Thoughts on Trump and Putin

Hard to plot how Donald Trump will act on the World stage. His campaign trail pronouncements were often vague, frequently contradictory and lacked substance, leaving many in the U.S. and abroad left to speculate about what exactly his defense and foreign policies will look like. There are divisions within his own national security team.

When it comes to Syria, the Obama administration engaged largely in hand-wringing over how to help rebel militias oust Bashar al-Assad. A shift in priority to battling the Islamic State terror group resulted in the reduction of support for rebel groups that weren’t prepared to prioritize the fight against the jihadists over their aim to topple Assad first and then deal with Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and his followers.

The Assad horse has now bolted, thanks to Russia’s decisive military intervention. With the retaking of eastern Aleppo, Assad’s survival is assured. The announcement today by Russian officials of the start of a military drawdown in Syria is a sign of Moscow’s confidence. Moscow has achieved its main goal — namely to save the Assad regime.

How the conflict will end finally is largely going to be decided by Russia, Turkey and Iran — something I have been arguing for months. Moscow and Ankara engineered the latest ceasefire, which despite violations by Assad forces in the Damascus suburbs and parts of Homs and Hama is largely holding. The rebels are now controlled by Turkey, which can strangle them by stopping arms supplies crossing the border. The U.S. has been sidelined and there are no signs that a President Trump will want to change that — he has been critical of the U.S. getting involved in regime change and for him too IS is the priority.

We could well see greater cooperation unfold quickly between the Trump administration and Moscow in the fight against the jihadists. Such cooperation would help further Trump’s stated aim of improving relations with Russia.

In terms of the battle against the Islamic State, the jihadists have mounted a creative and stubborn resistance. In Mosul Iraqi progress is very slow and the jihadists won’t be ejected likely for months from their last major urban stronghold in Iraq.

In Syria, an offensive is yet to be launched on Raqqa, although bombing runs by the U.S.-led coalition have increased greatly in the last week. On Thursday there were 23 coalition air strikes in Syria and just 6 in Iraq.

The question remains who will be the ground force used to retake Raqqa? Turkey is opposed to the Kurds being in the vanguard and the Arab militias that are part of the Syrian Democratic Forces are not up to the task.

Like Mosul, the offensive on Raqqa will prove long and arduous. With the defeat of IS being one of his few clearly stated policy aims, Trump is likely to grow frustrated with the slow progress in Mosul and Raqqa. To speed things up, I think it likely he will decide to deploy more U.S. military advisers and to increase the rate and intensity of airstrikes, probably with less concern about civilian casualties.

And no doubt Russia will offer help with joint airstrikes. (Recently the IS-held town of al-Bab saw Russian warplanes joining Turkish ones in bombing IS positions in the town.)

Syria-based cooperation between a Trump-era Washington and Moscow will likely start the reset in U.S.-Russia relations. But that reset could easily be derailed — and not just from the political fallout from the Russian election hacking.

With an Assad victory, Russia has reasserted itself in the Middle East. It will become more influential, more important across the Middle East as a whole. It seems unlikely that Trump will want to challenge Russia’s growing clout in the region. But for how long? U.S. and Russian interests in the region don’t mirror each other.

Putin will no doubt push quickly for a change in U.S. policy towards Ukraine. Trump may not be able to deliver on that — a push for an end to Ukraine-related sanctions will prompt a fierce push-back from influential GOP senators like John McCain and from some key NATO allies. That could lead to an unraveling of the Trump-Putin reset.

Another fly in the ointment comes with a resurgent Iran, currently a Russia ally. Assad’s survival strengthens Iran and its sidekick Hezbollah, alarming Gulf allies and Israel. Will Putin dump Tehran to maintain good relations with Trump?

Can the Rebels Hold On in Aleppo?

From my dispatch today for VOA:

“The huge Assad assault — regime reinforcements were sent to the city this weekend in what Damascus calls a ‘decisive final battle’ — is testing not only the endurance of an estimated quarter-of-a-million civilians trapped, bombed on and starving in the eastern pocket.

It is testing the rebel forces — to the breaking point, fear diplomats, analysts and some rebel leaders.

‘Can they hold out? No, sadly no, from a military point of view, of course, they can’t,’ says Gen. Salim Idris, a former commander-in-chief of the Free Syrian Army.”

You can read the full report here.

Is There A Western Strategy For Libya?

From my VOA article August 5

“Some analysts worry that the current mainly covert military involvement of Western countries against IS [Islamic State] in Libya is adding to the chaos in the strife-torn country because the U.S., Britain, France and Italy are assisting opposing political alliances.

In the U.S. case, the airstrikes targeting IS extremists in Sirte this week have been supporting militias mainly from the western Libyan town of Misrata currently loyal to the GNA[ Government of National Accord] . British commandos have also been assisting Misratan militiamen against IS.

But France and Italy, as well as Egypt, have been working with the forces of General Khalifa Haftar, the military commander of a government in the east, one of the two rival governments the GNA was meant to have replaced in December.’

You can read the full article here

ISIS Urges Followers To Target Christians, Bid to Prompt War of Religions

From my story today for VOA.

The Islamic State (IS) is inciting supporters to mount more attacks on Christians just days after two of the terror group’s sympathizers slit the throat of an 85-year-old French priest as he was celebrating Mass — a killing French officials fear was a deliberate tactic to provoke a Christian backlash in France against Muslims.

The latest issue of IS’s online magazine Dabiq, widely read by supporters and sympathizers, focuses on the theme of “Break the Cross.” In a series of interviews, foreign fighters who have converted from Christianity are used as mouthpieces to urge supporters in the West to destroy “arrogant Christian disbelievers.” They exhort Muslims to “pray for Allah’s curse to be upon the liars.”

Read the full article here.

Democrats Win the Summer But Will They Win The Election?

Normal Rules No Longer Apply?

The always thoughtful David Brooks has a chilling column in the New York Times today questioning whether a convention win will translate into a November win for the Democrats at the polls. At first glance, maybe it will.

He argues that Donald Trump has — if unintentionally — stumbled on an ingenious way to to allow the Democrats to save themselves: by “abandoning the great patriotic themes that used to fire up the GOP… he’s allowed the Democrats to seize that ground.”

“Trump has abandoned the deep and pervasive optimism that has always energized the American nation,” he says. He adds: “Democrats have often been ambivalent about that ardent nationalistic voice, but this week they were happy to accept Trump’s unintentional gift.”

But he fears that although “the Democratic speakers hit doubles, triples and home runs… the normal rules may no longer apply.”

He adds: “It could be in that in this moment of fear, cynicism, anxiety and extreme pessimism, many voters have decided that civility is a surrender to a rigged system, that optimism is the opiate of the idiots and that humility and gentleness are simply surrendering to the butchers of ISIS. If that’s the case then the throes of a completely new birth are upon us and Trump is a man of the future.”

Paul Krugman — also in the NYT today — poses the question, “Who Loves America?” And makes this telling observation: “If what bothers you about America is, instead, the fact that it doesn’t look exactly the way it did in the past (or the way you imagine it looked in the past), then you don’t love your country — you care only about your tribe.”

Trump and Russia

Having myself written this week for The Hill about Trump and Russia, I think this point from Krugman is thought-provoking: “Mr. Trump’s willingness to cast aside our nation’s hard-earned reputation as a reliable ally is remarkable. So is the odd specificity of his support for Mr. Putin’s priorities, which is in stark contrast with the vagueness of everything else he has said about policy. And he has offered only evasive non-answers to questions about his business ties to Putin-linked oligarchs.”

The Trump-Russia links are fascinating. As I pointed out earlier this week, if those business ties and financial dealings, as well as the relationships some of his advisers have had with Kremlin-run entities and allies, had been ones pursued by Clinton or her advisers, American Conservatives would be in uproar and hurling the national-security card.

Does that mean I think Trump is a recruited Russian agent? No, there is no basis for making such an allegation. But the question remains — and Trump and his advisers have not answered it — how much do those ties and connections go to shape and mould his foreign-policy thinking, or their’s, when it comes to Russia? Is Trump being reflexively a business deal-maker and playing nice now to Putin in the hopes that post-election, if he fails to win the presidency, he will be rewarded with the kind of deals in Russia that have so far eluded him?

There is something truly shocking, even tawdry, observing national-security Republicans remaining mainly silent on all of this.

On a side-note, it is curious to see Wikileaks and Edward Snowden fall out over the right approach to leaks with the NSA whistleblower condemning in a Tweet Wikileaks “hostility to even modest curation.” Predictably, Wikileaks has accused Snowden of pandering to the Democrats.

Of course, Wikileaks never panders to anyone, does it? The Wikileaks site is full of embarrassing Russian data disclosures, isn’t it?

 

 

How Much More Can France Take?

From my article today for VOA:

“French President Francois Hollande appears as shaken as those he has tried to comfort one terror attack after another.

Following the slaying Monday by two jihadists of a beloved 86-year-old Catholic priest as he was celebrating Mass in a bucolic Norman village, the French leader insisted the war against terrorists will be waged with “absolute determination.” But Hollande, as well as the security services, appear to be fast losing the confidence of the French public.”

 

You can read the full version here.

Assad Says It Enough; Maybe The West Should Believe Him

Bashar al-Assad sent sent a telegram Thursday to Russia’s Vladimir Putin to thank Moscow for its military support and vowed to accept nothing less than outright victory. Assad said the army was set on “attaining final victory.”

He noted in his cable that Aleppo has become like Stalingrad, promising that “despite the brutality and cruelty of the enemy, and the great sacrifices and pains, our cities, towns, people and army will not be satisfied until they defeat the enemy and achieve victory.

Now Assad has said this before — namely, that he is aiming for complete victory. So why does the West still persist trying to negotiate a political transition?

Assad sent the telegram hours before government warplanes fired four missiles at a refugee camp 10km from the the border with Turkey, killing at least 30 and wounding dozens.

You can read my full news report on this at VOA here.

Who Lost Iraq?

According to former US ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey it wasn’t Joe Biden. Jeffrey’s tart piece in Foreign Policy is worth a read. And with some good tidbits, like”  “During my 20-month tenure in Iraq, Obama called Maliki just three times and met with him only once. Biden has been to Iraq 24 times.”

The thrust of his argument is that without Biden, things could be even worse in Iraq. Really? How much worse? You can read the full article here.

Dreams of the Caliphate — Brussels

Brussels suicide bomber Khalid El Bakraoui reportedly had ‘life-changing’ dream in jail in which he saw himself walking alongside the Prophet: he’s not alone among jihadists, dozens have said they were inspired by dreams. Worth reading again, I think, a report I wrote for VOA back in January on the dreams of the caliphate. You can catch it here.

Western intelligence agencies are taking increasing notice of dream accounts shared by jihadists on social media sites and in telephone and email exchanges, if only to provide pieces in the puzzle of the jihadist mind, say current and former intelligence officials.