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Three Men And Three Scenes

Three Men And Three Scenes

Monday, 24 December, 2018 - 11:00
Ghassan Charbel
Ghassan Charbel is the editor-in-chief of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper
Donald Trump arrived at the White House from outside the dictionary that gave birth to his predecessors. He imposed himself on the party and won the presidency. Solo in nature, he is very impressed with his talent to forge deals. He trusts Donald Trump more than he trusts institutions. He relies on Twitter more than he does on the Pentagon Generals. Trump surprised enemies and allies alike, and the US Administration too, in his decision to fully withdraw from Syria.

Despite the enormous differences between the two countries, the two regimes and the two men, Trump’s decision reminded me of what I heard years ago from Iraqi Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Nizar al-Khazraji about Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. Khazraji was living in Denmark, to which he fled from Iraq. I asked him about his role in the invasion and he replied: “I was sleeping in my house the night of the events. The secretary of the general command Alaeddine Al-Jannabi contacted me asking me to go to the headquarters. When I entered his office he said: ‘We have completed the occupation of Kuwait. I asked: How? He replied: The Republican Guard, the Air Force and the military air units have completed the occupation of Kuwait. Fifteen minutes later, Defense Minister Abdul Jabbar Shanshal arrived and was informed in the same way. Imagine that the army is pushing in an adventure of this kind without the knowledge of the defense minister and the chief of staff.”

I am not comparing Trump to Saddam Hussein of course. They come from different worlds and drink from different springs. Trump’s life is not marked with heavy afflictions from Halabja and Anfal, the Kuwait invasion, or the chemical attacks against the rebels. I am also not saying that the slogan “America First” is like the slogan of “one Arab nation with an eternal message.” I just wanted to point out what a leader could do if he did not believe in the need to consult with people of experience within the state institutions.

Just days before Trump’s decision, there was increasing talk about the importance of the US military presence in East Euphrates, Manjeb and Al-Tanf. There were many analyses suggesting that the US presence provides some balance with Russia’s decisive military and political role in Syria; offers a site to intercept the Iranian flow and its attempt to expand its influence on the Syrian map; and curbs the Turkish role by providing a protective umbrella for Kurds - the last US ally in the country. The US role was also seen as a powerful reminder of the spirit of Geneva after Vladimir Putin went so far in imposing the Astana talks on the draft political solution. These considerations were behind the British, French and Italian participation in the east of the Euphrates, accompanied by the aspiration to present a “model-region” at the table of any future negotiations on the Syrian future.

All these scenarios have suddenly evaporated. Trump took the decision to withdraw. Defense Secretary General James Mattis tried to dissuade the president. The later did not change his mind and asked him to prepare withdrawal plans. Mattis has tried in vain to absorb the poison that he was forced to drink. He could not tolerate the dose, so he resigned. Mattis is a legitimate son of the US military. He skillfully managed the military presence in the east of the Euphrates and dealt the same way with Putin’s interventions and the rise of the Chinese giant. Mattis saw in the US withdrawal a military and political mistake that the Kurds would be considered as deceitful and would be seen by friends as proof that the alliance with Washington was tiring, costly and uncertain. Another man could not bear the decision. Brett McGurk, the US envoy to the global coalition fighting ISIS, resigned in protest.

Amid the preoccupation of the United States, its allies and friends with the “sudden” decision, the Kremlin president held his annual marathon press conference. What an impressive tradition! The heir of the tsars sits in front of screens and answers questions of a crowd of journalists and citizens. He sent messages to the world reaffirming that today’s Russia was different from what it was in the early 20th century. It is a unified team of ironmen, in which the defense minister does not resign and the secretary of state does not keep his bag ready for a surprise departure.

Putin can show the victorious smile although he learned at KGB about the need to hide his feelings. He went a long way in shaking the cohesion of the Western alliance and the image of America. He confirmed that the Russian pillow is comforting and able to protect allies, cover their mistakes and ensure their survival. The best proof is that the Kurds of Syria will have no other choice than to resort to the Russian Hmeimim base and perhaps to the Syrian regime itself to face Turkey’s intervention in their areas.

There is a third man and a third scene. At the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, President Xi Jinping presided over the 40th anniversary of the launching of the country’s economic opening-up policy, stressing that no one can dictate to China what it should do. The strength of Xi’s view is supported by figures. In four decades, the reform and opening-up policy has pushed hundreds of millions of Chinese out of poverty and turned the country into the world's second economy. The President was clear. The country will witness further reforms but under the cloak of the Communist Party. "The leadership of the Communist Party of China is the most essential feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics and the greatest advantage of the socialist system with Chinese characteristics," he said.

A simple observation of what happened in Washington, Moscow, and Beijing in the last few days shows that states and governments have to reflect on what is happening between the adults. This is not just about the present, but about the new international order, with signs of serious changes in its balance. This means security, politics, economy and the hotbeds of tension in the world.

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