Washington is in a tizzy today because President-elect Trump is naming Exxon Chief Executive Rex Tillerson to be Secretary of State. Former Secretary of State Baker and former Defense Secretary Gates are reputed to be among his advocates. He has a good reputation at Exxon, where he spearheaded negotiations with Russia and resisted sanctions imposed on Moscow after its annexation of Crimea and invasion of southeast Ukraine (Donbas). Much is being made of his supposedly good personal relationship with President Putin, which was presumably a prerequisite of the multi-billion dollar business Tillerson did with state-controlled companies in Russia.
The whining from the Republican side of aisle is loud: Senator McCain and others regard Putin as a butcher because of what he has done in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere. Democrats are no less exercised. The Russians are currently bombing civilians in Aleppo to smithereens. They have also failed to implement the Minsk 2 agreement in Ukraine, which would require a ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons, as well as eventual reintegration of the region into Ukraine.
Dramatic as the situations in Syria and Ukraine are, the alleged Russian intervention in the US election is overshadowing them for the moment. President-elect Trump not only refuses to take his daily intelligence briefing but also doubts the CIA’s reported conclusion that Moscow’s cyberhacking was intended to get him elected.
Throwing Tillerson into this maelstrom is precisely the kind of provocative and daring move that Trump is famous for and promised during the electoral campaign. While unpredictable on many issues, Trump is absolutely consistent on Russia: no matter what Moscow is doing at home and abroad, the President-elect wants to befriend Putin and make him, if not an ally, at least a partner in key issue around the globe. The irony of course is that this is precisely what Hillary Clinton attempted as Secretary of State. Her reset with Moscow failed.
Trump and Tillerson seem far more willing to meet Putin three-quarters of the way. Trump has indicated he is prepared unilaterally to abandon support for the Syrian opposition, which President Obama has kept at lukewarm even as the Russians and Iranians up the ante by intervening directly on behalf of Bashar al Assad. My guess is Trump would also be willing to accept Russian annexation of Crimea. He hasn’t really said anything on that subject, except to claim it wouldn’t have been permitted on his watch. But the Russian ethnonationalist claim to Crimea will resonate with the Steve Bannon faction surrounding Trump.
The arguments against surrendering Crimea to Russia are based on international norms that Trump has shown little or no interest in. Tillerson won’t be much interested either. Unlike General Mattis, who as Defense Secretary can be expected to put the brakes on Trump’s worst instincts, Tillerson at State will more likely press Trump to meet the expectations his campaign created for closer relations with Putin’s Russia, including dropping sanctions.
The implications are vast. The NATO allies already doubt that Trump will fulfill America’s obligations. Acceptance of the annexation of Crimea would pull the rug out from under the Article 5 collective defense guarantee, even though it does not of course apply to Ukraine. Unraveling NATO will lead quickly and inexorably to a world in which the norm against taking territory by force is trashed.
Americans may not have realized it, but this is what they voted for. Tillerson may have been a fine Exxon CEO, but his confirmation hearings should do a deep dive into his views on Crimea, Donbas, Syria, and Putin.
- US Security Assistance and Human Rights | Monday, December 12 | 10:00am – 11:30am | Brookings Institution | Click HERE to Register Understanding the linkage between U.S. security policy and human rights policy is a complex and difficult challenge, but critical to ensuring that U.S. national interests in promoting stability and peace are properly served. While protection of human rights is integrated in U.S. security policy through such mechanisms as the Leahy Law and international military education and training, large gaps exist in both policy and practice. As a new Congress convenes and the Obama administration prepares to pass the baton to a new administration, the time is ripe to examine the effectiveness of the tools at hand and how they can be strengthened.On Monday, December 12, the Project on International Order and Strategy at Brookings will host a discussion on the complex issue of understanding how U.S. assistance to foreign security forces is linked to U.S. human rights objectives, with particular attention to cases like Afghanistan, Colombia, and Mexico. Assistant Secretary of State Tom Malinowski will offer opening remarks, followed by a discussion with Brookings Senior Fellows Daniel Byman and Ted Piccone.
- The Arab Spring and the Shia-Sunni Divide | Monday, December 12 | 12:00pm | Atlantic Council | Click HERE to Register
Nearly six years after the Arab uprisings began, the dream of a pan-Islamic awakening is now more elusive than ever. The wave of unrest has deepened ethnic and religious tensions between Sunni and Shia, pushing them once again to the fore. Religious differences and how Muslims define themselves have emerged as salient characteristics within Arab society, rivalling the broader conflict between Muslims and the West as the primary challenge facing Islamic societies of the Middle East.The New Sectarianism considers the causes of the growing Sunni-Shia animosity in key countries such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Iran, and Saudi Arabia. This renewed sectarianism is particularly corrosive in the face of generally weak states, which today characterize many countries in the region. The event will illustrate how Shia and Sunni perceive one another after the Arab uprisings, and how these perceptions have affected Arab life. Featuring Ms. Geneive Abdo, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and Ms. Joyce Karam, the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper.
- The Tribes of Israel: Diversity, Cohesion and Conflict | Tuesday, December 13 | 2:30pm – 5:00pm | Brookings Institution | Click HERE to Register
Israel is undergoing a profound transformation, from a society with one politically and socially dominant group—secular Jews—to a society of several groups of roughly similar size. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has gone as far as to describe four “tribes” of Israeli society and has proposed the creation of a new social compact among these groups. Others argue that Israel should resist institutionalizing identity-based politics, and should focus instead on society-wide concerns.On December 13, the Center for Middle East Policy will convene a public event to explore these social rifts and what Americans might learn from the Israeli experience about managing diverse societies and about the proper role of group identities in national politics. The event will feature two sessions titled: “Visions of Israel: Citizenship, common cause, and conflict” and “Secularism, religion, and the state.”This event is part the center’s series on “Imagining Israel’s Future,” which is designed to help Washington audiences engage with voices from today’s dynamic Israeli society.Featuring Martin S. Indyk, Exective Vice President of the Brookings Institution, Natan Sachs, Fellow for Foreign Policy at the Center for Middle East Policy, Stav Shaffir, Member of Knesset, Labor, Mohammad Darawshe, Co-Executive Director at The Center for a Shared Society at Givat Haviva, Yehudah Mirsky, Associate Professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, Shibley Telhami, Nonresident Senior Fellow for Foreign Policy, at the Center for Middle East Policy, U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, Ksenia Svetlova, Member of Knesset, Hatunah, Rabbi Dov Lipman, Former Member of Knesset, Yesh Atid, Noah Efron, Senior Faculty Member, Department of Science, Technology & Society at Bar-Ilan University, Elana Stein Hain, Director of Leadership Education at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America.
- The Annual Michael Van Dusen Lecture on the Middle East: Syria, Sectarianism and ISIS, Where are we Heading? | Wednesday, December 14 | 4:00pm – 5:00pm | Woodrow Wilson Center | Click HERE to RegisterFeaturing Joshua Landis, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma’s College of International Studies and Henri Barkley, Director, Middle East Program at the Wilson Center.
- Polling Middle Eastern Views: Current Conditions and the Road Ahead | Thursday, December 15 | 11:00am – 12:30pm | Middle East Institute | Click HERE to RegisterThe Middle East Institute (MEI) and the Arab-American Institute (AAI) are pleased to host James Zogby (AAI and Zogby Research Services) for the presentation of fresh polling results from across six Arab countries, Iran, and Turkey. With the public release of the report Middle East 2016: Current Conditions and the Road Ahead, Dr. Zogby will examine views about the war in Syria, the roles of the United States, Russia, and Iran in the region, and causes of extremism, violence, and instability.Commentators Steven Cook (Council on Foreign Relations), Ellen Laipson (Stimson Center), and Hassan Mneimneh (MEI) will provide their analysis of the poll’s findings in a discussion with Dr. Zogby moderated by Gerald Feierstein (MEI).The poll and resulting report were commissioned by the Sir Bani Yas Forum, convened annually in the United Arab Emirates on the initiative of H.H. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the U.A.E. Foreign Minister. The findings are being made available for use by the public; print copies of the report will be available.
- Long Game or Gamble? Middle East Policy from Obama to Trump | Friday, December 16 | 10:00am – 11:15am | Bipartisan Policy Center | Click HERE to Register The Middle East continues to challenge U.S. policymakers. From the rise of ISIS, to the spread of ethnosectarian violence, to dealing with Iran, the region played an outsize role in President Obama’s foreign policy and is one of the top concerns for President-elect Trump. Two recent books, the first by an outspoken critic of Obama’s foreign policy, the second by one of its most articulate defenders, examine how presidents have defined and pursued U.S. interests in the Middle East.Michael Doran’s (Former Senior Director in the National Security Council and Senior Fellow, Hudson Institute) Ike’s Gamble retells the story of President Eisenhower’s handling of the Suez Crisis in 1956, suggesting that many of the same pitfalls encountered then still plague policymakers today. And in The Long Game, Derek Chollet (Former Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs
Counselor and Senior Adviser for Security and Defense Policy, German Marshall Fund) describes how President Obama – seeking to model himself on Eisenhower – transformed U.S. foreign policy to overcome the obstacles of the Middle East.Please join us for a debate between Chollet and Doran about the lessons learned from Eisenhower and Obama about U.S. Middle East policy and how President-elect Trump might apply those lessons.
USIP’s discussion today of “Getting Ahead of the Curve: the evolving threat of violent extremism” was a study in contrasts. The first panel, of experts who contributed to The Jihadi Threat: ISIS, Al Qaeda and Beyond was devoted to hard-nosed analysis. The second, which discussed both CSIS’ Turning Point and Communities First: A Blueprint for Organizing and Sustaining a Global Movement Against Violent Extremism, was devoted to right-minded but airier policy propositions, at least until I left about 45 minutes before it ended.
The analysis panel, ably chaired by Robin Wright of USIP and the Woodrow Wilson Center, offered a gloomy picture: each generation of jihadis is larger than the last, mobilizes faster, draws on more diversified sources of foreign fighters, gets more extreme, and spreads to more locations and causes.
That said, Brookings’ Will McCants noted that ISIS has lost perhaps half its territory as well as 50,000 killed, Raqqa and Mosul are under attack, and its finances are under pressure. It won’t disappear but will return, as it did during the near-defeat in Iraq in 2008/10, to terrorist tactics and prison breaks. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies concurred that the ISIS star has fallen, because of its brutal tactics and readiness to make enemies of too many people. But Al Qaeda is reviving and spreading, especially in Syria, Yemen, Libya, Mali and Somalia. It is even controlling territory, it financing has become more open, and it is embedding Al Qaeda Central cadres, like the Khorasan Group, with its franchisees.
The franchises are increasingly important, Carnegie Endowment’s Fred Wehrey concurred. Al Qaeda has been more successful than ISIS in establishing durable franchises, partly because it focuses on “Dawa” (proselytizing), is relatively “moderate” in behavior towards the local population, and integrates more effectively with local forces. Egypt is particularly fertile ground, as is Yemen.
Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institue for Middle East Policy underlined that jihadism is not going away any time soon. Its narrative and appeal are increasingly entrenched. Al Qaeda and ISIS share the objective of creating a caliphate, but Al Qaeda is the more dangerous as it often works quietly and is more successful at “marbling” (interweaving) local and global strategies.
McCants views state failure as fuel for the protean diversified jihadist resurgence we are witnessing. The diversification and rapidly shifting organizational landscape are big problems, as they make prioritization difficult. Gartenstein-Ross believes the Middle East states will continue to weaken, as they face dramatic challenges like lack of water and parlous finances. Internet penetration in the region is still low, so jihadi mobilization is likely to become more effective and quicker as it expands. Social media are particularly adapted to boost secret identities across boundary lines. Hassan concurred, noting that ISIS in defeat will retreat into the desert, as it did in Iraq in 2008, leaving sleeper cells who will kill its enemies in newly liberated areas. Sunni disenfranchisement, alienation, and lack of leadership make ISIS a viable political option.
Wehrey concluded the first panel by underlining that terrorism is a political strategy and requires in part a political response. Jihadism is not really about religion but about the need for reform. Governance issues are central, vastly compounded by population displacement and Western intervention.
The second panel chaired by USIP’s Georgia Holmer focused, far less decisively, on non-military responses to jihadism.
The National Security Council’s Amy Pope underlined that countering violent extremism (CVE) is now established as an important part of the response to terrorism focused on its root causes in particular communities. She and State Department Under Secretary Sarah Sewall were confident that this community-focused approach, based on civil society and holistic investments, is the right one. We need to be able to tell this story across the security and human rights communities.
Shannon Green of CSIS cited the “measured security response” advocated in Turning Point, noting that anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiment reinforces extremism. So too have some of America’s traditional partners in the Gulf, who have financed extremists. We need to be able to levy punitive sanctions in response, undertake a global educational partnership to ensure that extremism has no place in curricula, and review assistance to oppressive governments. She also thought an assistant to the president for CVE would help the cause.
The Prevention Project’s Eric Rosand emphasized community-level engagement that recognizes communities have many problems other than violent extremism and offers them incentives to engage locally in CVE. Law enforcement should have a limited, not a dominant, role.
Asked about what they would advise the incoming Trump Administration, Sewall emphasized the need to coordinate military and intelligence counter-terrorism with civilian CVE and the relative lack of resources for the latter (amounting to no more than .1% of the total). Pope also thought the balance out of whack. CVE needs to grow much bigger. There is lots of evidence that democracy and inclusion work and that alienation and exclusion don’t.
Asked to adduce some concrete examples of CVE that has worked, Pope cited a roundtable in The Hague, Sewall an ongoing project pilot project in East Africa and an AID project in Pakistan. Rosand noted that all too often autocrats readily take up the anti-messaging banner, as it enables them to crack down on dissident voices. That, he suggested, does not work.
My bottom line: Little in this discussion gave me any reason to believe that the incoming Trump Administration will take up the cause of CVE, which would require it to drop its anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, agree to support reformist and more democratic states rather than autocratic ones, invest in aid that is difficult to distinguish from conventional development assistance, accept evidence-based indications of effectiveness, and increase funding for civilian rather than military efforts. #fatchance
Of Trump’s many vices, his bromance with Putin is arguably the worst, at least from a foreign policy perspective. Putin has not only restored autocracy to Russia, he has invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea, and intervened ferociously against the non-extremist opposition in Syria, not to mention his sponsorship of a foiled coup in Montenegro, his threats to Baltic and Scandinavian states, and his continued occupation of Transnistria, South Ossetia, and Abkhazia. Let’s not forget his exploitation of Wikileaks to intervene in the US election on Trump’s behalf.
Trump’s response so far has been to propose we make common cause with Putin, in particular against ISIS in Syria. The President-elect refuses to acknowledge Russian hacking, despite what the firm consensus of American intelligence agencies, whose briefings he has been refusing to listen to. He now seems intent on appointing as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the chief executive of Exxon and one of Putin’s favorite Americans. He will unquestionably want to lift sanctions on Moscow. John Bolton, a skeptic of Russia, is apparently slated for the often powerless number 2 job, where he will be subordinate to Tillerson’s russophilia.
Trump seems blissfully unaware of Russia’s decline, which is apparent in many different dimensions. Its economy and government revenue are largely dependent on hydrocarbons, whose price collapse in 2014/15 left it in a severe recession. Its private sector is shrinking. Its large companies are increasingly controlled by Moscow. Its health and life expectancy are declining. Its once-vaunted athletes have been reduced to massive, state-sponsored doping. Only its military, nurtured with big doses of funding, appears in good shape, but that is true only for its elite forces.
So why would the president-elect choose to align himself with Putin? Trump says the Russians are needed to defeat the Islamic State in Syria. The difficulty with that point of view is that Russia has never expended much ordnance against the Islamic State but has instead concentrated its fire on non-jihadi fighters, whose destruction has strengthened rather than weakened the extremists. The main Islamic State stronghold in Syria today is Raqqa, which the Russian air force has only occasionally targeted.
I think it far more likely that Trump views Putin as an effective and admirable leader, one who does the things the president-elect would like to do: control the media, enforce draconian law and order, shut down dissent, vaunt nationalist pride, crack down on Muslims, and run a foreign policy committed exclusively to enhancing his own country’s gains without regard to any international norms or multilateral constraints. The bromance really is a bromance, at least on Trump’s part.
This spells peril, not only for the Syrian opposition but also for all those whose interests the US has supported during the past 10 years or so of Russian aggression. Ukraine can kiss Crimea good-bye. Trump is unlikely even to support reintegration of Donbas. The Baltics, Finland and Sweden, Montenegro, and others in Putin’s crosshairs are going to find little solace in Washington. At best, Trump will give them a hand if they pay for it.
Trump’s admiration for Putin will embolden the latter and whet his appetite for more successes with which to stave off the inevitable realization among the Russian people that they have been driven down a cul-de-sac. Putin is running a Ponzi scheme of foreign policy aggression, with each “success” enabling the next.
If Trump wants to try to do business with Putin, the deals he strikes should be judged on the transactional basis the President-elect prefers with everyone else: what does he get in exchange or what he gives? If he gets a serious political transition away from Bashar al Assad in Syria, full implementation of the Minsk II agreement in Ukraine, and an end to harassment of Russia’s neighbors, I’ll be the first to applaud. Until then, I’ll sit on my hands.
You can always tell when a cause is lost: the UN General Assembly passes a resolution to stop the bombing, allow in aid, and protect civilians. This was the clear signal this week that Syrian opposition forces in Aleppo are on the verge of defeat at the hands of multinational Shia militias as well as Iranian, Russian and Syrian government forces. Russian efforts to arrange a ceasefire for evacuation of civilians have failed, so far. Fighting age men are reportedly disappearing, likely some of them into prisons from which they will never emerge.
Assad is crowing. For good reason: victory in Aleppo will allow him to concentrate his forces against Idlib, which is the last remaining bit of what he has termed “useful Syria” that he doesn’t control. It runs from Damascus north to Aleppo and west to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. If he doesn’t already, Assad will soon control about one-third of the country’s territory and tw0-thirds of its population.
But the war will still not be over. The opposition will have some territory in the south along the Jordanian border and some in the north (west of the Euphrates), while the Kurds will control the rest of the border with Turkey and the Islamic State will control Raqqa and much of the relatively unpopulated east. The defeat at Aleppo and the impending defeat at Idlib will drive more opposition fighters into the arms of extremist jihadis, strengthening both Jabhat al Sham (the erstwhile Al Qaeda affiliate) and the Islamic State.
Assad now seems likely to survive, if only because the Americans will continue to pursue Jabhat al Sham and the Islamic State, which now represent by far the largest threat to his hold on power. This will make life easy for Trump. In order to ally with Russia as he says he wants to do, he’ll need only to cut American assistance to those few non-jihadi opposition who are still fighting Assad and provide support only to those willing to join the campaign against the Islamic State at Raqqa.
How Trump and National Security Adviser Flynn will square this de facto alignment with Iran I don’t know, but who’s watching? Like George W. Bush before him, Trump is likely to open still another door to Iranian power projection to the west.
Assad’s survival is not however the end of the story. Syria is a shambles. It needs hundreds of billions in aid. The Americans have already provided billions, but that has been overwhelmingly humanitarian assistance, much of which went to regime-controlled areas. I doubt however that the Americans will be interested in providing reconstruction assistance to the Assad regime. Even for a Trump administration, that might be a bit much, and in any event Congress likely wouldn’t go along.
The Europeans will be under a lot pressure to provide aid, since Assad will provide them with some minimal reason to hope that refugees will return if the Syrian economy revives. That however will be a false promise, as he doesn’t want them to return and restart the rebellion against him. He prefers to provide homes and livelihoods to non-Syrians, mainly Shia, who have fought on his behalf.
The people who should ante up are the Russians and Iranians, who have caused much of the damage and are coming out on the winning side. That entails obligations that the Washington and Brussels recognize, but Moscow and Tehran don’t. They aren’t likely to do more than minimal assistance calculated to help Assad regain and maintain control over strategically important turf.
Without a significant influx of resources, Syria will remain a fragmented basket case for many years to come. Even after Raqqa and Deir Azzour fall (precisely to whom is not yet clear), Islamist insurgency is likely to continue. Turkey and its Arab and Turkmen allies will control part of the north, with the Syrian Kurdish PYD controlling the rest. A bit of the south will remain in opposition control.
The Aleppo defeat may be the beginning of the end, but it is not yet the end.
I’ve already noted that Donald Trump’s cabinet picks are not moderates. Since then he has added to his radical menagerie several who have clear and compelling records of opposition to the departments they are being asked to lead:
- Tom Price at Health and Human Services is a diehard opponent of Obamacare and advocate of its immediate repeal, as well as a proponent of privatizing Medicare.
- Ben Carson at Housing and Urban Development is an opponent of government programs in general and dislikes HUD’s mission.
- Scott Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t believe in taking action to prevent climate change.
- Andy Puzder at Labor opposes the minimum wage.
- Wilbur Ross at Commerce is an investor who has benefited from protectionist steel tariffs and from moving plants abroad.
- McMorris Rodgers at Interior wants to open Federal lands to greater mining and energy development.
The only departments that have gotten people who are committed to their missions as currently understood are Defense (James Mattis) and Homeland Security (John Kelly). Pretty much everywhere else you’ve got people more committed to dismantling than in building. This is a cabinet that makes Ronald Reagan look like a RINO (that’s a Republican in name only).
There is nothing surprising in this. While Trump has feigned occasional interest in climate change or in helping American workers, he was open and blunt in his campaign about his disdain for much of what the US government aims to do. Americans are getting what they were promised: radical change.
The problem is it’s change in directions we don’t need. Despite what Trump’s supporters think, the American economy has been growing for more than 7 years now, with unemployment declining and the deficit shrinking. Trump has promised faster growth, but that will likely depend not on the cabinet but rather on massive infrastructure spending. President Obama proposed that as well, but Congressional Republicans never went along. Will they for Trump? Probably, as his proposal emphasizes not government spending but rather private investment in infrastructure, which means little of it will serve truly public purposes.
There are still a few more cabinet shoes to drop. Most important will be Secretary of State and US Trade Representative (USTR). I don’t believe it likely that with an already radical cabinet Trump will opt for moderation in either of these posts. Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon are going to be pressing hard for dyed-in-the-wool Trumpistas. Expect a NAFTA and TPP opponent at USTR and an anti-diplomat at State. There John Bolton, who despises the State Department, or Rex Tillerson, Exxon chief executive, would be my best guesses, though Bolton’s hostility to Russian President Putin makes him an odd fit for Trump.
Trump’s proposed cabinet is predominantly men, wealthy donors and Republican hardliners. But most importantly it is people who doubt the Federal government has a proper role in ensuring anything but hard security. For the rest, Trump’s appointees are going to try to slash and burn.