US allies see Middle East strategy vacuum that Putin can fill

America’s partners in NATO reach out to Russian leader as they distance themselves from deadly airstrike in Iraq on top Iranian general

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin smile during a ceremony for the dual natural gas line, TurkStream, connecting their countries, in Istanbul, January 8, 2020. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin smile during a ceremony for the dual natural gas line, TurkStream, connecting their countries, in Istanbul, January 8, 2020. (Presidential Press Service via AP, Pool)

PARIS (AP) — He was the leader on the world stage, visiting troops stationed in a far-flung war zone for the holidays, shoring up alliances and economic deals in the Mideast, requesting a meeting with the German chancellor in his capital, portraying himself and his country as reliable partners in an increasingly uncertain world.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has had a busy week, stepping into the aftermath of the American drone strike that killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani. Putin’s visit Tuesday to Syria was emblematic of a reality that has been playing out in recent months: The US strategic position in the Middle East is a mystery to many of its allies, and Russia is more than ready to fill any vacuum.

The shift has, in many ways, left US allies in a bind — or turning to Russia themselves in search of a partner.

Putin was the first world leader French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with just after learning about the drone strike on Friday. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, meanwhile, is traveling to the Kremlin to discuss the crisis in the Mideast.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad light candles while visiting an orthodox cathedral for Christmas, in Damascus, Syria, January 7, 2020. (Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Canada, Denmark and Germany moved their troops in Iraq to safety, as did NATO, which has forces stationed there as part of the international coalition against the Islamic State group. There was no sign that any had been warned by the Trump administration of the drone strike. Coalition activities froze, and NATO’s secretary-general described the killing as “a US decision. It is not a decision taken by either the global coalition nor NATO. But all allies are concerned about Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region.”

The base targeted in northern Iraq was filled with coalition troops.

Putin offered an alternative to perceived chaos.

“Unfortunately, the situation in the region we are in tends to escalate. But Turkey and Russia are demonstrating different examples – examples of cooperation for the sake of our nations and all of Europe,” he said Wednesday in Turkey.

Israel, which has criticized the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, has been quiet about the drone strike aside from a brief statement of praise from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seemingly disinclined to escalate an already volatile situation between its closest ally and its sworn enemy. US President Donald Trump’s first face to face meeting with an ally came Monday with the Saudi deputy defense minister, Khalid bin Salman. But he didn’t confirm it until a day later, after the prince revealed it in a tweet.

“We discussed Trade, Military, Oil Prices, Security, and Stability in the Middle East!” Trump tweeted.

The American president spoke by phone with Macron on Sunday and with Merkel on Tuesday.

US President Donald Trump walks with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis along the Colonnade of the White House, January 7, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Putin’s travel plans have continued apace. His visit to Russian troops for the Orthodox Christmas came unannounced, as was his meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who owes his continued rule to a combination of Russian and Iranian intervention. The message was unmistakable.

“Even NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, always ready to play along with the US, found it necessary to distance himself from the killing of the Iranian general by saying that the US made this decision without NATO’s involvement. So Washington’s attempts to ex post facto shore up their European allies failed,” Alexei Pushkov, lawmaker in Russia’s upper house of parliament, wrote in a tweet Tuesday.

He added, “It’s emblematic that right in the middle of a pre-war crisis around Iran Merkel is heading to talks with Putin and not Trump. There is no point in talks with Trump.”

Defense Secretary Mark Esper refused to say whether Trump had warned allies before the strike: “I’m not going to get into the details of our consultations.”

Stoltenberg said several US briefers explained the “rationale” behind the Trump administration’s decision to kill Soleimani, but he declined to provide details or timing.

Trump campaigned on an “America First” policy and long has said he wants to reduce US involvement in foreign wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

But his decision to bomb pro-Iranian militias and then to kill Iran’s best-known general in a missile strike outside Baghdad’s airport caught Middle Eastern and European allies unaware and confused. Since then, the US also has given off conflicting signals on its intentions to exit Iraq even while it deploys more troops immediately for protection against a possible Iranian response.

A burning vehicle at the Baghdad International Airport following an airstrike in Baghdad, Iraq, in which Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed January 3, 2020. (Iraqi Prime Minister Press Office via AP)

Amelie de Montchalin, a top French diplomat, told lawmakers Wednesday that France’s solidarity was based solely on the international coalition against the Islamic State extremist group.

“This was a decision made by the United States without consulting France for national security reasons, and it’s therefore an American initiative and it’s their sole responsibility,” Montchalin said.

The administration has held up Soleimani’s death as a master stroke that eliminated a region-wide troublemaker and saved American lives. Trump insisted that the United States would leave Iraq eventually, but that the Iraqi people wanted American soldiers to remain: “At some point we want to get out but this isn’t the right point.”

Putin’s trip to Turkey was planned a month ago, even if its timing this week was fortuitous. And his visit to Damascus was simply a continuation of the Kremlin’s growing reach in the Mideast and the diminishing sway of the United States, said Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey and a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe. Merkel’s trip to the Kremlin was scheduled late last month, but Iran has always been the main topic on the agenda.

Illustrative: US President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin arrive for a meeting in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, 2018. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP)

“Putin doesn’t need to do much. He’s just watching. Everything you’ve seen for the past year or so, since December 2018 when Trump first announced the withdrawal of US troops from Syria, everything has gone the Kremlin’s way. There’s not much to do, there’s nothing to activate. The Russian policy in that region has been to talk to everybody, to capitalize on an American vacuum,” Pierini said.

The December 2018 announcement was widely criticized as an American abandonment of its Kurdish allies, who fought alongside US forces against the Islamic State group in northeast Syria. After US forces withdrew, Turkey launched an offensive and the Kurds turned to Russia and the Syrian government for protection. It was a Russian deal with Turkey that ended the invasion. What little presence the US military retains in Syria depends heavily upon logistical support from its bases in Iraq, and the outgoing Iraqi prime minister said Tuesday that American forces must leave.

“We have no exit but this,” said Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi, “otherwise we are speeding toward confrontation.”

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