Putin Poised to Disrupt Trump’s Plans with a New Four-Pronged Middle East Pact
President Vladimir Putin immersed himself this week in putting together a pact between Russia, Syria, Iran and Iraq to forestall the Trump administration’s bid for control of Syria’s borders with Iraq and Jordan. (See lead item in this issue.)
The Russian president finds levers for promoting his project. They are:
1. Donald Trump’s increasingly troubled presidency in Washington.
2. The rift between President Trump and the US intelligence community. As a former intelligence agent himself, Putin judges that the very appointment of a senior former spy chief of the rank of ex-FBI Director Robert Mueller to investigate the president is in itself a bad omen for its likely conclusion. And meanwhile, Trump is out of control.
3. Two Middle East leaders have already made haste to distance themselves from the Trump administration: King Abdullah of Jordan and Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources report that Abdullah no longer relies on the thousands of US elite troops on hand to defend his border with Syria and has gone outside his alliance with Washington for help.
Wednesday, May 17, he sat down with President Abdul-Fatteh El-Sisi in Cairo and asked him to send Egyptian troops to northern Jordan, southern Syria and western Iraq to defend the Hashemite Kingdom from the pro-Iranian militia forces advancing on his borders in two heads: One column that includes Syrian and Hizballah troops is advancing from southeastern Syria; the other, consisting of Iraqi Shiites under Iranian Revolutionary Guards command, has set out from the Iraqi town of Ar-Rutba and is approaching the Iraqi-Syrian-Jordanian border junction.
The Jordanian king is more scared of the threat to his kingdom of an Iranian-backed incursion than he is of an attack by the Islamic State – to the point that he has also turned to Pakistan, Indonesia and Brunei to negotiate for ground forces.
As for the Turkish leader, during his conversation with President Trump at the White House on Tuesday, May 16, Erdogan warned that if Turkish forces were attacked by the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, Ankara would “implement the rules of engagement without asking anyone.”
He also said, according to Turkish media, that his army would not join the US-led coalition’s operation to liberate Raqqa, because Washington had chosen the YPG as partner.
Two days later, on Thursday, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu accused Brett McGurk, the senior US envoy to the coalition against the Islamic State, of backing Kurdish militants and said he should be sent home. Trump should get rid of him, the minister said.
Erdogan has made it clear by word and deed that Turkish-US military cooperation is at an end. He now feels free to pursue other options for a role in the Syrian and Iraqi arenas, such as joining the Middle East axis Putin is building.
This axis is still a work in progress. Turkey’s attachment would make Putin’s pact an important regional powerhouse before Trump’s Arab-Islamic coalition sees the light of day in Riyadh next week.
Putin and Trump have set their sights on the same initial target: control of the Syrian-Iraqi border – although their motivations differ.
Trump is anxious to thwart Iran’s efforts to achieve direct overland access to the Mediterranean, whereas Putin is willing to help Tehran achieve that goal and so make it possible to move Iranian forces from the Gulf to the Mediterranean.
The Russian president believes that by giving Iran what it wants, he will gain control – or at least a broad military foothold – in both Syria and Iran. The opening up of this direct route to the Mediterranean will also, Putin hopes, open up Middle East markets to Russian oil sales.