Who made the bigger mistake in Syria: Trump or Putin?

This blog asked whether Donald Trump might have made a serious error – perhaps even a fatal one – when he acquiesced in Turkey’s attack on America’s Syrian-Kurdish allies. He managed to irritate key supporters in the US Senate and early polling suggested a drop in support for his Middle East policies among Republican voters.

Failure to stand up for allies, dislike of Turkish self-assertion, fears of an ISIS resurgence and a sense that the US was being railroaded, all seem to have played some part in this reaction.

But for an explanation of why this might work out splendidly for the US (and Donald Trump), look no further than the piece by Israeli political analyst Zev Chafets on Bloomberg.

Chafets thinks that Trump is smart to cede responsibility to Russian President Vladimir Putin for this particular corner of the “bloody sandbox”, saying:

“The Russian leader struts on the world stage, but he has not exactly won a victory. Sooner or later, al-Qaeda, Islamic State or the next iteration of jihad will break loose in Syria. When that happens, the Russians will be the new Satan on the block.”

He predicts that the “safety zone” carved from Northern Syria by Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan must lead to proxy fighting between Syria and Turkey, and will eventually collapse.  Russia will be caught up in this quarrel and powerless to resolve it.

Another problem for Putin will be what he terms “the ongoing Israel-Iran war, which is being fought largely in Syrian territory”.  Russia’s growing Syrian footprint will be exposed to its considerable risks, but with little ability to influence its course.  

Chafets is brutally dismissive of those who say Trump has damaged American prestige and influence in the Middle East:

“The Arab world understands realpolitik and will read Trump’s indifference to the fate of Syria as the self-serving behavior of the strong horse.”

And he rightly points out that despite the Kurdish play, the US still retains a strong, if not unrivalled, capability to intrude again in order to influence events.

It’s a plausible thesis.  Perhaps if he had more space, Chafets might have included more on Iranian-Turkish co-operation and rivalry in the Middle East, and explained the possible implications of the three-cornered contest between Israel – Turkey – Iran (and the limits on the ability of external parties to influence this).  

Putin is surely going to find that Russia is no better at earning gratitude in the Middle East, than was the US.  He may also learn that he has overestimated the Russian public’s willingness to pay the price in both blood and treasure of being a great power in that part of the world.

All this might play well for Trump in the longer term.  In the short term, he still has the tricky job of managing the conflict in his Republican electorate between the desire to do something in the Middle East and reluctance to bear the costs.  Events could play the major role – particularly the eruption and direction of what Chafets describes as the next “iteration of jihad”.

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