NIRAJ SRIVASTAVA | 21 NOVEMBER, 2016
First Glimmerings of Trump's Foreign Policy on Russia, Syria, Iran
It is barely ten days since Donald Trump was elected President of the United States. But some contours of his foreign policy are already taking shape, as reflected in the interviews that he has given and the appointments that have been announced. Admittedly, it is too early to figure out what he will do once he takes the oath of office next January, but some informed conjectures are probably in order.
At the outset, it would be useful to point out that Trump does not have a foreign affairs background, and his knowledge of international issues is somewhat limited, to say the least. Whatever he has said during his electoral campaign is mostly based on common sense and advice that he may have received so far—some of it good, and some not so good. He will face a steep learning curve till he assumes office, and beyond.
However, foreign heads of state have already started interacting with him even though he is not yet President. For example, he has already spoken on the phone to Russian President Vladimir Putin and met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, discussing substantive issues with both. Also, he has given interviews to the Wall Street Journal and the American TV network CBS, in which he has outlined some of his views on issues such as US relations with Russia, Iran, and the situation in Syria.
He has also offered the position of the National Security Advisor to retired Lt. General Michael Flynn, who advised him on foreign policy issues during his election campaign. Flynn was the head of the US Defence Intelligence Agency for two years during 2012-14, before he was forced to resign. He then became a harsh critic of the Obama Administration’s policies, and set up a lobbying firm “Flynn Intel Group.”
It is well known that during his campaign Trump repeatedly stated that he was keen to normalize and improve US relations with Russia. For saying so he was sharply criticized by both Hillary Clinton and the neoconservatives, who had painted Russia as a threat to US national interests. They were also steadily moving towards a confrontation with Russia in Syria and Ukraine, in addition to deploying missile defense systems in Romania and Poland, which Russia saw as a threat to her security.
Clinton had also tried to portray Trump as a proxy of Putin, and accused Russia, without presenting any hard evidence, of involvement in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) emails, which were revealed by Wikileaks last July. Clinton and the neocons had consistently demonized Putin and Russia since the coup in Ukraine in Feb. 2014, intensifying their criticism of him during the last one year. They even accused Russia of interfering in the US election process, again without any evidence.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal published on Nov. 11, Trump said that his administration’s top priority in Syria would be fighting the ISIS rather than ousting the regime of President Assad. During his election campaign he had said that the US and Russia must jointly fight ISIS in Syria. He had also stated that regime change in Syria would only cause more instability in the region, and shoring up the Assad government was the most efficient way to prevent the spread of terrorism and extremism in the area.
Trump also said in the interview that he was likely to abandon the American effort to support “moderate” opposition groups in Syria battling Assad’s forces because “we have no idea who these people are.”
On Nov. 14 President Putin phoned Trump and discussed various issues including Syria and improvement of bilateral relations, according to a statement released by the Kremlin. It also said that the two leaders agreed that they share a common view on “uniting efforts in the fight against the common enemy number one—international terrorism and extremism.” Trump’s office issued a statement saying that Trump was “very much looking forward to having a strong and enduring relationship with Russia and the people of Russia.”
The next day, Nov. 15, Russia resumed air strikes on eastern Aleppo, Idlib, and Homs, after a lull of about three weeks. Clearly, the timing of the resumption was no coincidence, coming immediately after the conversation between Putin and Trump. The Russian naval task force, led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, played a major role in the airstrikes, launching cruise missiles and fighter aircraft from the ships anchored off the Syrian coast in the Mediterranean. The Russian battle group has formidable firepower, including submarine-launched cruise missiles.
At the same time, there are reports that the Syrian Army is massing its troops for a decisive assault against the Nusra Front and other Jihadi groups in eastern Aleppo. There are also reports that several thousand Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Revolutionary Guards are also taking positions alongside the Syrian Army. These moves suggest that an attack to take back eastern Aleppo can be expected in the next few weeks.
Interestingly, the Washington Post reported on Nov. 10 that Obama had asked the Pentagon to find and kill the leaders of the Nusra Front in Syria. Also, the British paper Independent reported on Nov. 6 that the Special Forces of the UK had been given a “Kill List” of 200 British Jihadis to be assassinated before they attempt to return to Britain.
Some observers believe that the above measures are aimed at preventing the capture of Jihadi fighters by the Syrians and Russians when east Aleppo falls. If captured, these fighters may reveal their links with the US, UK, France, and their other supporters.
The above developments reflect a major change in US-Russia relations and the US policy in Syria. Putin is now directly dealing with Trump on these issues. Obama, meanwhile, is making his farewell calls on European leaders like Merkel. Increasingly, his Administration looks marginalized, though the neocons and the American “deep state” are trying hard to gain a foothold in the Trump Administration.
The only discordant note in the above scenario is that Trump strongly opposes the Iran nuclear deal—the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOC)— announced in July 2015. During his election campaign, he promised that he would dismantle the deal if elected. He later said he would enforce it more rigorously. His statements on the issue have caused uncertainty about the US commitment to the deal, which was passed by the US Congress after considerable opposition by Israel-friendly lawmakers.
Trump’s anti-Iran approach is shared by Gen. Michael Flynn, who supported renegotiating the Iran nuclear deal during Trump’s campaign. He is also a harsh critic of Islamist extremism, calling “radical Islam” an existential threat to the US. In his book, “The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War Against Radical Islam and Its Allies,” he condemned US leaders who have called Islam a religion of peace. It is possible that Trump’s approach to Iran has been influenced by Flynn.
Trump’s Iran policy does not mesh with his approach to Russia and Syria. That could be problematic because Iran is an important power in the region. Obama was able to resist Israeli pressure to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities. He also managed, with great difficulty, to persuade the US Congress to accept the Iran nuclear deal. Targeting Iran again could result in regional instability with unpredictable consequences, and reverse the progress made in her relations with the West.
It is not clear if Trump will actually abrogate the Iran nuclear deal once he assumes office in Jan. 2017. Members of his transition team have been saying in the last few days that everything that he has said during his election campaign should not be taken literally. The realities of office are known to moderate the views of candidates once they are elected. Whether that will happen in the case of Trump remains to be seen.
(Cover Photograph: Morphed photographs lampooning US President elect Donald Trump being shared widely)
(Ambassador Niraj Srivastava is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer)