The time of Trump’s surprises and Putin’s alliances
The new president grabbed for his magical pen, and signed astonishing executive orders, deliberately pre-empting the traditional work of his cabinet appointees and his administration. The silver lining is that Trump has settled the debate on whether he will adapt with the post of president, and made it clear to all that he intends to put to practice all that he had pledged as candidate, heading off speculations and assumptions.
The frightening news is that Trump may truly take the US toward unraveling, and the world toward a perfect storm, crashing the international order without setting up an alternative. It might be said that the internal resistance to Trump’s orders and measures could force him to reconsider and back down. However, Trump for his part is betting on exhausting his opponents, as they dash to catch up with his relentless executive orders.
Meanwhile, 10 days into his presidency, there has been increasing talk of his impeachment, because some argue America will not allow him to dismantle it, drag it to civil war, impoverish it, harm its global influence, and allow China and Russia to take its superpower status. Trump’s supporters are gloating, taunting those dreaming to topple the president. They are certain that Trump will truly make America “great again,” and that his foreign policy realism will build a new world order and unprecedented alliances, that would in turn lead to American and global prosperity.
Russia is pivotal to Trump’s calculations. Trump’s close associates say he will not base relations with Moscow on the basis of ethical standards but on the basis of what it would take for the dealmaker in chief to cut a deal. People well familiar with Trump say he will pursue realpolitik to build alliances and modify policy on Iran and Syria, and will split the world into allies who are useful for the US and rewarded accordingly, and non-allies who will be made to pay the price for their positions and non-usefulness.
The new US envoy to the UN, Nikki Hailey, began her tenure by stressing intent to show strength and vowed that those who don’t support us will face appropriate consequences. We want to support our allies, she said, but our allies must support us too. Hailey added that the new administration will focus more on bilateral relations, perhaps at the expense of multilateral ones. Haley’s statements were received with surprise when she undiplomatically threatened: “For those that don’t have our back, we’re taking names, we will make points to respond to that accordingly.”
And who exactly are America’s allies in the age of Trump? He has antagonized Mexico with his plans for a border wall, banned travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries and refugees, drawing fierce criticism including from neighboring Canada, and rankled NATO allies including Britain, which has been scrambling to protect the so-called special relationship with the US under the new administration.
A source close to Trump’s inner circle said: “We are determined to help those who truly help us and prove their worth in the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Emirates. At the same time, we will condemn those we class as pariah states, Iran and Syria included.” In short, the source added, “It is a simple equation: be an honest ally, and we will be willing to help in return.”
Interestingly, the source spoke of the US desire for Saudi Arabia to help keep Iran in check, without elaborating. The Trump administration wants Saudi Arabia to take a proactive role in stopping terror financing, not necessarily in an overt manner. “The bottom line is that Saudi Arabia will be closer to the US,” according to the high-level source.
The Trump administration intends to strictly enforce the nuclear agreement with Iran rather than run it through the paper shredder. It will put Iran on notice through intense scrutiny. If Tehran violates the deal, “the agreement will be void and we will jump to accountability,” the source stressed.
How will the Trump administration modify the once-favorable US attitude on Iran’s expansionism in the Arab sphere, especially in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon? It is not clear yet whether the Trump administration will adopt Obama’s greenlighting of Iranian incursions in Iraq and Syria in the name of helping in the fight against Daesh and other extremists. There are hints that change could come through the Yemeni gateway, but there are no fully developed policies yet to clarify whether or how the anticipated rapprochement with Saudi Arabia will be reflected in Yemen. Clearly so far, that won’t happen in Syria.
Russia remains the most important player in Syria. The Trump administration is prepared to cut a deal on the basis of “give and take,” and the art of the deal, rather than moral grounds as was the case under President Obama – albeit rhetorically and to the exclusion of Syria, as the source remarked.
The source said the policy based on urging Assad to step down under Obama was rhetorical, and never intended to be enforced. “Bashar Assad is still in power. This is a fact. Accordingly, the new policy will be based on acknowledging this but classing him as rogue and isolating him.”
In other words, the thinking in the Trump administration is that Obama had pursued an unrealistic policy, while Trump is looking to “change declared policy to match reality.” The Trump administration will abandon the policy of regime change in Syria, and focus instead on isolating Assad “who has committed war crimes against his people and will remain a pariah.”
The current wager is on a deal whereby Assad would go into exile, or coax Russia into joining the effort of isolating Assad, once it ascertains that the US will not be seeking regime change in Syria, according to the source.
At any rate, US-Russian negotiations have not yet begun in earnest. It is still too early to scrutinize the elements of any putative grand bargain that Putin and Trump may want to conclude. Indeed, what is at stake goes beyond Syria or even Ukraine. It involves major interests and it will not be necessarily easy or close. In the meantime, Russia will continue to manage things in Syria with Turkey and Iran, while the West’s absence on this issue is set to continue, under the pretext that Russia has hijacked the Syrian issue from the UN Security Council to Astana.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has considered UN participation in Astana to be a reaffirmation of its role in the peace process, stressing that the substantial negotiations would take place on Feb. 20 in Geneva under the auspices of his envoy Staffan De Mistura. He said that the transition in Syria affirmed by the Geneva Communique will be a central issue in those talks between regime and opposition.
De Mistura has warned the opposition that if it fails to form a unified delegation for the talks, he would take action and form the delegation himself as part of his authorities granted by resolution 2254. This statement riled figures in the Syrian opposition, but the opposition today is being pulled in different directions as Turkey abandons its support and Russia and Iran now guarantee the cease-fire, all while the Gulf nations have washed their hands clean of Syria and the US administration signals its intentions to sacrifice the rebels but while maintaining support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (complete with armored vehicles this week for the fight against Daesh.)
The projects for Syria are conflicting, especially the three projects of Russia, Turkey, and Iran respectively. It is not clear what has happened recently between Russia and Iran with regards to their divergent schemes. Russia wants a strong regime in Damascus with the withdrawal of all foreign forces including those backed by Iran. Iran, however, wants to keep its influence in Syria through paramilitary forces along the lines of its own Revolutionary Guards. These issues will be on hold for now, according to Guterres, who has indicated the withdrawal of foreign forces from Syria include all forces without exception. But reality on the ground has the final say, and there is competition to shape things in a de facto manner in Syria ahead of any talks and final deals.
Anything and everything is possible in the time of unconventional surprises promised by Trump, and unconventional alliances being drafted by Trump and Putin. Everyone is realigning themselves accordingly in a landscape of quicksand and seismic shifts.
Raghida Dergham (English version published in Asharq Al-Awsat; original Arabic version published in Al-Hayat)