Trump declares end to US ‘policeman’ role in surprise Iraq visit

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US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump greet military personnel at the dining facility during an unannounced visit to Al-Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. (Reuters)
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US President Donald Trump delivers remarks to US troops in an unannounced visit to Al-Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018.(Reuters)
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US President Donald Trump, traveling with first lady Melania Trump, meets political and military leaders and makes a policy speech to US troops in an unannounced visit to Al-Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. (Reuters)
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US President Donald Trump delivers remarks to US troops in an unannounced visit to Al-Asad Air Base, Iraq December 26, 2018. (Reuters)
Updated 27 December 2018

Trump declares end to US ‘policeman’ role in surprise Iraq visit

  • “It’s not fair when the burden is all on us,” Trump said.
  • “Pitch black” Air Force One flew overnight from Washington, landing at an airbase west of Baghdad under the cover of darkness Wednesday evening

AL-ASAD AIR BASE: President Donald Trump used a lightning visit to Iraq -- his first with US troops in a conflict zone since being elected -- to defend the withdrawal from Syria and to declare an end to America’s role as the global “policeman.”
Trump landed at 7:16 pm local time at Al-Asad Air Base in western Iraq, accompanied by his wife Melania, following what he described as a stressful, secrecy shrouded flight on a “pitch black” Air Force One.
The president spoke to a group of about 100 mostly special forces personnel and separately with military leaders before leaving a few hours later. A planned meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi was scrapped and replaced by a phone call, the premier’s office said.
During the call, Trump invited Abdel Mahdi to visit Washington and he accepted, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.
White House video showed a smiling Trump shaking hands with camouflage-clad personnel, signing autographs and posing for photos at the base in Iraq.
Morale-boosting presidential visits to US troops in war zones have been a longstanding tradition in the years following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.
Trump has taken considerable criticism for declining to visit in the first two years of his presidency. But speculation had been mounting that he would finally make the gesture following his controversial plan to slash troop levels in Afghanistan and his order to withdraw entirely from Syria.
At the Iraqi military base, Trump sought to defend his “America First” policy of pulling back from multinational alliances, including what to many Americans seem like the endless wars of the Middle East.
“It’s not fair when the burden is all on us,” he said. “We don’t want to be taken advantage of any more by countries that use us and use our incredible military to protect them. They don’t pay for it and they’re going to have to.”
“We are spread out all over the world. We are in countries most people haven’t even heard about. Frankly, it’s ridiculous,” he added.
Trump told reporters he had overruled generals asking to extend the Syria deployment, where about 2,000 US forces, joined by other foreign troops, assist local fighters battling the Daesh extremist group.
“You can’t have any more time. You’ve had enough time,” he said he told the top brass.
The drawdowns -- and the abrupt way that they were announced -- helped lead to the resignation of Trump’s defense secretary, Jim Mattis, who has been one of the administration’s heavyweights.
In his forcefully-worded resignation letter, Mattis appeared to chide Trump when he stressed his own “strongly held” views on “treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors.”

Trump has also taken criticism from France and other foreign partners as well as senior figures in his own Republican party.
However, the president has made disentangling America from its wars a priority since his 2016 election and he said in Iraq that the US would no longer be treated as “suckers.”
Daesh, which once controlled swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria, has been driven mostly into hiding.
On Wednesday, Trump said “we’ve knocked them out,” although he appeared to hedge his bets -- following widespread criticism that his victory declaration is premature -- when he added that Iraq might be used as a future base “if we wanted to do something in Syria.”
According to a transcript released by the White House, he thanked troops for the “near-elimination” of IS and said “we’ll be watching... very, very closely -- the remnants” of the group.
Trump said in Iraq that some of the US troops from Syria “will come here for a stay, but a lot of them are going to be going back home,” the transcript said.
While highlighting the military and financial roles he said Turkey and Saudi Arabia had agreed to play in Syria, Trump also told journalists that “we may go back and help.”
In Afghanistan, Trump wants to withdraw about half of the 14,000 soldiers locked in a war against Taliban guerrillas that has long resembled a stalemate.
The Iraq trip provides some distraction from a rising tide of domestic political problems, including the government shutdown caused by Trump’s row with Congress over funding for a US-Mexico border wall.
Pressure is also mounting from a series of criminal probes into Trump’s finances and links to Russia.
According to Trump, the flight into Iraq was unlike anything he’d previously experienced.
“If you would have seen what we had to go through in the darkened plane with all windows closed with no light anywhere -- pitch black,” he said.
After departing Iraq, Trump stopped over at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where he and Melania shook hands and greeted some of the hundreds of troops gathered in a hangar.
The president and his entourage then headed back to the United States.


Scramble for Syria after US withdrawal

Updated 15 October 2019

Scramble for Syria after US withdrawal

  • Turkey considers the SDF and YPG to be terrorists allied with the PKK, who have been involved in a bloody campaign for autonomy against Turkish states for decades

ANKARA: As Ankara pressed on with its offensive in northeastern Syria amid international criticism, Washington announced some 1,000 soldiers were withdrawn from the zone.

With the US departure, the attention turns to how the regional actors, especially Turkey and Syria, will operate in their zones of influence in the war-torn country where the possible escape of Daesh fighters from prisons could result in more chaos.

Some experts claim that with the US decision to withdraw its forces, the territorial claim of northeastern Syria by the Kurdish YPG militia and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has finished.

Turkey considers the SDF and YPG to be terrorists allied with the PKK, who have been involved in a bloody campaign for autonomy against Turkish states for decades. The PKK is listed as a terror group by Turkey, the EU and the US.

But, whether some 50,000 YPG fighters will be integrated into the Syrian Army or will try to maintain their autonomy is still a matter of concern.

Mazloum Abdi, commander-in-chief of the SDF, recently wrote for Foreign Policy that the Kurds are finally ready to partner with Assad and Putin.

Yury Barmin, an analyst at the Russian International Affairs Council, said: “Damascus and the SDF struck a deal at the Russian base in Hmeymim to let the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) enter the Kurdish-controlled area in the northeast and deploy at the Syrian-Turkish border. The SAA is set to take control over Manbij, Kobane and Qamishli.”

However, Barmin told Arab News that a deal between Damascus and the SDF would greatly contribute to a buffer zone that Turkish President Recep Yayyip Erdogan intends to create in northern Syria, allowing Kurds to take some areas along the border without directly antagonizing Ankara. This policy, Barmin added, would be unacceptable to Moscow.

“There are now lots of moving targets and the goal of the Syrian Army — whether it will take some strategic cities or control the whole border along Turkey — is unclear for now. As Russian President Vladimir Putin is on his official visit to Saudi Arabia, his decision for Syria will be clearer when he returns home,” he said.

HIGHLIGHT

Some experts claim that with the US decision to withdraw its forces, the territorial claim of northeastern Syria by the Kurdish YPG militia and its political wing, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), has finished.

Barmin also noted that Russia let Erdogan operate the Adana agreement to a certain extent, under which Turkey has the right to conduct cross-border operations.

“But now, Russia would like to show Turkey its own red lines in the region,” he said.

However, Navvar Saban, a military analyst at the Omran Center for Strategic Studies in Istanbul, said that the Syrian regime is not capable of striking a deal without being backed by Russians, and that Moscow would not want to lose its relationship with Ankara.

“Russians always talk about the Adana agreement. We are now talking about a renewal and reactivation of the agreement with new specifications to allow Turkey to go deeper into Syrian territories. In this way, the Russians will have a bigger chance to allow the Syrian regime and Turkey to communicate. It is something that will open the diplomatic channels,” Saban said.

Meanwhile, US President Donald Trump tweeted: “Big sanctions on Turkey coming! Do people really think we should go to war with NATO Member Turkey? Never ending wars will end!”

Joe Macaron, a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, said that if the US is completely out of the way, Russia and Turkey will have to either agree or contest each other to take over the US territorial control in northeast Syria. He added that this might be the most crucial race in the coming weeks.

Concerning the diplomatic channels between Damascus and Ankara, Macaron thinks that the channels were and will remain open between Moscow and Ankara since they have common interests beyond Syria.

“If Turkey had no other option, it might have to settle for controlling a few border towns, but this means Erdogan can no longer effectively implement his plan to return Syrian refugees, most notably without funding from the international community. Ankara is more likely to succeed in striking such a deal with Moscow than with Washington,” Macaron told Arab News.

Many experts agree that the Syrian chessboard will be determined predominantly by Russian moves.

“Assad has no say in what will happen next, Russia is the decision maker and there is little the Syrian regime can do unless Iran forcefully intervenes to impact the Russian-Turkish dynamics in the northeast,” Macaron said.