Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's death won't reverse the damage Trump has done to US political standing in the Middle East

Despite everything, it was a stunning win for a somewhat beleaguered president, who had been hounded by critics, allies, experts and even key figures within his own party, for disastrously flip-flopping on Syria over the past three weeks

Bel Trew
Sunday 27 October 2019 20:14 GMT
‘He died whimpering and crying’: Trump announces Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi killed in US raid in Syria

You could feel the unbridled joy from Donald Trump when he teased the world with a six-word tweet at three o’clock on Sunday morning:

“Something very big has just happened!” he said without elaborating.

More than 10 hours of swirling speculation later, the president takes to a White House podium and confirms: Isis leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, one of the most wanted men on the planet, was killed during a US operation in Idlib, northwest Syria.

“Baghdadi and the losers who worked for him and losers they were, they had no idea... they were frightened puppies,” the American president says of the two-hour military operation.

Baghdadi “was whimpering screaming and crying... he didn’t die a hero he died a coward,” he adds.

World leaders are quick to congratulate Trump, with allies from Boris Johnson to Benjamin Netanyahu applauding the “impressive achievement”.

Only a lightly disgruntled Russia, who claimed to have killed Baghdadi in 2017, are a little cold. Iran says: “Not a big deal, you just killed your creature.”

It was a stunning win for a somewhat beleaguered president, who has been hounded by critics, allies, experts and even key figures within his own party, for disastrously flip-flopping on Syria over the past three weeks.

But, while the world is congratulating Trump right now, and this will no doubt boost his re-election chances, taking out Baghdadi will not undo the damage his policies have already done to US political standing in the region and with its allies.

“Whether by ‘chance’ or by design, the raid against al-Baghdadi is a real bonanza for President Trump after he appeared to effectively backstab one of America’s main allies in the fight against Isis,” says Michael A Horowitz, a security analyst and head of intelligence at Le Beck International.

“What al-Baghdadi’s death won’t reverse is Washington’s gradual loss of influence in Syria and the region as a whole, and the perception that America is not a dependable ally.”

To explain why, you have to go back to 6 October, when Trump caught the world off guard with a somewhat poorly worded statement.

He said US troops would step aside and not hinder an imminent Turkish invasion into northern Syria against Kurdish forces, the US’s longterm ally that has lost more than 10,000 fighters helping Washington defeat Isis.

Critics say it gave the green light to Turkey’s controversial incursion, which kicked off just days later, and has seen nearly 200,000 people displaced.

More than 100 Isis fighters exploiting the chaos have escaped from SDF-run prison, sparking fears of a resurgence of the jihadi group.

Iraqi state media posts clip of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi raid in northern Syria

Trump defended his actions saying he wanted the US to extricate itself from dangerous and endless wars in the Middle East region.

“We’re bringing our soldiers back home,” he said repeatedly. But in reality there was a hasty and messy redeployment, as the fighting intensified.

Rather than flying the 1,000 or so troops in Syria home, a few hundred soldiers were pelted with vegetables as they crossed from Syria into Iraq. Embarrassingly Baghdad hit back, saying that the US forces had no permission to stay permanently.

The US also had to bomb the bases they left behind.

They then panicked about the oil fields in Syria, which are vulnerable to attacks from the regime and Isis, and so decided to redeploy a few hundred troops and tanks to guard the oil facilities.

As the news was swirling about Baghdadi being killed, footage of US soldiers driving back into Syria was also being shared online.

Before Baghdadi’s killing, from Israel to the Gulf, officials, diplomats and commentators in response expressed fears that the Trump administration was ultimately prioritising isolationism over loyalty to all his regional partners.

Even Saudi analysts writing for the usually carefully-worded pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat spoke of the “the state of confusion and emptiness” in US relations.

Russia, meanwhile, had a field day walking through abandoned US bases.

And it was Vladimir Putin who eventually hammered out the details of the ceasefire between Turkey and the Kurds, which included Russian military police, flown in from Chechnya, doing joint patrols of Syrian borderlands.

Both politically and geographically Russia was taking over the space the US has long enjoyed as a regional powerhouse.

Horowitz says Trump managed to both alienate Washington’s Kurdish partners and Turkey, by withdrawing and letting Turkey take over – only to later threaten Ankara with sanctions for an operation the president effectively approved.

“Whatever was done after, including the ceasefire and pledge to maintain some US presence to protect ‘the oil’, can only be described as chaotic damage control,” he says.

“The US effectively jeopardised its chance to have a say in Syria’s future, leaving Russia as the last remaining power broker and giving Isis a chance to take advantage of the vacuum that was created to reorganise.”

While Baghdadi’s death is important, as proved by comparison to Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda, terror groups can survive the death of their leaders.

As Horowitz concludes: “The self-inflicted wound America suffered will be far harder to heal.”

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