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The Middle East: Trump Pulls Back, Putin Pushes In


Donald Trump consistently says he wants to reduce or end the U.S. military presence in the Middle East. He said it again this week.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We're 70,000 miles away. I campaigned on bringing our soldiers back home. And that's what I'm doing.

SIMON: On the other hand, Vladimir Putin wants to expand his country's role in the region. And what's happening in Syria puts the larger aims of both leaders in relief. Here's NPR's national security correspondent Greg Myre.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: As U.S. troops pulled out of northern Syria, Russian forces filled the vacuum almost instantly. In one case, the Russians took over an abandoned U.S. outpost and shared a video. It shows half-eaten meals the Americans left on their dining tables. President Trump told reporters he has no problem with Russia stepping in to deal with the Islamic State and other threats.


TRUMP: Russia's tough. They can kill ISIS just as well. And they happen to be in their neighborhood.

MYRE: This development illustrated an important shift underway in the Middle East. Trump is scaling back the U.S. role. Russian President Vladimir Putin is looking to re-establish his country as a regional power broker. Becca Wasser is with the RAND Corporation.

BECCA WASSER: Russia exploits U.S. missteps left and right. Whenever the U.S. has ceded any space, Russia has been able to find these voids and fill them.

MYRE: Broadly speaking, many Americans favor an end to U.S. involvement in Middle Eastern wars. But Trump's critics say he's acting in an impulsive manner without regard for the instability that could follow. Meanwhile, Russia largely withdrew from the Middle East after the Soviet Union collapsed. But Putin wants today's Russia to be a force that can counter the U.S.

Eugene Rumer is with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

EUGENE RUMER: Its mission of getting itself re-established as a major power broker in the Middle East has been facilitated by the fact that the United States has been trying to disengage.

MYRE: A key turning point came in 2015. Putin sent Russian forces to support its only real partner in the region, the Syrian government led by Bashar Assad. Today, Assad is in a much stronger position. Earlier this month, Putin hosted an international conference and boasted about Russia's military success in Syria.


PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) Most of Syria was freed from terrorists within several years. And the level of violence has drastically decreased.

MYRE: Even more striking are the inroads Putin has made in Middle Eastern countries long aligned with the U.S. Russia sold an antiaircraft system to Turkey, a NATO member. Russia has also sent military vehicles and helicopters to Iraq and Egypt. Again, Becca Wasser.

WASSER: Russia has positioned itself as a no-strings-attached weapons supplier. Russia has essentially said that they don't care about some of the stickier issues, like human rights.

MYRE: And that's not all. Putin has built good relations with Israel. And with Israel's arch-enemy Iran and with Iran's main rival Saudi Arabia. This past week, Putin was in the Saudi capital for talks Between two of the world's largest oil producers. The Carnegie Endowment's Eugene Rumer says Russia has artfully managed this balancing act.

RUMER: They have skillfully maneuvered themselves into a series of these bilateral relationships where they can talk to everybody.

MYRE: Still, Russian resources are limited and revolve mostly around its military. For example, Russia doesn't have the money to help rebuild the shattered Syria, says Becca Wasser.

WASSER: Russia isn't going to get embroiled in different countries the way that the United States has.

MYRE: Putin may have limited means, she notes. But he plays this weak hand extremely well. Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent with a focus on the intelligence community, a position that follows his many years as a foreign correspondent covering conflicts around the globe.