The mystery of Washington under Donald Trump
There is a clear divergence in the attitudes of the nominees to key posts in President Donald Trump’s administration over the issue of Russia, especially in how it relates to Syria.
For his part, the presumed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has refused to blame Russia for war crimes in Syria. By contrast, the nominee for the post of US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has proclaimed that Russia’s actions in Syria, such as the bombing of hospitals, are war crimes, saying the US cannot trust Russia. But they have both stated that reducing sanctions on Moscow must be linked to proving its good intentions in its bilateral and international engagements.
Russia, in other words, is not sailing smoothly to win the heart of the new administration. Many storms await it on its journey, despite the fact that it may have become the new favorite partner for the US under the new president.
The first stop of confusion for Russia looms in Astana. Moscow has taken its field understandings with Turkey to develop alternative political solutions to the ones drafted by the UN in the Geneva Communique and subsequent resolutions, and sees a transitional political process in Syria that would keep Bashar Assad in the negotiation schedule. Moscow’s strength could turn out to be its weakness, exactly like how Turkey’s emerging strength could prove to be a thorn in its side. The weakest parties in the equation today are Europe and the Gulf countries. Both had delegated to the “guarantor duo” the task of succeeding — or failing — in Astana.
Iran, too, is not in a reassured position like the one it had become accustomed to under Barack Obama. Nor is it in full strategic agreement with Russia, because of differing priorities in Syria. Tehran is increasingly restless because members of the Trump administration seem bent on putting its nuclear and regional activities under a microscope. Iran is also aware of Europe’s — particularly Britain’s — bid to hold it accountable for violations in Syria and Yemen, and challenge its policy of spawning militias and paramilitaries to rival regular armies in the Arab countries, in line with the Revolutionary Guards model in Iran itself. All this places a stick in the Russian-Iranian-Turkish wheel at this stage. Moscow has decided to convene the Syria talks in Astana, Kazakhstan, on a date that falls only three days after Trump is inaugurated and his Cabinet nominees are confirmed by Congress, together with Turkey. The move aims to take the Syrian issue out of the Security Council and the UN as a whole.
‘Wait and see’ approach
European diplomacy has decided to give Moscow the chance to succeed or fail, and defined success as being the revival of negotiations on the basis of the Geneva Communique and the return to the UN. The Europeans consider anything to come out of Astana, in terms of taking the Syrian issue out of the UN, a failure. However, they have not yet pursued a strategy to thwart the Russian-Turkish bid and have not developed an alternative strategy. Like the Gulf countries, the European powers have decided to just wait and see.
What is interesting in the European attitudes, however, is that they are prepared to have a presence and a role in Astana via Turkey, the NATO member state. According to one Western diplomat, “we are closely engaged through Turkey in Astana, to define what should be and what should not be the outcome as well as red lines. We and Turkey are very close allies.”
In this diplomat’s view, leading the Astana process is a right earned by Russia and Turkey, as a result of their involvement on the ground in Syria. They have the right to shape the future in Syria, because they invested “more than we have invested” in Syria, he added.
This structural weakness in European attitudes on Syria has also led to a decline in the process of accountability led by Britain and France at the Security Council through a draft resolution on the use of chemical weapons by the regime in Syria. The two countries worked on having a resolution passed late last year, then decided to put their efforts on hold under various justifications, including the new membership of the Security Council this year; the new administration in Washington; and fears of a Russian veto. However, according to claims from European diplomats, the issue remains crucial and they will not abandon it given that it is related to the use of prohibited weapons. But in reality, the issue is one way to influence or confront Russia, as it hijacks the Syrian issue out of the Security Council for its own purposes.
Realizing Iran’s ambitions
The European countries of the Security Council have only just awoken to Iran’s role in Syria and its regional ambitions. But like Washington, they had turned a blind eye to all this, and ignored the regional repercussions of their nuclear deal and détente with Iran. Indeed, the Western powers were fully aware of what it meant to not only separate Iran’s regional dominance projects from its nuclear ambitions, but also to agree to suspend UN Security Council resolutions that had banned Tehran from exporting weapons and spawning militias, and intervene militarily abroad, to make the nuclear deal happen. Thus, the Western powers allowed Iran to intervene militarily in Syria before and after the nuclear deal, in preservation thereof.
Today, Western diplomats are protesting the same Iranian actions they had consented to silently if not legitimized in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon. Some claim they have done what they can but the Russian influence on Iran is stronger than Europe’s, and that the divergence in Russian-Iranian stances on withdrawing all foreign forces from Syria places Russia in a position of much-needed influence to pressure Iran to withdraw its militias from Syria.
The British ambassador to the UN, Matthew Rycroft, said during a Security Council session on Iranian violations of UN resolutions: “Away from the nuclear file, Iran continues to play a destabilizing role in the region. This is most clearly seen in Syria … Iran continues to provide substantial military and financial support to Hezbollah and the Syrian regime.” Other European diplomats reiterated this, and spoke about Iran’s violations and continued attempts to send weapons to Hezbollah and Yemen.
According to a high-level European diplomat, the nuclear deal binds Iran, in an unwritten manner, to act as a responsible state in the region. This, he continued, must be reflected in Iran’s actions in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, “which we have not yet seen materialize on the ground.” The diplomat stressed his country’s stance was very serious in terms of pressuring Iran to abide by its regional commitments.
The European countries are today in a position of weakness and confusion. They have drawn some boldness from the new US administration, to stand up to Iran, albeit timidly. They have delegated to a weakened Turkey the task of representing them in Astana with Russia. Their positions resemble those of the Gulf states, in terms of the absence of a preemptive strategy. Other shared traits include relying on Turkey, despite all the reservations on its about-faces and negotiating tactics, as well as their wait-and-see attitude vis-à-vis the incoming US administration despite the divergences of the attitudes of President Trump, his Cabinet nominees and his UN envoy nominee.
The new Washington under Trump remains a mystery. The world is trying to demystify what is happening. Meanwhile, the project for American-Russian détente is subject to the political realism and the requirements of the competition between the two powers’ interests. This week will be a week of celebrations and practical transition, from a president-elect known for his one-upmanship and combativeness and nominees waiting for congressional confirmation, to an actual president and Cabinet members in their posts.
Syria will not be at the top of the new president’s priorities, except from the Russian gateway. Repealing the nuclear deal with Iran will not be among the measures expected against Tehran, but Iran will come under a nuclear and regional microscope, and this is new for sure. This much has been confirmed by British officials, who are close to Washington. However, this is also subject to what will be agreed between the US and Russia, especially in terms of Iran’s regional entanglements.
Not long ago, Washington sacrificed the regional dimension of Tehran’s schemes for the sake of the nuclear deal. Today, Iran’s infiltration of the Arab countries is being closely monitored. This could become the focus of a new political confrontation, but unlikely to become grounds for a military one. Indeed, no one has mentioned using any sharp instruments against Iran to force it to roll back its project. What is being touted instead is a bid to rein in Iran, without fearing the repercussions for the nuclear deal. What is new here is that former President Barack Obama has taken with him his fixation with safeguarding the deal and détente with Iran, while the new president is unpacking new baggage that is untainted by this fixation.
The European diplomats are talking again about an issue that Trump had suggested he had no interest in, namely, the fate of Bashar Assad. The divergence between what many had deemed to be a platitude in terms of the upcoming close relationship between Trump and Putin, and signs of a firmer US attitude on Iran especially in Syria, has reignited talk about the fate of Assad, replacing the default position held by some that Assad will remain in power with international consent for an indefinite period of time.
One of those diplomats suggested the war is not over yet, and that Assad cannot be part of Syria’s future. He said that currently, talk revolves around how and when Assad must leave, whether in a way that would render him a figurehead or whether he would be replaced through elections, in accordance with the international position regarding transition in Syria. The Western diplomat stressed that Assad is taking part in the conversation about his own fate, but not in the negotiations yet. This may well be European wishful thinking or an attempt to head off a deal between Trump and Putin that would discard Geneva’s principles and the transitional political process agreed earlier for Syria. Either way, the fate of Assad is back as part of the equation when not long ago, some had deemed the issue over and done with.
All assumptions and speculations about US policies under Trump should be subjected to the calculations of political realism, geopolitics and US interests decided by the US establishment rather than the administration. Of course, every US president has the ability to influence the course of the US and the world. But the US remains a superpower that no one individual, no matter how much attention he has captured or how unique he or she is, can control alone. It is a democratic state of institutions, accountability and transparency, when needed. The honeymoon will not last long. This week, Donald Trump begins a difficult journey with America, which expects its president to show wisdom and shrewdness. Otherwise, he will not be above being held to account.
• Raghida Dergham is columnist, senior diplomatic correspondent, and New York bureau chief for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper since 1989.
— Originally published in Al-Hayat.