pressing ahead with anti-dissident campaigns and remains in regular contact with Saud al-Qahtani, the media adviser whom the CIA believes helped organize Khashoggi’s killing.” According to this paper, one indication that MBS hasn’t altered his bullying tactics is an aggressive social media campaign launched to attack Khashoggi and Omar Abdulaziz, a dissident living in Canada. One English-language post showed pictures of the two men with the caption: “Jamal and Omar: Qatar’s Agents.”
The videos and Web postings in the new campaign had the professional touch of modern media studios in Dubai. Qahtani is said to have recently made two trips to the United Arab Emirates (UAE), even though he is supposedly under house arrest in Riyadh. Another Twitter-video [obviously produced by a Dubai-based company] was titled “Qatar System Exposed” and includes English subtitles alleging that Khashoggi was involved in a plot to “create a new destabilizing Arab Spring to unsettle Arab countries, mainly Saudi Araabia.” The US Treasury Department said categorically in imposing personal sanctions on Qahtani that he “was part of the planning and execution of the operation” that led to Khashoggi’s death. Independent assessments consider MBS a dictator, like Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, nominally committed to modernization but unreliable.
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