Donald Trump’s backpedaling on election promises has led some to worry improved relations with Russia and Putin may never materialize. One area where he cannot afford to clash with Putin is the Middle East. Here’s what Trump should do in Syria and Russia.
As Donald Trump appears to be monumentally backpedaling on his own election promises, is there a risk that he is about to become a threat to both Russia and, consequently, the Middle East? His three main promises – to prosecute Hillary Clinton, build a “wall” on the US-Mexican border, and scrap President Obama’s healthcare plan – all seem to have been dramatically scaled down, according to US talk show “60 Minutes Face the Nation.” Even his promise to deport “millions” of undocumented immigrants has now been watered down to possibly jailing up to two million criminals, prompting some US media outlets like Vice to even publish a list of policy pledges that Trump appears to be backing out of.
But there’s a more serious point here. Some might ask, if he cannot be taken seriously on key issues in his own backyard, then should his pro-Putin speeches also be taken with a pinch of salt? Even his most vociferous supporters would admit that foreign policy is not his forte, as he seems bewildered by the Middle East. With Moscow, his rhetoric has always been encouraging, but if there is backpedaling now, and Russia and the US slip back into their Cold War stances, then the Middle East is inevitably going to feel the heat.
Here’s five key policy decisions that the president-elect should make in the coming weeks that would both affirm his commitment to working with Putin as a geopolitical ally and score him important points in the Arab world and back home – not to mention relegate the EU to a poor third place position in the superpower rankings.
Talk about a new plan to smash ISIS [Islamic State, formerly ISIL] with Putin. This has to be high on the agenda, as not only would it back up his own statements about how the US has made the mistake by backing Sunni opposition fighters in Syria (who are too close to ISIS for comfort), but would also send a clear message to the Gulf Arab states: ISIS has to be destroyed, and you need to stop funding opposition groups that take away valuable time and resources from the Syrian army and its allies that are fighting them on the ground. There are also other reasons why Trump should be part of a plan with Russia to wipe out the terrorist organization: He needs to show them that he is not a soft touch, as they believe, and that any bombing that they may be planning in the US is entirely unacceptable and will be matched with payback. America needs to take a ‘common sense’ approach to Syria, and Trump could lead this transition by dropping Washington’s obsession with regime change and just focus on eliminating ISIS.
Meet with Assad. It’s a long shot, but he should consider it nonetheless. Trump needs to show that he is smart and rise above the stupidity of Obama’s churlish handling of the Assad file and his obsession with regime change. While the president-elect is not a fan of the Syrian leader, he has stated that he prefers him in power in Syria to terrorist groups. Meeting the Syrian leader would set an entirely new agenda for the US in the region: pragmatism. The US needs to show the region that a new realistic, pragmatic approach to foreign policy is about to unfold there, and that working with Assad and Russia is the way forward for American interests, even if this means upsetting the Saudis, who are still dreaming of a Syria without Assad and are less sanguine about the future. Trump meeting Assad would create a new premise that the Cold War is over and that US foreign policy in the region should take a third way now, which is based on a much more intelligent and less polarized approach to handling both Tehran and Riyadh.
But there is also political capital that Trump can win back home in his first 100 days in office, which his own Middle East advisors might have missed.
Assure Turkey that the US will not allow the Kurds to create a Kurdish state. Much was spoken about supporting the Kurds by Hillary Clinton regarding ammunition and money and cranking up the whole relationship. But there need to be some lines drawn. The Kurds want to capitalize on their victories in Iraq and Syria and make no secret about craving for their own Kurdish state. If Trump is serious about supporting the one NATO member in the mix – Turkey – then he should assure President Erdogan that a Kurdish state is not on the cards. Why resolve one war in Syria by merely starting another one? Turkey will not accept the Kurds building a zone of any sort which could allow the PKK and other groups a base to attack its southern flank. Last week, Trump’s Vice President-elect Mike Pence, and Kurdish President Masoud Barzani met in Erbil to discuss Trump’s future support for them in the fight against ISIS, but supporting the Kurds in their dream could backfire horribly on the Trump administration.
Assure the Saudis and Iranians that the Iran Deal stands. It makes no sense whatsoever now to undo what the Obama regime did simply for point scoring. Even the Saudis are now saying that the US had better not back out of the deal, as the implications are too grave. No one wants Iran to develop nuclear weapons and the Saudis seem to have come to terms with a scenario that ushers them away from such ambitions in exchange for economic opportunities – a move, which, incidentally has spurred a new mind set in Riyadh calling for Saudi Arabia’s economy to be entirely restructured, so as to move away from oil dependency. Indeed, outgoing CIA Director John Brennan has said that it would be the “height of folly” for US President-elect Donald Trump to tear up Washington’s deal with Tehran, because it would make it more likely that Iran and others would acquire nuclear weapons. However, “Folly” is an apt word that could be applied to Trump’s first 100 days in office if he doesn’t stick to some of his promises – an oddity in itself, which is leading a cavalcade of respected critics like academic Noam Chomsky to condemn him, saying “he has no [political] ideology… it’s only himself.”
Stop the senseless bombing of Yemen by Saudi Arabia and its allies. Trump could step forward here and give the Saudis the pretext to swallow their pride and halt the campaign – which serves no real purpose and has sucked them into a hopeless situation which their pride won’t release them from it. The war in Yemen is complicated and involves many players, including ISIS and Al-Qaeda along with the Houthis who, contrary to Western media and Saudi reports, are not actually fully backed by Iran in quite the way Riyadh believes they are. Trump could seek guarantees from the Houthis that if his Middle East experts got an agreement from the Saudi-backed government in Aden that all hostilities against them would stop, then both sides could turn their firepower toward the real threat: ISIS and Al-Qaeda. Some would argue that the government in Aden is not exactly an enemy of these extremist groups, but the bombing of Houthis has to stop, if for no other reason that it threatens longer term stability with Iran and the strategic Straits of Bab-el-Mandeb, the ocean trade route which links the Mediterranean and Asia.
Follow Martin Jay on Twitter @MartinRJay
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT. https://www.rt.com/op-edge/369222-trump-foreign-policy-middle-east-syria/