One of America’s most prominent military figures has launched a scathing attack on Donald Trump’s Syria policy, warning that the US is risking a resurgence of ISIS.
David Petraeus, former CIA director and a retired four-star general who Mr Trump once considered for secretary of state, told the Beirut Institute Summit in Abu Dhabi that he was “deeply concerned” about what would happen after the withdrawal of US troops from northern Syria.
Mr Petraeus fears America’s enemies will exploit the move, that it will damage his country’s standing and that it will mean heavy casualties among its former friends.
Turkey launched a long-planned operation in north-east Syria last Wednesday, in a move widely condemned by governments around the world.
The US announced on Sunday that it would pull about 1,000 troops out of northern Syria as Turkey extended its operations against Kurdish forces, who were close allies of America in the fight against ISIS.
“I am deeply concerned that the US withdrawal of forces from northern Syria will lead to a resurgence of ISIS attacks in Syria and beyond, and to a perception that the US is an unreliable partner,” Mr Petraeus told the audience at the St Regis Corniche hotel.
He believed the withdrawal could lead to “substantial casualties” among partners who had helped to defeat ISIS and mean “considerable ethnic displacement”.
Mr Trump has defended his stance, saying he wants to put an end to US involvement in “endless wars” in the region.
But his position has been criticised strongly by the Kurds, who have accused America of a betrayal.
Mr Trump is also facing significant domestic criticism, including from Republicans who had previously been staunch supporters.
Mr Petraeus made the comments on Monday at a session about investment opportunities in the Arab world for global superpowers.
A day warlier, in another discussion, he played down the prospects of the US departing significantly from its traditional role in the Middle East, despite admitting he was “personally disappointed and unsettled” by recent US policy in Syria.
"Continued significant national interests" in the region would "compel the US to stay engaged", he said.
During the Sunday session, Arab panellists strongly criticised the Trump administration.
The withdrawal of US troops from Syria was “painful and shameful”, said Hoshyar Zebari, a former Iraqi finance minister.
“The United States promised to protect the Kurds,” Mr Zebari said. “Now they are completely exposed.”
Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian politician, said the Trump administration had robbed America of respect and credibility by mocking international institutions.
Palestinians, Ms Ashrawi said, regarded the US as “partners in occupation” and part of an “extremist right”.
Meanwhile, with US policy in flux, the role of Russia in the Middle East had been “very much appreciated by many countries”, said Irina Zvyagelskaya, of the Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow.
Russia has played a more assertive role in the Middle East in recent years, most notably in Syria.
“Russia proved that it can be a reliable partner,” Dr Zvyagelskaya said. “Russia proved it can be effective while it stands behind its partners.
"Russia has shown its can keep good relations with different actors.”