Tag: Russia

Sold out

The Syrian opposition never received more than half-hearted and highly fragmented support from the US and the Gulf. More or less covert American military assistance went through the CIA, which equipped and trained fighters who were supposed to be fighting extremists, though most preferred to fight the Syrian regime. The assistance was not intended to enable the rebels to win the war against the Assad regime but at most to bring Assad to the negotiating table. Instead he sought and received increased Russian and Iranian support, which has shrunk the areas the non-extremist opposition controls.

Now the Trump administration has ended the assistance going to rebels in the north. The President has tweeted that he ended “massive, dangerous, and wasteful payments to Syrian rebels fighting Assad…..” The Al Qaeda affiliate (Hayat Tahrir al Sham) has already responded to the American cut-off by expanding its control over Idlib province. Washington for the moment is said to have decided to  ignore that battlefield. We can expect further strengthening of non-ISIS extremists as former Free Syrian Army fighters, deprived of American assistance, look for someone who is prepared to do battle against Assad.

The aid cutoff was a gesture to Russia intended to elicit Moscow’s cooperation in implementing a ceasefire and restraining the Syrian regime and its Iranian-backed allies from attacking a “de-escalation” area in the south along the Jordanian and Israeli border. There the Southern Front, in which relative moderates have been prevalent, will I understand continue to get at least some arms and training.

The Southern Front was once regarded as “Syria‘s last best hope.” There non-extremist Free Syrian Army forces managed to hold sway and avoid the internecine fighting that has plagued other areas. Instead they focused on fighting ISIS and Al Qaeda in its various guises. The results were not perfect, but pretty good, including the establishment of a political wing that could participate in negotiations.

The de-escalation agreement with Moscow leaves opposition forces in the south at the mercy of the Assad coalition, which has been notoriously unwilling to abide by ceasefire agreements. The Syrian government in particular regards ceasefires as a prelude to surrender. Moscow often complains that Damascus refuses to do what the Russians ask, never mind the Iranians and their Shia militias. Washington’s hopes that Moscow will be able to dominate the pro-Assad coalition and restrain the Syrian regime and its Iranian-backed supporters have often been disappointed.

The Free Syrian Army forces, which learned about this “de-escalation” deal from the press, aren’t the only unhappy party. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu has denounced the deal because it fails to remove the Iranians from Israel’s border and allows them bases and missile fabrication facilities in Syria, which Netanyahu had hoped to prohibit.

There is no avoiding an uncomfortable conclusion: the Americans have sold out the Syrian opposition, in exchange for promised Russian restraint against moderates remaining in the south. It’s a bad deal unlikely to last any longer than many other deals made in Syria with Moscow.

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Trump tells all

Donald Trump’s interview with the New York Times published today is a gold mine. It tells us precisely what he most fears the most:

  1. The Special Counsel (Mueller) Russia investigation, and
  2. Any probe of his family finances.

The interview is laced with concerns about Mueller, whom he accuses of having an office laced with “conflicts,” though Trump appears to have no understanding of what constitutes a conflict of interest. Concern about the Russia investigation also underlies the President’s criticism of his own Attorney General for recusing himself from it and the Deputy Attorney General for being from Baltimore, where there are “very few Republicans, if any.” It is also what underlies the accusation that former FBI Director Comey was trying to use a dossier to blackmail the President. Trump is trying desperately and assiduously to undermine the Russia probe and lay the basis for firing the Attorney General, his Deputy, as well as Mueller.

Why?

Here is the smoking gun:

SCHMIDT: Last thing, if Mueller was looking at your finances and your family
finances, unrelated to Russia — is that a red line?
HABERMAN: Would that be a breach of what his actual charge is?
TRUMP: I would say yeah. I would say yes. By the way, I would say, I don’t — I
don’t — I mean, it’s possible there’s a condo or something, so, you know, I sell a lot of condo units, and somebody from Russia buys a condo, who knows? I don’t make money from Russia. In fact, I put out a letter saying that I don’t make — from one of the most highly respected law firms, accounting firms. I don’t have buildings in Russia. They said I own buildings in Russia. I don’t. They said I made money from Russia. I don’t. It’s not my thing. I don’t, I don’t do that. Over the years, I’ve looked at maybe doing a deal in Russia, but I never did one. Other than I held the Miss Universe pageant there eight, nine years.

Note that Trump, as usual, pooh-poohs criticism and then steers the discussion away from Russian financing, first to the question of whether he has investments in Russia and then to the Miss Universe pageant, both of which are irrelevant to whether he depends on Russian financing.

But the key is that phrase “there’s a condo or something.” There are lots of condos and lots of investments by dubious Russians in Trump properties. President Putin could dry up that money in a heartbeat, rendering Trump’s and Kushner’s real estate empires basket cases. Putin could also make Trump’s and Kushner’s day by encouraging more Russian money to flow.

The Russia connection has other dimensions: admiration for Putin’s autocratic behavior, sympathy with his ethnic nationalism, and genuine belief (despite ample evidence to the contrary) that Moscow could be helpful. But if you want to know why Trump wants to meet privately with Putin and is so consistently and persistently is soft on Russia, money is the answer. I think Trump and Kushner do little due diligence. They are heavily dependent on finances of dubious origins in Russia, which makes them vulnerable to Putin day and night.

Sooner or later, this will all catch up with Trump. Either he will fire Mueller (and maybe also the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General), with dramatic political repercussions, or Mueller will proceed and document the financial connections that give Russia so much control over Trump, also with dramatic political repercussions. This may all move in slow motion, but it will move and catch a president who can’t resist telling all, if you know how to read him.

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It’s not fine

Ari Fleischer, onetime press secretary to George W, tweeted today:

This wasn’t handled perfectly by the WH, but it is not a scandal and a short chat after dinner is fine. Please calm down.

Let me count the ways he is wrong:

  1. It wasn’t a short chat, or a “pull-aside” as they say in the trade. It lasted according to everyone but the White House close to an hour, seated.
  2. The President got up from his place at the dinner next to the Japanese Prime Minister Abe to go talk with Putin. I needn’t speculate on how Abe felt about that.
  3. He did this in front of leaders of the rest of the G20, thus signaling to all that he was far more interested in talking with an American adversary than an American ally, even after already having met with Putin for more than 2 hours the same day.
  4. Trump failed to arrange for another American to be present, even a translator, thus raising the suspicion that he didn’t want his own staff to know the content of the conversation. Staff is usually readily accessible during such a dinner in a neighboring room.
  5. The conversation took place during an uproar about collusion with the Russians. What more blatant indication of collusion could there be than a long, private talk with Putin that the White House failed to brief to the press?
  6. The uproar and the Special Counsel investigation are increasingly (and in my view wisely) focusing on financial ties between the Russians and Trump’s real estate ventures. As the President makes no distinction between his public functions and his private business interests, wouldn’t it be reasonable to imagine that a Trump/Putin conversation with no other American present involved Trump’s private business interests?
  7. I’ll go a step further: if those business interests depend on Russian financing, what would make a reasonable person assume that Putin would not use the threat of withdrawing support, or perhaps the incentive of additional support, to get his way on Syria, Ukraine or other issues?

So maybe it is not (yet) a scandal, but it isn’t fine either. It’s an egregious example of the President’s extraordinarily poor judgment.

Not that we lack other examples: his continued interest in throwing away the Iran nuclear deal without an alternative, his failure to even pretend to hold Putin accountable for interference in the American election, his support for a Republican health bill that would have gutted promises he made as a candidate, his continuing effort to badmouth Obamacare into oblivion (even without a replacement): this presidency is a disaster already and will likely cause catastrophe in the future.

No one should calm down so long as this menace remains in office.

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Divorce terms first, referendum second

My  piece in the Washington Post this morning concludes: 

Washington can hope the Iraqi Kurds and Arabs will restrain themselves and negotiate a peaceful and mutually agreed outcome. But hope is not a policy. It is also still possible the referendum will be postponed, but if held, it is likely to undermine the fight against the Islamic State, heighten tension between Baghdad and Irbil, and cause fighting over the territories they dispute. It could also encourage independence movements in South Yemen, eastern Libya (Cyrenaica) and Syria as well as validate Russian-supported independence claims in Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. None of that would be good for the United States, which should be doing what it can to block the referendum and insist on a successful negotiation before it is held, not afterwards.

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Vučić@Pence

I am getting inquiries about Serbian President Vučić’s meeting yesterday with Vice President Pence. The White House readout is short but includes some detail:

Vice President Mike Pence met today with President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić. The leaders agreed on the importance of the bilateral relationship and expressed the desire to deepen the partnership between the United States and Serbia. The Vice President expressed U.S. support for Serbia’s efforts to join the European Union, the need for continued reforms, and further progress in normalizing the relationship with Kosovo. The leaders discussed the Vice President’s upcoming trip to Podgorica, Montenegro, where he will participate in an Adriatic Charter Summit with leaders from across the Western Balkans region. The Vice President also announced that the United States will provide an additional $10 million contribution to the Regional Housing  Program, an internationally funded, joint initiative by Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Montenegro that provides housing to those displaced during the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Vučić has emphasized establishment of a direct channel with the Vice President.

None of this is particularly new or interesting. It is easy enough for the US to support Serbia’s EU prospects, the necessary reforms, and the dialogue with Pristina. A “direct channel” can mean many things: Washington has direct telecommunications links (that bypass the State Department and Foreign Ministries) with a number of countries, but it could also just mean a commitment to answer the phone.

Likely more interesting is what Belgrade and Washington haven’t yet said. There is the specific issue of the three Kosovar American Bytyqi brothers, apparently murdered by Serb police after the war in Kosovo. Vučić long ago promised prosecutions of those responsible but hasn’t delivered. Did Pence raise this case? There is also the general issue of Belgrade’s relationship with Moscow, which has included establishment of a Russian logistics base in Nis, exercises with the Russian military, free Russian arms transfers, and refusal of Serbia to go along with EU sanctions levied because of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While President Trump himself is soft on Russia, for many Americans Serbia’s behavior towards Moscow raises questions about its suitability as a US partner.

The most important aspect of this meeting is likely that it occurred at all. No doubt Vučić sought it now primarily because Pence is heading for Montenegro in early August for a multilateral meeting at which Serbia will only be an observer. No Serbian president would want to be upstaged, least of all by Belgrade’s erstwhile junior partner. The Americans likely saw reason in making it clear they want a good relationship with Serbia as well.

But it is also significant that the meeting was with Pence. The Trump Administration apparently wants to continue Obama’s habit of keeping the Vice President out front on Balkans issues, leaving the President to more important tasks. Plus ça change…

PS: Whether or not the White House is interested in the Russia connection, the House of Representatives is. It is requiring the Pentagon to report on Russia/Serbia military cooperation.

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Debacle

The Trump Administration is failing, both domestically and internationally.

On the domestic front, last night’s collapse of Republican support for the repeal and replacement of Obama’s health care legislation ends any reasonable prospect of legislative action on this front. Republican Senate leader McConnell says he will bring simple repeal to a vote, which is what President Trump says he now wants.

Were it to pass, the US health care system would be thrown into chaos, with damaging economic consequences. More likely, it will never come to a vote. Instead, the President and his virulently anti-Obamacare Secretary of Health and Human Services will instead try to weaken Obamacare through executive action. That will also cause enormous economic uncertainty and risk stalling an aging economic recovery.

Even if somehow the healthcare debacle is resolved, the Administration needs to raise the debt ceiling by the end of September, in order to avoid a US Government default. There is no agreement yet among Republicans (the Democrats count for little as they are in the minority) on when and how to do this. Since it is a “must-pass” measure, members will try to hang lots of other things onto it, likely delaying passage until the last conceivable moment.

On the international front, it is now clear that not only the President himself but also his son, Don Jr., welcomed and encouraged Russian help during the election campaign, along with the campaign manager and the President’s son-in-law. Special Counsel Mueller will now have to determine whether their behavior violated the legal prohibition on soliciting or accepting foreign assistance.

Judicial standards of proof are much higher than journalistic ones, so we’ll just have to wait and see what Mueller concludes, but in the meanwhile the White House has been reduced to arguing that nothing they did could possibly be illegal, even if it involved active collusion with Moscow. No one should be surprised if Trump welcomes gives Moscow back its spy facilities and the personnel that Obama expelled in retaliation for interference in the US election.

On other issues, the news is no better:

  1. North Korea: The Administration failed to prevent Pyongyang from testing intercontinental ballistic missiles, as the President promised he would do. His efforts to convince China to get tough with Kim Jong-un have likewise failed. Instead, Seoul is breaking with the US hard line and seeking talks with the North. Trump’s bluster and bullying has gotten him no result at all on the Korean Peninsula.
  2. Qatar crisis: While the President was encouraging Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to go after Qatar about terrorist financing, his Secretaries of State and Defense have been trying to smooth things over, fearing that Qatar might lean farther towards Iran due to the blockade Riyadh and Abu Dhabi have levied. Mediation efforts (mainly by Kuwait) have so far failed. The Gulf Cooperation Council remains split and weakened, while someone in Washington yesterday leaked intelligence saying the Emirates intentionally provoked the crisis by hacking into Qatari broadcasts with false information about statements the Qatari Emir never made. This is the umpteenth time the Trump Administration has suffered leaks, which of course it denounces but then does nothing about.
  3. The Islamic State: The military operations to liberate Mosul and Raqqa from ISIS are proceeding, but it is increasingly clear that there are no viable plans for stabilization, reconstruction and governance thereafter. In Mosul, ISIS resistance continues, despite the victory celebration led by Iraqi Prime Minister Abadi. In Raqqa, the Kurdish-led forces taking the city are likely to face Turkish, Syrian government and Iranian resistance once they succeed.

None of these issues is even close to being resolved. All are likely to get more challenging in the future. I confess to Schadenfreude: this Administration and Congress are proving as incoherent and incompetent as predicted. But it is not fun to watch your country paralyzed and weakened. There is no quick way out of the debacle we are in.

 

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