Can Macron steer Trump?
French President Emmanuel Macron claimed in a television interview that he convinced US President Donald Trump not to withdraw, for the time being, the 2,000 troops the United States has in eastern Syria and restrict the US, British and French air and missile strikes to target Syrian chemical arms facilities.
There is room for doubt on the second claim as the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which has accurately documented the civil war in Syria since 2011, said the strikes were also aimed at bases in and around Damascus that house the regime’s two elite units — the Republican Guard and Fourth Armoured Division — commanded by Maher Assad, the president’s younger brother.
As for Macron’s first claim, the White House simply said Trump’s policy was the same as it had always been, neglecting to mention it had somersaulted, U-turned, quadrangulated and disappeared up its own Tweet in as many weeks. Trumpistan is tough to influence.
Just before the Douma chemical attack, Trump said the United States would be leaving Syria “very soon.” Until then, his administration signalled it would keep and strengthen US forces in Syria, both to finish the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS) and to deter further inroads by Iran and its proxies.
The reason to keep US troops in Syria is that they help protect the 10,000 US troops in Iraq. However, the administration’s stated policy provoked Turkey, a NATO ally at war with Kurdish insurgents within its own borders to invade north-western Syria. It was egged on by Russia, which controls western Syrian airspace.
Macron was blasted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when Syrian opposition leaders Macron had just met in Paris claimed the French would not pull out their special forces from Afrin in the eastern part of the People’s Protection Units (YPG)-controlled territory along the Syrian border that Turkish armed forces have overrun.
The French and the British are mindful that, if the Americans leave Syria quickly, there would be a stampede for that part of Syria that the YPG hold and to confront a perplexing witch’s brew of religious, ethnic and national conflicts featuring not only Islamist militants but Russian mercenaries, Iranian militias and Marxists Kurds. Macron seems more aware than Trump that the only thing harder than confronting this dire situation is ignoring it.
Whatever influence Macron may have over Trump, with whom he has established a better working relationship than either German Chancellor Angela Merkel or British Prime Minister Theresa May, he faces a country that, in the words of Jack Keane, a retired US Army general who remains close to US military officials, has “no coherent strategy” on Syria.
Trump seems unsure of what he believes, torn as he is between his party’s Reaganite intervention wing and the more isolationist views of Republicans such as his former confidant Steve Bannon.
In France, Macron has been criticised by the right and the left as a would-be Napoleon whose uniform is the too-tight suit of a PR man. Critics of May in the Conservative Party scoff at her as a third-rate Margaret Thatcher impersonator.
It would be ironic if those two European leaders should encourage Trump to allow the situation in Syria to slide to the edge of a cliff. A French president has a free hand in foreign affairs unless disaster strikes. The risk of drawing Europe, with a very reluctant Germany, into a regional war on the worst of terms and at the worst of times is very real.
Last November, when the Saudis seemingly held Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, Macron played a blinder. He swung the United States forcibly behind him. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz did not anticipate that his White House friends would react strongly against this bizarre behaviour and make an immediate gesture of visible support to the Lebanese Army.
Since then the Saudis have quietly restored the $1 billion line of credit to the Lebanese military, which they had denounced as under the control of Hezbollah.
Macron played his cards deftly but the quagmire in Syria is of another order of complexity.
Syria is not a problem that can be one-offed. ISIS may lose its remaining slivers of territory but US, British and French military officials agree that the terrorist group will carry on as an insurgency.
Syrian President Bashar Assad was not deterred from the continued use of poison gas by Trump’s 2017 air strike and there is no reason to believe he will not test the US president again.
Meanwhile, Israel is watching with alarm as Iran puts down roots in Syria through its military proxy, Hezbollah, which fought alongside Assad’s forces.
If the Western powers wish to remain powers, they must identify interests, not friends, defensible lines instead of blundering into failed states such as Syria. Times and maps have changed but, as a senior French diplomat said, Macron’s capacity to “steer” Trump will face a crucial acid test: Can he get Trump to recertify the Iran nuclear deal? Or as one British diplomat put is less charitably “can he get Donald Trump to put (national security adviser) John Bolton in a kennel?”