In a 20-minute discussion on Wednesday with the press, US President Donald Trump spoke his mind about Syria, Iran and Afghanistan, leaving the Middle East perplexed about US policies.
After two weeks of uncertainty following his decision to withdraw from Syria, his latest comments appear to fuel only more questions about what the US is up to in the region.
In an unusually candid discussion, Trump said that the US was searching to do “something that was right” in Afghanistan. He said the US was talking about the Taliban.
He implied that India, Pakistan and Russia should do more in there. This is similar to his doctrine on Syria, where he has said that neighboring states should be more involved.
Trump shocked some commentators by noting that Russia was right to have fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
His overall point was to ask why regional actors are not doing more when the US, which he said was 10,000 km. away, was doing the work.
He noted the irony that ISIS and the Taliban were fighting each other in Afghanistan.
“They are fighting each other. I said, why don’t you let them fight? Why are we getting in the middle of it?” He called US military policy “the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” yet another indication that Trump is unhappy with his generals.
Discussing Syria, the US President said that the four-month timeline was invented by someone else. He said that the US was leaving Syria, but the timeline was flexible.
He accused the Obama administration of failing in Syria. In some unclear comments, he said the Kurds were selling oil to Iran.
“We want to protect the Kurds, nevertheless. I don’t want to be in Syria forever,” he said.
He said Syria was mostly sand and death, and he said that ISIS was threatening Russia and Iran.
He claimed the US was doing the job for Russia, Assad and Iran in a roundabout way.
“Iran is a much different country than when I became president.”
He said he had been briefed on how Iran threatened large parts of the Middle East.
“How do you stop these people? They are all over the place,” Trump asked. He now says that Iran is pulling troops out of Syria.
He murmured, “They can do what they want there frankly, but they are pulling people out.”
He said that Iran was on the verge of taking over the whole Middle East, and seeking to destroy Israel. But now they are threatened with internal unrest.
“We were supposed to be out of Syria many years ago… I don’t want to be in Syria,” he said, referencing wounded US soldiers.
The reaction in the region was relatively calm, largely because two weeks of uncertainty have led many to see the US policy as wavering and unclear.
Trump’s initial decision was greeted with surprise in Russia, Iran, Syria and elsewhere in the region. When he went to Iraq on December 26, the visit hammered home his decision to leave Syria and angered pro-Iranian elements in Iraq.
Later Trump seemed to backtrack, amid concerns from Israel and other countries. Now he says the timetable is open-ended.
This comes as Iran says it will hold another round of talks about Syria with Turkey and Russia in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana.
“Iran’s power is undeniable,” the regime said, according to local press in Tehran.
Trump’s latest policy move confirms what he has said in the past about bringing troops home.
It also retains his doctrine of trying to get other countries to step in as the US reduces its footprint. In the Middle East, his comments left many perplexed, and this may feed views that the US is vulnerable.
However, regimes are also concerned over alienating Trump because he appears prone to rapid changes in policy.
That would mean if he feels that he is being taken advantage of or if US troops are threatened, the US will respond with overwhelming force. This has made Russia, Turkey, Iran and others cautious over direct challenges to US policy. They are waiting to see if the US really will quit Syria.
That process now looks like it will take many months.
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