By Saeed Naqvi
Pundits in Washington are beginning to hope for continuity in US foreign policy under Donald Trump. For their optimism, they are falling back on hints from the new administration.
Look, they say, Israel is being warned to curb settlement construction; Russians must withdraw from Crimea; Iran is on notice: no more missile tests.
If this, indeed, were true then the skirmishes between the Intelligence community and the Trump campaign which continued well into the President’s inauguration, would appear to have been settled in favour of the agencies, the Deep State, with the media in tow.
If the Washington pundits are anywhere near the truth, it may please them to know they are in company. Syrian president Bashar al Assad declared a week ago that he expected “no change in US policy towards Middle East”.
What then does one make of the allegation which Trump repeated at least since August, 2016: “Obama and Hillary founded ISIS?” This reporter has written several stories since 2012 about US ambassador in Damascus, Robert Stephen Ford, a great favourite of Hillary Clinton’s, playing an overt role in the Syrian insurgency. Some of it was eyewitness account.
More recently, Trump has reiterated that he hopes for friendlier relations with Putin. He looked forward to greater cooperation with Moscow in managing the chaos in West Asia.
Is there a contradiction between this line and the new US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley warning Moscow on Crimea?
These are significant signals but they will be fitted into coordinated policy only after the new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, finds his feet in the State Department. Until then even [former*] National Security Adviser, Gen. Michael Flynn’s tough statement on Iran must be seen as premature. It may point to some turf fights that will keep the White House abuzz for sometime.
Serious games will begin when Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, and Tillerson hold their first meeting.
If there is to be anything resembling goodwill between Washington and Moscow, Lavrov will have to acquaint Tillerson with a great deal of what Moscow has been doing recently.
Libya, for instance. Moscow has been coordinating policy with Egypt to control a country with more than one power centre.
On December 20, Foreign Ministers of Russia, Turkey and Iran met in Moscow to discuss Syria. The US was managing its transition during this period. The meeting was followed by a joint air campaign by Russia and Turkey against the Islamic State. The summit in Moscow was preceded by the dramatic killing of the Russian ambassador in the Turkish capital, Ankara.
Maronite Christian leader, Michael Aoun’s election as president of Lebanon would not have been possible without Hezbullah’s help. For this development, too, the credit goes to Syria, Iran and Russia.
Yemen will be a test for the Trump administration. Will he continue to support Saudi Arabia’s disastrous war in the Arab World’s poorest country? Who knows, in the interest of American prosperity, he may like to encourage Saudis to spend their last penny buying US arms.
An important meeting, which caught New Delhi on the wrong foot, was the Russia, China, Pakistan conclave in Moscow focused on the future of Afghanistan. National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval’s subsequent visit to Moscow covered this development. He must supervise a new regional strategy before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to St. Petersburg in early June. The Moscow meeting on Afghanistan places a huge question mark on US expenditure in blood and treasure in that country over the past 12 years. Taliban, whom the US has been fighting all these years, are now to be enlisted in the war against the Islamic State and various offshoots of Al Qaeda. Russian Caucasus and Xinjiang are menaced by this, expanding variants of Islamist militancy. Taleban are a regional force spread on two sides of the Durand line. This must be a source of worry for Islamabad. The president of Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has cancelled military exercises with the US. He has held out a hand to Moscow and Beijing.
This is just some of the agenda Tillerson has to prepare himself for. To begin with, he will have to digest the implications of a ban on seven Muslim dominated countries to travel to the US.
Iran being listed among Muslim countries on whom the ban applies makes no sense unless Trump or those around him are keen to pick a fight with Tehran to please Riyadh and Jerusalem. No act of terrorism in the genre of suicide bombing has yet been traced to Tehran. Nor does Hezbullah’s unwavering support to the Palestinian cause make it a militant menace. In this devilry, it has Iran’s total backing.
During the campaign, and since, Trump has maintained that he will seek Russian support in “bombing the shit out of Islamic terrorism”. Moscow and Iran are with him on that page, indelicate language notwithstanding.
The contradiction with the Deep State will arise when, in the course of hammering Islamic terrorism, White House does not make allowance for militants who were trained and harboured as a western asset. That will require a case by case bargaining.
*On February 14, Flynn resigned as US national security adviser after reports that he misled Pence over discussions with the Russian ambassador.