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.
The House has reached bipartisan agreement on a sanctions bill that will make it harder for President Trump undo sanctions on Russia (as well as North Korea and Iran), unless he can present evidence that Moscow’s behavior has changed. That’s extraordinary: it has been a long time since Congress has reached a bipartisan agreement on anything important, much less something on which Trump disagrees.
There are still pitfalls. The House version of the bill will be voted on this week and then needs to be reconciled with the Senate’s version, which did not include North Korea. The Administration will do everything possible to water it down, threatening to veto it if it passes in its current form. But if the bill makes it through to approval in both Houses with veto-proof majorities (more than two-thirds), the White House will hesitate to undermine its already weakened president by vetoing and risking an override.
If and when the legislation passes, the US will have something resembling a tough-minded policy on Russian misbehavior, including its election hacking, its annexation of Crimea, and its invasion of eastern Ukraine (but not Syria). The legislation would also toughen policies on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs as well as Iran’s missile program and regional interventions.
None of this however should be expected to have an immediate impact. Unilateral sanctions, even “secondary” ones that punish other countries’ companies for doing business with Russia, Iran, and North Korea, are rarely effective in the short-term. Their impact is felt when you negotiate relief from them, not when you impose them. And the fact that the legislation makes it hard to provide relief will be a disincentive to Trump to use the authority the legislation provides, in particular on Russia.
We should of course expect retaliation from the countries sanctioned. Russia will of course maintain the prohibition on adoptions that the Trump campaign and Administration have repeatedly discussed with Moscow’s various representatives. Putin may expel some American spies and diplomats or prohibit American imports. North Korea will likely launch more missiles. Iran will too. Tehran can also target Americans in Iraq or Syria, though doing so risks an American military reaction.
Sanctions would be more effective if multilateral, in particular if the Europeans would join in imposing and implementing their own, comparable measures. That isn’t likely with respect to Iran, where the Europeans are doing good business since the nuclear deal. They may be more likely to act against Russia, though the Italians and others are already chafing at existing sanctions. North Korea is easy for the Europeans, though they are unlikely to join in secondary sanctions against Chinese banks and other companies.
The Trump Administration lacks the rapport with Europe (and most of the rest of the world) to get the kind of multilateral cooperation required to make sanctions bite against Russia, Iran, and North Korea. The President may have enjoyed Bastille Day in France with newly elected President Macron, but he has stiff-armed German Chancellor Merkel, who has the real clout. His pal British Prime Minister May is preoccupied now with Brexit, hasn’t been able to form a new government after suffering serious election losses, and in any event carries little weight any longer with the rest of Europe.
So, yes, this flicker of bipartisanship is good news, as it is a counterweight to some of President Trump’s worst instincts, in particular towards Russia. But it does not change international equation. Defiance will continue, as Trump has weakened the United States by offending its allies.
PS: While I was working on this piece, my colleague at SAIS Mike Haltzel published similar but more far-reaching views: A Ray of Hope on our Russia Policy | HuffPost
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Zapad 17: Implications for NATO and the United States | Tuesday, July 11 | 9:00 am | Atlantic Council | Register Here | As NATO steps up its exercises in the Baltic Sea region, Russia is preparing to launch a major exercise in mid-September to test the readiness and capabilities of its air, sea, and ground forces in northeastern Europe. Zapad is a recurring exercise which has included forces from both Russia and Belarus, and serves as a high-profile training event close to NATO territory. Join the Atlantic Council and the Ministry of Defense of Estonia for a public discussion on the implications of Zapad 17.
- Challenges in U.S. Iran Policy | Wednesday, July 12 | 12:30 – 5:30 pm | Middle East Institute | Register Here | Join the Middle East Institute for a conference to examine the outlines of U.S. policy toward Iran, addressing its overall goals, the strategies pursued, and metrics of success. Panels will include: “Assessing the Threat, Calibrating a Strategy” (1:30 – 2:45 pm), “Challenges in Syria and Iraq” (3:00 – 4:15 pm), and “Challenges in Yemen, Lebanon, and Afghanistan” (4:15 – 5:30 pm). Senator Christopher Coons (D-DE), member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and proponent of the U.S. – Iran Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, will give the keynote address.
- The War on ISIS: The Forgotten Need for Congressional Authorization | Wednesday, July 12 | 9:30 – 10:30 am | Wilson Center | Register Here | While there is a broad consensus for pursuing ISIS aggressively, the legal grounds upon which the president can expand the use of military force against ISIS are more tenuous. In recent years, the executive branch has justified its actions by pointing to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) – legislation signed into law days after the 9/11 attacks. Is Congress abdicating its authority to authorize wars to the executive branch? Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ), Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Jane Harman (director, president, and CEO of the Wilson Center) will comment.
- The July 15 Coup Attempt in Turkey: One Year On | Thursday, July 13 | 9:00 – 11:00 am | Turkish Heritage Organization | Register Here | Last year’s failed coup attempt, carried out by a faction within the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK), took a considerable toll on the Turkish nation and created enormous domestic, regional, and international risks. Following the death of more than 200 Turkish civilians, the Turkish government declared a state of emergency that is still in effect. Ankara has requested the extradition of suspected mastermind Fethullah Gulen from the U.S., further complicating the already strained relationship between the two NATO allies. Join THO and a distinguished panel of experts including Ambassador James Jeffrey, Mark Hall, Cliff Stearns, and Mujeeb Khan for a look at the July 15 coup attempt one year later. Discussion will be moderated by Alexi-Noelle O’Brien Hosein.
- A New Nuclear Review for a New Age | Thursday, July 13 | 12:15 – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Register Here | The contemporary nuclear environment is very different from that which immediately followed the Cold War. A New Nuclear Review for a New Age, a recent study published by the National Institute for Public Policy, provides timely recommendations for how the United States must respond to the changes and adapt its nuclear posture to deter enemies, assure allies, and limit damage in the event deterrence fails. The Hudson Institute will host a discussion with the director of the study, Dr. Keith Payne, and contributing authors Dr. Matthew Kroenig and Rebeccah Heinrichs.
- Regime Change in Iran: From the 1953 Coup to the Trump Policy Review | Thursday, July 13 | 12:00 pm | Atlantic Council | Register Here | The Atlantic Council presents a panel discussion featuring Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, Malcolm Byrne, and Bruce Riedel on new US government documents released about the 1953 CIA-backed coup that deposed Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstalled Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The discussion will look at the ramifications of the coup for the Iranian people and US-Iran relations and analyze the impact of revived regime change rhetoric among some politicians and advisers seeking to influence the policies of the Trump administration toward Iran and the Middle East at large. Barbara Slavin, director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council, will be moderating.
- Post-ISIS Iraq and Syria: Avoiding Chaos | Friday, July 14 | 10:00 am – 12:30 pm | Middle East Policy Council | Register Here | Join the Middle East Policy Council for a conference featuring Ambassador James Jeffrey, former ambassador to Turkey and Iraq; Dr. Denise Natali of the National Defense University; Mr. Wa’el Alzayat, former Syria Outreach Coordinator for the U.S. Department of State; and Dr. Paul Salem of the Middle East Institute. Ambassador Richard J. Schmierer, former ambassador to the Sultanate of Oman, will be moderating.