Thursday, December 14, 2017

No Trump Card

The United State has for long linked the recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel to achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians. President Trump’s recent decision on this matter reverses the policy and does so at a time when the government of PM Netanyahu continues to pursue expansion of illegal settlements in Palestinian territories and maintains its suffocating blockade of the Gaza Strip with devastating consequences for the local population. Moreover, the absence of any serious peace initiative at this stage means that the Palestinians have nothing to give them hope or make them trust that the Trump Administration knows what it’s doing. As such, they have no reason to hedge their bets on a possible future breakthrough.

Additionally, the Trump Administration’s confusing approach when it comes to policymaking, consisting of vague leaks followed by categorical announcements by President Trump, then, a series of clashing statements made by his officials, which only serve to further muddy the waters rather than clarify things, all aspects of this troubling behavior cannot but inspire mistrust and consternation.

Meanwhile, the overall geopolitical context in the region clearly favors Iran and its allies and their Machiavellian resistance discourse. The policies of the past two administrations, which the current administration, its anti-Iran rhetoric notwithstanding, continues to amplify, have seen to that.

This is where the problem lies for me, not in the recognition itself, -- after all, those who want peace cannot but be prepared for recognition, -- but in the fact that it’s taking place now, within this particular geopolitical context and at the behest of an administration that inspires little confidence in most people and seems to be motivated by a set of concerns and priorities that are wholly unrelated to regional realities.

Still, considering the wave of pronouncements from all over the world denouncing the decision and calling for the recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of an independent Palestinian State, something positive might still come out of this mess, albeit in spite rather than because of the Trump Administration’s policies.

But, with the U.S. effectively shut out, will Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Russia prove effective mediators in future peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians? For the sake of both peoples, and irrespective of any objections that one may have regarding the behavior of the leaders involved on all sides, one must maintain hope.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Trump’s Syria Conundrum II

Rather than help curtail the slaughter and pave the way for serious peace talks, limited strikes risk re-empowering Assad while undermining the credibility of President Trump.

Strike Assad, Sanction Russia, Support Rebels and Hold Peace-Talks in Geneva!

Despite the wag-the-dog appearance of President Trump’s about-face on Syria—that is, the possibility that his primary motivation has more to do with his desire to distract attention from his growing domestic problems than with a genuine concern for Syrian babies—the President’s action last week has opened a small and narrow window that, with the proper political vision, could help end the conflict in Syria and with it, the suffering of the Syrian people.

Trump was right in deciding to take on Assad, and his decision was hailed by both Republicans and Democrats. As a Syrian-American who has urged action against the regime for years, I am not going to ask too many questions, legitimate though they may be, about how and why Trump came to represent action, rather than standing by while beautiful babies get killed.

But the afterglow of credibility, legitimacy and strength in which Trump is currently basking will prove all too ephemeral unless he backs it up with a strong plan for Syria. The fact that the airport the U.S.  targeted in central Syria was back in use mere hours after the strike took place comes as clear indication that a limited, one-off strike will not do the trick, and constitutes a serious test of the administration’s resolve, especially in light of UN Ambassador Nikki Haley’s assertion that the U.S. is “prepared to do more.”

Without a clear strategy in place, one that includes a political vision for an endgame, the administration could stumble from one strike to another, making a bad situation worse both for the Syrians and for itself.

No political plan can sidestep the Russians and their interests at this stage, not only in Syria but perhaps also in Ukraine and elsewhere. The Russian president, Vladimir Putin, seems to have always seen these fronts as interlinked. Mr. Tillerson must have learned few in this regard following his 2-hour meeting with Putin, not to mention his meetings with Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov. Having already accused the Russians of being either “complicit” or “incompetent” in regard to the chemical attack, it’s not surprising that he spoke of “a low level of trust” between the two countries during his concluding press conference. It’s also not surprising to hear Lavrov reasserts his country’s commitment to Syria’s genocidaire, Bashar Al-Assad, albeit rather obliquely, by noting that his removal was not on the agenda. Indeed, and Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute has repeatedly noted, Putin’s attachment to Assad involves certain domestic calculations as well. That is,

“Having staked enormous political capital on the recovery of at least some of the main geopolitical assets lost in the Soviet Union’s demise, Putin will defend Assad until the domestic political costs become too high to bear.”

As such and irrespective of the nature of his primary motivation, be it a cynical attempt at manipulating the news or a genuine concern for the children of Syria, Trump needs to get serious and develop a better understanding soon of the complexities of the gambit he just embarked upon, for there are a variety of ways with which his decision to get involved could come back to haunt him, both at home and abroad.

For instance, should Assad—backed by his Russian and Iranian buddies—decide to escalate his strikes against the civilian population over the next few weeks, producing more images of suffering and dying children, what would Trump do? Continued defiance by Assad at this stage, even without the use of chemical weapons, could easily transform Trump’s show of strength into a running joke. Buoyed as he is by Russian and Iranian backing, including recourse to the use of internationally banned incendiary weapons, Assad has every reason to be defiant, and every reason to escalate. By targeting the same town mere hours after he sustained the American strike, he, in fact, did exactly that.

Standing up to America will help Assad patch up his fraying support base at home at a time when members of his supposedly loyalist militias seem to have become more beholden to Iran and Russia than to him. As such, if his ability to carry out major attacks against the civilian population, whether by using chemical weapons or by any other means, is not seriously curtailed by American strikes, Assad will emerge as a victor, and his position among his supporters will be strengthened and re-legitimated. And Moscow will even more reasons to back him. In fact, and while some note that the recent battlefield losses incurred by pro-Assad troops in central Syria as being the primary motive behind the recent chemical attack, achieving this might be more to the point.

In a way, then, rather than gaining leverage, Trump might have just entrusted his political future to the whims and calculations of a mass murderer—unless, that is, he comes up with a credible plan soon. Trump risks looking ridiculous, and “a man in his position can’t afford to be made to look ridiculous,” to quote a tragic character from The Godfather, which seems strangely appropriate considering the protagonists involved on all sides.

By now, three things should be clear: one limited strike is insufficient to deliver the message to a desperate killer like Assad, yet strikes without an overall strategy for follow-through risks major blowback, while a narrow focus on the use of chemical weapons seems quite meaningless if the killing is allowed to go on by other means. In other words, now that a major chemical attack by the Assad regime has finally triggered an American response against it, that response cannot be limited to the issue of chemical weapons; otherwise, we’re back where President Barack Obama left us in 2013, which is to say washing our hands of the whole thing.

Second, this is no time for improvisation and for stumbling along. Trump now needs to avail himself of the rare show of bipartisanship in the wake of the attack to encourage his national security team to work in cooperation with supporters in Congress to craft a comprehensive strategy that can move us in the right direction.  This strategy must involve more intense strikes targeting vital assets controlled by the Assad regime and greater support to rebel groups fighting against it, coupled with a strong diplomatic push meant to revive and reinvigorate the Geneva peace process as well as a continuous media campaign highlighting Assad’s war crimes so that the world never forgets why President Trump recently called him “an animal.”

Moreover, the White House should seriously consider imposing additional sanctions on Russia related to their use of incendiary weapons in Syria and their involvement in covering up Assad’s mounting war crimes there. As strange as this may sound, the costs of Putin’s Syria campaign has been quite low so far, perhaps when this is no longer the case or when he realizes that he now risks facing increasing costs, he might become more pliable.

Finally, it’s not just Trump’s personal credibility that’s on the line here; it’s America’s. And America’s credibility has already been dealt too many blows over the last few years because of incoherent policy on Syria. It’s time to rectify that. More than 50,000 children have died throughout the course of this conflict. If Trump was truly motivated to act by his concern for Syria’s children, then he needs to make ending the conflict there a foreign policy priority for his administration.  

Thursday, April 6, 2017

'Something should happen'

Few notes on the latest developments concerning Trump Administration's policy on Syria

Some serious strikes will take place against the Assad regime soon in order to signal that Trump is serious about Syria and that he is different from his predecessor and will respond differently when he is challenged. Trump needs to send a strong message in this regard, because the North Koreans, Iranian and the Russians are watching closely.

The “something” that “should happen," to borrow Trump's own words, will have to be serious enough to curtail Assad’s ability to launch new airstrikes or major military operations against the rebels. If the Administration wants the regime to start taking peace talks seriously, its ability to launch major offensives must be curtailed. Still, the operations at this stage will not be meant to undermine the stability of the regime.

On the political level, talks will be held with the Russians and other international player over the next few weeks to revamp and intensify ongoing peace-talks. The administration and its allies will insist on Assad’s eventual departure, but contrary to speculations and assertions, the removal of Assad does not amount to regime change. Also, the different international and regional parties will now have to agree on how to move forward with the fight against ISIS and on what Syria will look like post-Assad.

Framing the situation in terms of regime change is neither accurate nor helpful at this stage, and will give anti-war movement as well as the Russians, the Iranians and other regime-supporters fodder for their campaign to waylay the administration’s plans. This is about bringing peace to Syria and about ending the suffering of the Syrian people – a step that clearly requires the removal of the “few bad hombres” who are responsible for it. That these “bad hombres” should include Assad and some of his adviser and generals and not only the heads of ISIS and Al-Qaeda should not come as a surprise to anyone. After all, the former bear responsibility for the overwhelming majority of death and destruction in Syria.

Getting the Russians on board this scenario will not be easy; Obama was not able to do it, not that he pursued as seriously as he needed to. Still, a Russian OK, no matter how reluctant, is not impossible to obtain. The Russians might be willing to show more flexibility at this stage in regard to Syria realizing that this might translate into future American flexibility in regard to the situation in Ukraine and could lead to an easing if not downright removal of sanctions. Indeed, if the Russians want Trump to be able to deliver on these issues, they cannot allow him to fail on a test that he has now embraced so publicly and forcefully. The situation in Syria now has become a test of the credibility and character of both Putin and Trump. If Putin cannot work with Trump to resolve this conflict, after the latter spent the last few months sending him a billion positive signals at tremendous and continuingly increasing political cost at home, then, the message Putin will be sending to American officials of all stripes and standings is that he is not a person with whom one can do any business, and that he is indeed engaged in warfare against America.

Be that as it may, Trump has transformed the conflict in Syria into a test of his leadership and resolve in particular, and he seems to have done so willfully. This might be a cynical exercise of wagging the dog in an attempt to put the Russia Scandal and all controversies surrounding his business interests and nepotism behind him. But that’s exactly why he would need to show results, and soon. This situation cannot be handled in the same way the wiretapping accusations against Obama and the leak accusations against Rice were. Mere noise will not be sufficient here. The stakes are very high, he himself made sure that they are, and has left himself little wiggle room in this regard. Failure to produce results will cost Mr. Trump many valuable allies at home and abroad, ensuring that all investigations into his affairs will be pursued with greater vigor and more bipartisan support.