US President-elect Donald Trump admires Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. That much became clear during Trump’s presidential campaign, as did his intention when in office to repair the US’s damaged relations with the Russian Federation. At the moment the US and Russia, although both nominally combating Islamic State (IS) in the Syrian civil war, are so far from allies that they are very nearly belligerents.
In September 2014 the Obama administration brought together a coalition of countries to undertake a twin-objective military effort in Syria: to defeat the rampant IS that had seized large swathes of the country, and to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power, establishing democratic governance in his stead. There was one proviso: there were to be no Western boots on the ground. The strength of the coalition was to be focused on providing training, logistical support and air cover for the “moderate” forces fighting IS and opposing Assad, mainly the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
Assad, for his part, controlled the formidable Syrian army and was supported by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, by the forces provided by Iran’s puppet, Hezbollah, and in addition, since autumn 2015, by the full weight of a massive Russian military build-up. But although IS was nominally in Russia’s sights from the start, estimates are that less than 10 per cent of Russian air strikes have been targeting it. Russia’s powerful air support, to say nothing of the Kalibir NK cruise missiles first fired on Aleppo from the Russian frigate Admiral Grigorovich on 15 November, has been directed primarily against the FSA.
So Russia has been battering the FSA while the US-led coalition has been supporting it. In short, Russia and the US are virtually at war with each other in Syria, albeit by proxy. Trump wants to stop that proxy contest turning into a full-scale conflict.
The long-standing US position has been that to end Syria’s complex and multisided struggle, Assad must be removed from power and democratic elections take place. Trump takes a different stance. Hard-line Sunni Islamist elements are known to be present within the ranks of the FSA, and in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on November 11, Trump cast doubt on its democratic credentials. “We’re backing rebels against Syria,” he said, “and we have no idea who those people are.” Moreover, while he “did not like [Assad] at all”, he judged that shoring up his regime was the best way to stem the extremism that has flourished in the chaos of the civil war and threatens US domestic security.
Taking his position to its logical conclusion, he said that since Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, if the US goes on attacking Assad, “we end up fighting Russia.”
This is an essentially pragmatic line to adopt. It acknowledges that the result of President Obama’s weak-kneed policies in the Middle East was to leave a power vacuum that Putin was quick to fill. Trump admires Putin for his diplomatic and military boldness, and seems prepared to allow Putin to enjoy the fruits of his adventurism.
Putin’s Syrian adventure was partly an effort to counter the sanctions and diplomatic cold-shoulder by Western powers that followed his annexation of Crimea and subsequent military involvement in eastern Ukraine. By bulldozing his way to influence and power in the Middle East, Putin has gained a position in which the West simply has to take account of him. Putting aside any personal admiration for the man’s audacity, Trump is actually bowing to the inevitable.
Putin’s clever, multi-faceted Syrian initiative kills several birds with one stone. In sustaining Assad in power he is safeguarding Russia’s long-standing military and commercial interests in Syria. Foremost among these is the naval facility at Tartus, Russia’s sole outlet to the Mediterranean, about to become “a fully-fledged overseas base of the Russian Navy” according to an announcement on 21 November 2016. Putin is also protecting the strategic center of Russia’s military operations in Syria – the Hmeymim airbase near Latakia – to say nothing of billions of dollars of commercial investments including oil and gas infrastructure.
There are also domestic security issues at stake, with which Trump can empathise. Russia is combatting an Islamist insurgency of its own in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, and the last thing Putin wants is for young impressionable Muslims, inspired by further Islamist successes in Syria, to join its ranks.
But there is an apparent circle to be squared. Russia counts Iran as a close ally in its efforts to shore up the Assad regime. Trump is a harsh critic of Iran and the nuclear agreement (“the stupidest deal of all time”), and while on the campaign trail advocated either renegotiating it or “tearing it up”. Jeff Sessions, Trump’s nominee for attorney general, voted against the nuclear deal in the Senate, while Congressman Mike Pompeo, selected by Trump to be CIA director. has investigated the Obama administration’s secret negotiations with Tehran. In short, a US accommodation with Putin under President Trump is unlikely to incorporate a love-in with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei – a situation much to the liking of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, which regard Iran as their worst enemy, and Obama’s consistent appeasement of its leaders as a disaster.
A continued stand-off between Trump’s America and Iran is not likely to concern Putin overmuch. While providing Iran with billions of dollars-worth of military hardware, Putin by no means shares Iran’s declared intention of eliminating Israel. On the contrary, he seems intent on expanding Russian influence in the Jewish state. One example is the 20-year deal signed recently between a subsidiary of Russia’s Gazprom and Levant Marketing Corporation, allowing for the exclusive purchase by Russia of three million tonnes per year of liquefied natural gas from Israel‘s Tamar offshore gas field. Moreover Putin has met Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, no less than five times in the past year. He seems very nearly as strong a supporter of Israel as Trump claims to be.
An agreed US-Russian end to the Syrian conflict, a combined victory over IS, a concerted effort to support a new Israeli-Palestinian peace effort, renewed confidence in America from the Arab world – given the complex factors at play on the Middle East board-game, a future Trump-Putin understanding might do much more for global security than Obama’s “hands-off” policies ever achieved.