Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops out of northern Syria has reminded the world of how important Nato and the US are to global peace and security, according to a former UK defence secretary.
Lord Robertson, who was Tony Blair’s first defence secretary and then secretary-general of Nato, said the US President’s “capricious” foreign policy had led to some “very bad actors taking centre stage”.
Last weekend, the White House announced it was pulling its forces from the immediate area and would not be involved with Turkey’s cross-border military operation, which began on Wednesday.
Lord Robertson described Syria as a “disaster” and a “modern tragedy” and accused President Trump of trying to divert attention away from domestic issues in the US.
“He’s alerted people both to the necessity for Nato and also the importance of American leadership in the world,” he said.
“Whether you like American leadership or hate it, you actually need it in the world today. They are the only superpower.
“At the moment we are in a situation where the Trump administration’s capricious way of dealing with foreign policy has led to complete confusion in the world today and has allowed some very bad actors to take centre stage.”
Lord Robertson said that President Trump’s actions had reminded Nato members that collectively they had “political clout”.
“The greatest strength of the Nato alliance is not the number of tanks, ships or planes, it is the values that underpin democratic societies – a free press, free speech, the rule of law and the separation of church and state,” he said.
Lord Robertson was speaking at the Cheltenham Literature Festival at an event celebrating the 70th anniversary of Nato.
"We have great, talented military. We’re bringing them back home. Our military has never been stronger. But we’re now acting as police." Others must step up! pic.twitter.com/7rFqZ5kGqk
— The White House (@WhiteHouse) October 9, 2019
He blamed the decision by MPs six years ago to reject then prime minister David Cameron’s plan to bomb Syria in response to President Assad’s use of chemical weapons for the problems now.
“That was a pivotal moment and led to the Americans pulling back and let the Russians in and in many ways a direct cause of a lot of the damage that is going on just now,” he said.
“You shouldn’t underestimate the burden that Turkey actually carries. There are 3.5 million Syrian refugees in Turkey today and only 10% are accommodated in camps.
“Turkey hosts them and prevents them from leaving Turkey and crossing the Adriatic into the EU.
“They now feel their national interests have been prejudiced and President Trump has taken a decision capriciously and maybe also to avoid attention being paid to other domestic problems, it is unconscionable what he has done in that case.”
Fellow panellist Dr Karin Von Hippel, director-general of the Royal United Services Institute, said that President Trump had given Turkey the “green light” to attack the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which have been leading the fight against Isis.
“The irony is that if Donald Trump does really care about countering Isis long-term, he is just given Isis this incredible boost by doing what he’s just done,” she said.
“The Kurds are guarding thousands of foreign fighters and they could say it’s not our priority and could easily walk away from these prisons and these detention centres.”
Retired General Sir Richard Shirreff, a former Nato deputy supreme allied commander Europe, added: “It is an absolute tragedy that Britain and America’s allies, the SDF, have been hung out to dry.
“The other point is that who would have thought that if you rolled the clock back four years to the time when Turkey shot down a Russian fighter jet, look at the rapprochement now, that is now in its own way a strategic shock.
“You can’t let the Turks have secrets if the Russians are able to get hold of them, so it places Nato in a very difficult position.”