Putin’s Stooge

Russian President Vladimir Putin at his year-end news conference praising President Donald Trump

Let me be clear about one thing: The Syrian nightmare has no easy solution. But I do know one thing: Russian President Vladimir Putin is very happy because President Donald Trump did Russia’s bidding in announcing the removal of U.S. forces from Syria. I know this because Putin told us: “Donald’s right, and I agree with him.” 

The various investigations into Trump’s misdeeds — from before he entered politics until now — likely will reveal precisely what Putin has over Trump. At the very least, Trump’s impulsiveness is worrisome. His order comes in defiance of the advice and counsel of the Departments of State and Defense, whose secretaries are on record as dismissing a quick departure from Syria at this time as risky and premature. Trump is convinced he knows more than anyone else about everything (remember his campaign boast, “I know more about ISIS than the generals, believe me”). Jeffrey Toobin put it accurately: Donald Trump “is unfit to run a charity in New York State but fit to control nuclear weapons that could destroy the world several times over.” 

President Trump with Defense Secretary James Mattis

Trump’s decision clearly was a rebuke to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who announced his resignation a day later. Mattis said in a letter to the president that he was stepping down, “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours.” Mattis argued repeatedly that the counterterrorism mission in Syria was not over and the small U.S. force of roughly 2,000 troops should stay. Among the many curiosities that pass for Trumpian thought is his contrarian view of American military power. Trump boasts of commanding the toughest forces on the planet, but he wants to keep them home. Rather than counter the threat of terrorists or adversarial nations, Trump uses the military to chase phantoms on the southern border or march (he hoped) in a big parade down Pennsylvania Avenue.

South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham criticized the Syria announcement

Trump’s strategy in the turbulent Middle East — relying on local partners and only using American air power — is reminiscent of his predecessor’s policy. And, that grates on the more hawkish Republicans in Congress. If President Barack Obama “had done this, we’d be going nuts right now,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina. Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio said, “This is a major mistake. And I hope they reverse it. Because if not, I think it will haunt this administration.” 

Trump justifies the pullout by claiming, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump presidency.” Leaving aside the grave humanitarian crisis presented by the murderous regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Trump’s previous use of military force against Syria for the regime’s chemical attack on its own people, the claim is dubious at best. American power has helped shrink the territory held by the Islamic State, and the terrorist organization is, no doubt, in retreat, but it has not disappeared. ISIS fighters mounted a deadly assault on U.S.-backed Syrian militias last month, as The Washington Post has documented. In August, the Pentagon estimated that about 30,000 ISIS fighters remained active in Syria and neighboring Iraq. Defense Secretary Mattis publicly warned against assuming the retreat of ISIS means the defeat of ISIS. “Getting rid of the caliphate [ISIS] doesn’t mean you then blindly say, ‘Okay, we got rid of it,’ march out, and then wonder why the caliphate comes back,” Mattis told reporters in September.

Kurdish fighters in Syria

The poor Kurds, who have been loyal and effective fighters against ISIS, will be big losers. The departure of American forces leaves the Kurds — the largest ethnic group in the world without a nation-state of its own — at the mercy of Turkey, which has threatened to invade the Kurdish-controlled portions of Syria. Turkey, which has a large Kurdish minority population, fears an independent Kurdistan, and the regime of Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan likely will send forces into Syria to suppress the Kurds.

Putin’s Russia benefits from Trump’s decision, which only strengthens the belief among Middle East countries that the United States under Trump is a fickle and unreliable partner. More and more countries in the region will continue to look to Moscow for aid, weapons, and trade. Russia has backed Assad against Syrian rebels, and without the American military on the ground, Moscow will have little opposition in pursuing its goals in Syria and the wider Middle East. 

Presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Donald Trump of the United States

Actions so beneficial to Russia suggest master puppeteer Putin pulling Trump strings. But, why a pullout now? Given Trump’s impulsiveness, it is always difficult to know. Certainly, there has been no policy review through normal channels since most of Trump’s policy advisers disagree with his decision. Perhaps, it could have been the suggestion of the last person with whom Trump spoke before he announced the withdrawal.

Or, it could be more sinister. The New York Times quotes a Defense Department official who suggests the pullout is a tactic to divert attention from Trump’s legal problems, which have been mounting in recent weeks, including the Russia investigation, the sentencing of Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, for his role in paying hush money to women who claimed they had affairs with Trump, and the harsh criticism by a federal judge of former national security adviser Michael Flynn for lying to investigators. Likely incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Trump’s “hasty announcement” was timed to come the day after Flynn’s court appearance in which he admitted “he was a registered foreign agent for a country with clear interests in the Syrian conflict,” a reference to Turkey. “All Americans should be concerned,” Pelosi said.

This posits a kind of reverse “wag the dog” theory to explain Trump’s action in Syria. When presidents “wag the dog,” normally it means the start of military action to distract from other problems. Trump’s presidency is abnormal, so his wagging the dog to end U.S. involvement in a war should not be surprising.

Whatever the explanation, Vladimir Putin is pleased: His stooge delivered, once again.

Posted December 21, 2018


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