Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Middle East Mayhem: Why Trump's Foreign Policy in Syria is a Disaster in the Making

by Nomad

Recently Foreign Policy magazine conducted an in-depth analysis of President Trump's domestic and foreign policy strategy.
The article is bluntly entitled Trump’s Grand Strategic Train Wreck and was authored by Colın Kahl and Hal Brands, The pair examined Trump's stated policies objectives and came up to one stunning conclusion: as hard as it might seem, Trump really does have a grand strategy.
That's the good news.
The only problem is, however, it's not so grand. In fact, it's a nightmarish mess.

If you have a few sober hours without distractions, the Foreign Policy article's a must read. But don't expect to walk away feeling buoyant and relieved. Au contraire, mon beau amis, anticipate a feeling of exasperation with a touch of despair. 

According to the article, none of the pieces of the Trump grand strategy seem to actually fit together.
According to some analysts, Trump’s endless streams of erratic and apparently improvisational ideas don’t add up to anything consistent or purposeful enough to call a grand strategy. We see it otherwise. Beneath all the rants, tweets, and noise there is actually a discernible pattern of thought — a Trumpian view of the world that goes back decades. Trump has put forward a clear vision to guide his administration’s foreign policy — albeit a dark and highly troubling one, riddled with tensions and vexing dilemmas.
Troubling is an adjective that just doesn't quite capture the full scale of the problem.

Putin's Partner 

Let's look at but one example. 
Throughout the presidential campaign (and after) Trump has made clear his determination to annihilate ISIS which he sees as the number one threat to world and national security. 
To do so, he has no reluctance in working together with Russian president Vladimir Putin. If that means, joining forces with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to fight the Islamic State, then so be it.

Russia would be a valuable ally in busting ISIS, he told audiences, At a campaign rally in Nevada, he said:
"I will say if we get along with Russia and Russia went out with us and knocked the hell out of ISIS, that’s okay with me.”
Whether or not intelligence agencies support the view, Donald Trump has bought into Assad's narrative about Syria being a bulwark against Islamic State.
Nothing could please Russia more. Recalling the days before the Cold War when the West and Russia joined hands and fought on the same side against Nazis, Putin himself proposed the formation of a, "broad international anti-terrorist coalition."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said
"I don't know who would deny that the fight against terrorism is the main priority for all of us."
President Assad, a man who rivals Hitler in terms of the suicidal desecration of his own country, could hardly contain himself at the prospect of a Trump-Putin alliance. This week, he praised President Trump’s plan to defeat ISIS, claiming that it’s “going to be positive.”
“Trump during the campaign and after the campaign is promising regarding the priority of fighting terrorists, and mainly ISIS, that’s what we’ve been asking for during the last six years. ”
Needless to say, it is a very different approach than the highly conditional one chosen by President Obama.
Obama, however, had very good reasons to be cautious and not to go all-in with Russia. 

In fact, Obama was willing to give it a try but not without some ground rules. Any cooperation in the effort to destroy ISIS came with pre-conditions, such as a  nationwide cease-fire and ensuring humanitarian access for the U.N.  
This was simply not something the Russian or Syrian leaders were able or indeed willing to do. Many experts claim that the war on ISIS was a cover for defeat insurgent rebels attempting to topple the Assad regime. 

Meanwhile, innocent Syrians were caught in the crossfire. Until the Assad regime (and by extension, Putin) was willing to ensure that situation would end, no cooperation in the war against ISIS would be possible.
If Trump chooses to cooperate with Russia with no strings attached, it will make the United States complicit in Russia’s indiscriminate bombing campaign and its efforts to prop up Assad. This is a recipe for fueling the civil war and jihadism, not combating it, and it is likely to alienate precisely the Sunni states Trump hopes to join his anti-Islamic State coalition on the ground.
There's another problem that the Foreign Policy writers didn't mention. It's called justice.

Justice Denied

Any no-strings cooperation with the Russian/Syrian regimes would complicate any possibility for Assad to stand trial for war crimes. It does not seem to be a consideration of any great importance and yet Assad is likely to stand accused of a litany of crimes against humanity.

Last year, the New Yorker reported that courageous people have been collecting and collating more than six hundred thousand government documents out of Syria, many of them from top-secret intelligence facilities. This evidence could shed light on, among other crimes, the use of indiscriminate bombing in residential areas, the use of chemical weapons and "state-sponsored torture that is almost unimaginable in its scope and its cruelty."

Trump's decision to cooperate with Russian and Assad could jeopardize any independent war crimes tribunal.

Regardless of what Putin and Trump would have the world believe, as brutal a regime as ISIS questionable is, Assad's army is responsible for a majority of the casualties.

According to Syrian Observatory For Human Rights documentation, pro-Assad forces are responsible for more than 92% of civilian casualties (March 2011 - November 2016) with well over a quarter of a million Syrians dead.
Trump's plan to join in with Russia and Syria would probably spell the end for justice for the innocent victims.

Iranian Complexities 

If that was not enough reason to re-think the strategy, there are other problems too; namely, the Islamic Republic of Iran.  If the US throws its support behind Russia and Assad, it also means backing Iran, its surrogate Hezbollah, and Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Syria. The effect of that would be to bolster Iranian influence in Syria and the broader region. Among a host of other problems, that would bring a long-term existential threat to the state of Israel.

There's no way to cooperate with Russia/Syrian forces to defeat ISIS without also broadening Iran's influence in the region. Something Trump and his entourage have made clear he does not desire. Trump cannot have it both ways.   

The only possible solution, say the authors of the article, would be for Trump to use his so-called "art of the deal" skills which he has taken so much pride in. That would mean attempting to convince the Kremlin to sever its ties with Tehran and attempt to box Iran and Hezbollah out of Syria. That's going to be easier said than done, especially after Trump has already taken a bullying tone with Iran vis-a-vis the nuclear arms treaty.
Iran and Hezbollah’s tentacles in Syria run deeper than Russia’s, and they have a far greater stake in the outcome of that conflict than Moscow does.
The Iranians are not likely to take lightly any attempt to marginalize their influence in Syria. They are, according to the article, much more likely to play an "active spoiler role that undermines the campaign against the Islamic State and, potentially, puts at risk U.S. special operations forces supporting counter-Islamic State opposition forces on the ground in Syria."
It's actually more dangerous than that.

The past has shown that Iranian leadership to be extraordinarily difficult to negotiate with. They are not impressed with Western promises and deals and unintimidated by even realistic economic and military threats.

Calling bluffs has long been a tactic that Iranians have used to full effect. And it is the weakness in nearly every one of Trump's grand strategy objectives. That weakness has a very real threat of leaving no other option than going to war with Iran.

As if all that weren't enough, the Trump faces a similar dilemma in Iraq. That's where things get nightmarishly complicated and the risks rise exponentially.  Attempts to balance and minimize Iranian influence in Iraq have already been made more difficult by Trump's hostile and ill-considered remarks toward Iran. For instance, his rant about taking Iraq's oil served only to weaken Iraq’s Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi and empower his political rivals.

It was also a perfect recruitment pitch for anti-American pro-Iraqi nationalists which Iran could make use of whenever they wished. 
*      *     *
Suddenly, Trump's clumsy policy opens the risks of having American forces supporting the counter-Islamic State campaign in Iraq facing attacks by pro-Iranian forces from the rear. In effect, a war against ISIS would involve battles on two sides and partnered with Russia (a dubious ally at best) and a war criminal with an entirely separate agenda.    

If anything, the situation is even more complex than this analysis suggests. There are other players involved, like Turkey, Israel, and Gulf states. Each of them has a vested interest in the situation which might or might not correspond with Trump's poorly planned strategy.