Damascus, Syria. Not for at least three quarters of a century have the American people elected a president who so openly disparages, discards and seemingly abhors the principles, standards, policies, ideas, and institutions at the center of post-WW II US foreign policy. Trump seems to dismiss human rights even as a foreign policy principle, much less a standard, while focusing rather on deal-making, diplomatic and economic, and championing the fight against Islamic terrorism.
No one knows how the foreign policy of the Trump administration will take shape. Or how his priorities may twist and turn as he encounters the assured torrent of events and mayhem from the looming plethora of crises that will wreak havoc. What is known is that the Mideast expects big changes under Trump. They may well happen.
President Trump is reported, by two US Senate Foreign Relations staffers among others, to be considering a broad new U.S. partnership with Russia, starting with Syria. Trump allies have also hinted at possible White House acceptance of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which would amount to a dramatic reversal from years of the Obama administration calls for Assad’s ouster.
Trump’s cozying up to Putin is being reciprocated via an emerging Russian “Trumpomania” and love fest directed toward the American public, since the elections, which in Russia were greeted by the issuance of commemorative coins and Trump Matryoshka dolls. An all-night party in Moscow was endorsed by the Kremlin to celebrate Trump taking over the White House. The festivities were attended by thousands and even televised live on Tsargrad TV, a pro-Putin Russian Orthodox TV channel. And some Moscow shops have offered 10% discounts to “American guests.” Why such new-found good will?
Trump has not only labeled NATO obsolete, which coming from the president of the country that created NATO doubtless were music to Putin’s ears. He has also signaled that he will lift US sanctions imposed following Russia’s annexation of Crimea if Russia cooperates on a nuclear disarmament deal. Putin will presumably keep his cards to his chest while he studies this offer, but following more than a decade of frustration, Putin appears to be seeking the role of senior partner with Trump.
With or without the leverage of “golden shower’ videos, Putin is in a strong position to defend Trump’s weak reputation and widely questioned legitimacy while serving subtly as Trump’s mediator, advocate and protector, thus shoring up Trump’s presidency globally—if not among 1..5 million-plus US citizens who, the day after his inauguration, took to the streets across America in protest Trump’s announced agenda and even his election.
As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has frequently reminded John Kerry (who reportedly agreed with him) and before him Hillary Clinton (who reportedly did not), Moscow has some legitimate grievances of its own. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union a quarter-century ago, US presidents and Congress have broken several agreements with Russia. Clinton enlarged NATO by adding former Soviet republics, which violated a U.S. commitment not to do so. The Bush administration pledged that if the Soviets pulled nearly 400,000 military forces out of East Germany, the United States would not “leapfrog” over East Germany to assert itself in Eastern Europe. But it did so by expanding NATO to include the three former soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Bush’s abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), which served as the cornerstone of strategic deterrence and the arms control relationship between Russia and the United States, was another example of the United States taking advantage of Russia’s geostrategic weakness, thus angering Moscow and many Russian citizens to this day.
Trump has also been signaling support to Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, by claiming in the media that, while Assad may not be America’s first choice to lead Syria, Syria’s leadership is for the Syrian people to decide and that the rebels fighting to topple Assad “could be worse” than Assad. Trump regularly insists that the U.S. has no idea who its allies in Syria are, implying that Assad might turn out to be one. For his part, Bashar Assad recently suggested that the U.S. and Syria could be “natural allies.”
Admittedly such a shift would have consequences, especially among America’s Sunni allies in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region if they view the Trump administration’s as strengthening the hand of Assad’s second main partner, Shiite Iran. Among many other sources of tension, it was Iran who blocked them from a role in the peace talks organized by Turkey and Russia that are currently getting underway in Ashtana, Kazakhstan.
Assad, who highly praises Putin’s help since Russia’s major 2015 involvement in the war, reiterated this week his hope that Trump will become a partner in this alliance going forward. As the Syrian president said on Trump’s inauguration day: “We hope that they [the Trump administration] are genuinely forging a real and realistic alliance to fight the terrorists in the region, and that of course will include Syria first of all.” Turkey appears on board with officials now saying there can be no settlement without President Assad. If Assad now seriously takes on the Islamic State in Northwestern Syria one could imagine that Trump might accept a tacit if informal partnership.
Trump’s offer to Moscow and Damascus, being pushed by the Israel lobby in Washington, has a price tag. The Trump team wants Iran out of the six countries it is currently accused of occupying and insists on dismantling the Shia militia crescent that Iran has methodically put in place over the past several years, which funnels weapons and explosive devices as well as cash and militia from Iraq. These include Yemen’s party Ansar Allah (made up of Houthis loyal to Iran); the Afghanistan-based Fatemyoun Division of the IRGC-Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps; Pakistan’s Shi’ite Zaynabyoun Brigade; Lebanon’s Hezbollah; and others. The Shia militia “highway” runs from Iran and Iraq into and across Syria, north of Aleppo, westward to the Mediterranean and turns south into Lebanon and to the Naquora-Maron el Ras border with Palestine/Israel.
The Syrian opposition delegation to the Astana talks, which includes 12 groups, claims that Moscow is serious about moving to a neutral posture during the talks but that Putin is being pressured by Iran. Whatever the results of the peace talks, they are already revealing growing tensions between Tehran and Moscow over the future of Syria. One opposition claimed deep split between Tehran and Moscow is over Putin’s insistence that Hezbollah should be forced to leave Syria. But Hezbollah withdrawing from Syria a redline for Tehran and it’s unlikely they would accept that Hezbollah leave Syria or any of the countries its fighters have been sent to by Tehran.
The US Congress and the six GCC countries also want the end to Iran’s reported ethnic cleansing and population transfers in Syria and implementation of the Four Towns Agreement, which called for a humanitarian lifting of the siege around four towns and which they claim Iran’s militia have not honored as its continues to besiege Madaya and sixteen other towns. The US Congress claims that all these Iranian actions are designed to increase Shia domination of strategic Sunni areas of Syria, including their oil reserves, and eviscerate Syria’s secular governmental system and its historical tolerance for all religions and ethnicities.
Trump is about to be heavily lobbied by Israel and Congress to accept this view and act accordingly. Israeli officials claim that Obama and his team adopted a policy of slowly bleeding resources from Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, while arming Syrian rebels just enough to prevent their defeat yet precluding their victory unless those factions who would assume power were properly vetted. A fight of attrition in Syria, according to this rationale, would not only weaken the Syrian army so that it is no longer a threat to Israel, either directly or indirectly, but also increase what they believe is growing regional opposition to Iran’s regime, especially by Iran’s restive civilian population, thus weakening the Islamic regime. Many in Tel Aviv and Washington are arguing that prolonged economic sanctions against Iran will likely lead to the regime’s collapse, or at least weaken it to the point that it is no longer a threat and can be forced to accept international legal norms. These views have also been voiced by Trump’s choice for the United States Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who told Congressmen on the sidelines of his Confirmation hearing that the simplest way to destroy Hezbollah is to stop the Iranian arms shipments traversing Syria. Israel is also seeking permission from the Trump White House for a green light to destroy Hezbollah bases in Lebanon and, if necessary, to neuter Iran’s air force and armed forces. To some, Trump appears to be listening.
President Putin is reportedly interested in working with Trump to end the war in Syria, as is the Ankara Government (inspired partly by revanchist interests in Ottoman imperial territory), the eleven Arab states in the eastern Middle East, NATO, and the EU among others. All have expressed varying degrees of frustration with what they viewed as Obama’s moralizing rhetoric, confused signals and unfulfilled red lines, and favor a Trump pivot to emphasize counterterrorism and security.
Part of the reason Moscow wants the Syrian conflict to end is that it is increasingly concerned about the financial and military labor costs of its involvement in Syria. Some sources claim that Putin’s government realizes that, however much Iran seeks a military solution in Syria, it will not happen no matter how many bombs are dropped. Syria is being called by some Russian analysts “Iran’s Afghanistan” and “Iran’s Vietnam.” Russian military officials have reportedly shown some interest in Trump tweets in conversation with various regional diplomats and with Former US Secretary of State John Kerry in discussions about a strong US preference for a “Middle East Minus Iran” to achieve a regional settlement.
Could Putin and Trump convince Assad to end Iran’s funneling arms to Hezbollah?
These interests and incentives raise several pressing questions. To profit from Trump’s offer of closer collaboration, would Moscow and Damascus cooperate in expelling Iran from Syria in order to thwart what they consider Iran’s deeply entrenched hegemonic colonization efforts across the Middle East? Could they succeed in this effort, and in cutting Iran out of a final peace settlement, given vows by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and his deputy, Naim Qasim, and by Iran’s “Supreme Leader” Ali Khamenei and sundry Iranian officials that they will not leave Syria? Certainly Iran has no interest in doing so, or in dismantling its regional networks while facing a new alliance among hostile actors. As of last month, the Iranian regime has also pledged that Iran will not leave Iraq, while few in Washington, Tel Aviv or the region as a whole believe Iran will ever leave Lebanon, or at least not voluntarily.
The possibilities of an Iranian withdrawal from Syria would be increased, however, if the Assad regime agreed to shed its Iranian ally and other Shia militia allies in exchange for reduced pressures from Washington and even a new pragmatic arrangement with Israel (on the model, perhaps, of Jordan). However risky, this move could indeed salvage the Assad regime and Syrian unity if a Syrian alliance could manifest to Trump as a tool of US foreign policy. Destabilizing Iran’s legitimacy as a regional hegemon, through the aforementioned war of attrition as well as propaganda, could be part of this maneuver. Hence Israel’s right wingers hope that Donald Trump can help get this difficult job done. On this basis, Bibi Netanyahu this week assured the Iranian people that Israel is their friend who commiserates with them for still being shackled by a brutal dictatorship.
Russia too, despite its tactical alliance with Iran in Syria, has an interest in expelling Iran from Syria. Syria’s importance to Russia’s interest in regaining its Cold War position as a major player in the Middle East, partly by expanding its Mediterranean base near Tartus and elsewhere, have been widely reported. But Russia’s hopes for increased power in Syria face problems with Iran. Over the past year, since Putin sent his air force and weapons to Syria, Russian-Iranian relations and Syria-Iranian relations have not always been smooth. Concerns remain about Iran’s “colonization of Syria” and about who makes the battlefield decisions about sending various forces to the front lines, where casualties will be high. Such tensions are inflamed by local Syrian grumblings about “Persian/Shia arrogance” toward Syria’s mainly Sunni Arab army. Some Iranian clerics and officials opening boast that Al Quds [Iranian] Force Commander Qasim Soleimani is effectively Syria’s military commander, while deriding the Syrian army, an attitude both irritating and alarming to Syria’s military and to the Syrian regime itself.
In any case, the Syrian regime remains much closer to its former Cold War ally than to Iran and has encouraged a close relationship: economic, political and military. Last August, Russian lawmakers ratified a deal with Syria allowing Russia to keep its forces at the Hmeimim air base in Syria’s coastal province of Latakia, Assad’s Alawite ethnic heartland, for as long as it wants. Under another agreement signed in Damascus this past week, Syria has offered Russia free use of the Soviet-era facility in Tartus for 49 years, automatically extendable for further 25-year periods. The Tartus facility is the only such outpost Russia has outside the former Soviet Union and has symbolic as well as strategic importance: in the immediate setting, it has been used to back Russia’s air campaign against rebel and ISIS forces.
Iran wants similar deals in Syria. Yet neither Moscow nor Damascus has agreed, partly because Iran has stated its intentions to create in Syria, Iraq and Yemen what it has imposed on Lebanon—which its Sunni and Christian critics claim has essentially destroyed the sovereignty of all four. The Assad regime knows well that no return to “One Syria” is possible if Iran does not withdraw and remove its armed forces, security agencies and growing political structures.
United States officials have expressed similar negative views, following a posture of antipathy and aggression toward Iran most recently dramatized in the nuclear energy controversy and flagged by demonizing rhetoric by US Congress people as well as Israeli officials. According to US Congressional sources and the Israeli US lobby’s pitch man Dennis Ross, “Israel’s best friend” Trump can resolve the Syrian crisis but not with Iran involved. Ross and his ilk claim Iran is a much bigger problem for Syria and the region than ISIS, which many in Congress, the Pentagon and the CIA insist can and will be contained. Others argue that, in any event, Iran was one of the several “Mothers of ISIS,” its being (they argue) partly Iran’s creation, and claiming that Iran continues to do financial and political business with ISIS even though the Caliphate is now targeting Shias above all.
We may soon have answers to how Trump’s reported “Syria without Iran” initiative fares in the swirling maelstrom of the proxy wars which continue in this ancient land.