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From Trump tweets to Pentagon leaks, infighting leaves US Middle East policy in tatters

From Trump tweets to Pentagon leaks, infighting leaves US Middle East policy in tatters

US Middle East policy was plunged into fresh chaos on Monday following a pair of confusing, menacing tweets on Syria and Turkey by Donald Trump and a string of leaks from State Department and Pentagon officials targeting the hardline White House national security adviser John Bolton over Iran. In a pair of Sunday afternoon tweets, Trump…

US Middle East policy was plunged into fresh chaos on Monday following a pair of confusing, menacing tweets on Syria and Turkey by Donald Trump and a string of leaks from State Department and Pentagon officials targeting the hardline White House national security adviser John Bolton over Iran.

In a pair of Sunday afternoon tweets, Trump threatened to “devastate Turkey economically” if it were to attack Syria’s Kurds, advocated the creation of a 20-mile buffer zone along the Syrian-Turkish border, and seemed to imply that Russia, Iran and the Damascus regime of Bashar al-Assad will take up the anti-Isis fight as the US withdraws troops from northern Syria.

“It is now time to bring our troops back home,” he wrote, adding in capital letters with an exclamation point: “Stop the endless wars.”

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At the same, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and New York Times all carried major damaging stories targeting White House Middle East policy, all sourced to unnamed American diplomats and defence officials, targeting Mr Trump’s handpicked adviser Mr Bolton for pushing the country towards the brink of war with Iran and trying to maintain the US military presence in Syria as a bulwark against Iranian influence.  

Regional and international powers, including the UK and France, have been watching agape as they seek to divine the administration’s intentions.

“It’s a big mess. We’re dealing with unreliable partners,” said a western diplomat focusing closely on Middle East policy, speaking on condition of anonymity.

“What is Trump trying to do?” asked Turkish state broadcaster TRT during a segment about the US president’s Middle East policy.

The new layer of uncertainty and infighting surfaced during a critical period that highlighted the dangers in the Middle East.

Israel launched fresh air strikes on alleged Iranian-backed military positions near the Syrian capital Damascus on Friday. Iran is hinting at plans to enrich uranium to a higher level than would be allowed under the landmark nuclear deal signed in 2015 but scuttled last year by Mr Trump, and launch two rockets into space in a move that observers worry is meant to refine its long-range missile capabilities.

Turkey continues to mass troops along its southern border in preparation for a possible attack on a Kurdish militia in Syria that it regards as a terrorist group but which has been allied with the US in the conflict against Isis. Some 80,000 Turkish troops have reportedly been mobilised for what could be a bloody incursion.  

Washington, meanwhile, appears to be at war with itself. While the US is withdrawing troops from northern Syria in a fashion that has alarmed even some longtime foes of American military intervention abroad, it is also organising an anti-Iran conference in Poland meant to mobilise support against Tehran, and create cracks in the European consensus on supporting the nuclear deal.

Neither the UK, France, nor Germany plan to participate in the conference, said the western diplomat.

“They are pushing Iran to make a mistake,” the diplomat said. “They are trying to break Europe.”

Turkey took Mr Trump’s threats to its economy in stride. A top Turkish official call the president’s equating Syria’s Kurds with the YPG militia partnered with Washington a “a fatal mistake”. Top Turkish officials retweeted a 2015 post by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan insisting that Ankara would “never allow the formation of a state in the north of Syria”, in reference to the Kurdish-led self-ruled region called Rojava overseen by the YPG. 

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“Strategic alliances should not be discussed over Twitter or social media,” Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters in Ankara.

The White House’s public menacing of Turkey could undermine its own Iran aims by making Ankara even less amenable to abiding by US pressure on Iran. Turkey’s neighbour to the east is also a major trading partner.  

At the heart of Mr Trump’s contradictory Middle East gambits lie the former game-show host’s domestic woes and entanglements. Forced to rely solely on conservative support as his unpopularity increases, he is caught between playing to an isolationist base that wants no part in America’s foreign wars and satiating influential, well-funded and ideologically driven Beltway hawks who seek above all to reshape the Middle East.

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