US withdrawal from Syria kicks off Donald Trump's outsize distraction strategy for 2020 bid as prosecutors tighten screws

New York: Stunning his country's entire military establishment, US President Donald Trump who has been pushed to a corner by the escalating political and legal dangers of 17 different investigations into his business and politics that may have gamed his election itself, has decided to pull out all of the 2000 and more American troops in Syria and took to his favorite social media platform Twitter to declare victory: "We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency."

Leverage the office while you can seems to be the message from Trump's decision today as bad news is breaking round the clock on his front porch. Wednesday's bombshell: Trump's "lie" about no truck with Russia was exposed today as news networks flashed copies of a letter of intent he signed for a Moscow deal he was pursuing while running for President. That's not all. Trump has caved on the wall; the Michael Flynn conspiracy theories have collapsed; his charity has been forced to shutter down, his favorite children may be the next dominos to fall so here's what he does: Blow up the US Mideast strategy, spun from thin air.

Just another Wednesday in what Trump-scarred folks call Crazytown.

The Syria announcement today left key details blank, in signature Trump style. There's no timetable for withdrawal and zero detailing on whether airstrikes would continue. Critics tore into Trump saying he leaves Syria’s future in the hands of Moscow and Tehran.

Top military and defence analysts are calling this a "head scratching" and "wildly impulsive" move but the timing of the surprise announcement suggests it's a calculated political pivot ahead of the Christmas holidays and after a string of bruising weeks headlined by his implication in a criminal case involving hush money payments to two women in a bid to cover up damning information ahead of the 2016 US elections. Trump's former fixer Michael Cohen has been sentenced to three years in prison for his role in multiple cases, including the hush money payments where he made the payments to women "at the direction of and in co-ordination with Individual 1" - which is Donald Trump.

 US withdrawal from Syria kicks off Donald Trumps outsize distraction strategy for 2020 bid as prosecutors tighten screws

US president Donald Trump. Reuters

For Trump, a man known to react with rage at negative news cycles, a distraction - a big one - was absolutely essential to get the news media to step off the gas on the Mueller probe and dig elsewhere. Bringing troops home plays not just to Trump's base but to the collective fatigue that Americans feel about dousing fires outside the homeland. It also feeds into the Christmas spirit and scrubs some of the flak Trump has been getting for despatching military men to the US Mexico border to stop the "migrant invasion". All this comes at a time when Trump plans to roll out an unprecedented structure and fundraising machine for his 2020 reelection campaign.

In the recent past, strongman action in Syria has given Trump some of his most memorable moments. When he countered Syria's chemical attack with 59 Tomahawk missiles, political and public opinion rallied around him. He was universally praised for a quick and decisive response. For Trump, who watches and rails at news television all day, prime time means everything and bringing troops home is a political winner, no matter what the wonks may be saying. A good way to understand the thinking is from one of Trump's many gems, this one from an old interview to The New York Times: "I'm always moving. I'm moving in both directions". Apply that to the current White House in turmoil and a story begins to form: Trump knows he has been reduced to a bit role in the shutdown drama at the end of the year, nobody is giving him money for his border wall, he knows the joke is on his and his family after his charity was forced to shut down this week, Democrats are taking over the House in January and all this is just too much for him to bear. He wakes up the next morning, plays flamethrower and then watches the fun.

This time though, is slightly different from his earlier action on Syria that won him praise but Trump is not backing down. Instead, he's leaving his deputy Mike Pence to face the flak. Republicans ripped Trump’s surprise Syria withdrawal in a meeting with Pence, giving him a "earful" according to those present.

Planning for the pullout has begun and troops will begin leaving as soon as possible, US officials said. Trump said American forces no longer were needed in a country torn apart by long-running civil war. Trump has argued for the withdrawal since he was a presidential candidate. But the decision underscores the division between him and his military advisers, who have said in recent weeks that pockets of IS militants remain and U.S. policy has been to keep troops in place until the extremists are eradicated. Trump's national security adviser, John Bolton, said in September that the U.S. would keep a military presence in Syria as long as Iran is active there. "We're not going to leave as long as Iranian troops are outside Iranian borders and that includes Iranian proxies and militias," he said.

Leading Republican senators also reacted with displeasure to the news. Senator Lindsay Graham, typically a Trump backer, said he was "blindsided" by the report and called the decision "a disaster in the making." He said, "The biggest winners in this are ISIS and Iran."

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida said the withdrawal would be a "grave error with broader implications" beyond the fight against IS.
Just last week, the U.S. special envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, Brett McGurk, said U.S. troops would remain in Syria even after the Islamic State was driven from its strongholds.

Just hours before the withdrawal decision became public, the State Department announced late Tuesday that it had approved the sale of a $3.5 billion Patriot missile defense system to Turkey. The Turks had complained that the U.S. was slow walking requests for air defenses and had signed a deal with Russia to buy a sophisticated system in a deal that Washington and Ankara's other NATO partners strongly opposed.

The U.S. first launched airstrikes against IS fighters in Syria in 2014. In the years that followed, the U.S. began partnering with Syrian ground forces to fight the extremists. The Pentagon recently said that IS now controls just 1 percent of the territory it originally held.

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Updated Date: Dec 20, 2018 05:00:01 IST