With impeachment filling the air and the 2020 election season starting to rev up, it’s a natural time to start thinking of a post-Donald Trump world. While defeating Trump is no sure thing despite his many scandals, it’s also easy to fall into the “anything is better than Trump” trap. It’s just as imperative that we not merely return to the status quo ante: a world of misguided, albeit somewhat more organized and systemic, policy that set the stage for some of the most disastrous Trump policies.
Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops from northern Syria and unleash a Turkish invasion is the most recent example of the need to thoroughly overhaul our foreign policy. One aspect that needs attention is the absence of international law in our thinking. In his Netzero Newsletter, journalist Robert Wright points out that the Turks’ flagrant violation of international law, and the Trump administration’s green light for it, has hardly been mentioned among the many criticisms Trump is enduring for his foolish decision. Read more at LobeLog
When Donald Trump announced that he was immediately removing all U.S. troops from Eastern Syria, I was surprised by the reaction. There was near glee in anti-war corridors. The initial response is understandable; the United States should not be in Syria, and that is true for many reasons. Moreover, many of those objecting to the decision are doing so because it doesn’t fit with their objectives to heighten tensions with Iran and continue to pursue endless conflict in the name of fighting terrorism. But leaving the way Trump intends is foolish and will not lead to a good outcome. Read more at LobeLog
Both Barack Obama and Donald Trump wanted to change US policy toward both Israel-Palestine and Iran. When Obama arrived in the Oval Office, he brought an ambitious foreign policy plan with him. He wanted to diminish the heavy U.S. footprint in the Middle East, “pivot toward Asia,” and rebuild the confidence in the United States as a sober actor on the world stage that George W. Bush had undermined with his calamitous invasion of Iraq.
At the beginning of his first term—after he made his initial speech indicating a willingness to improve relations with Iran—Obama devoted his efforts and political capital to trying to bring a Palestinian state into being. He knew there would be political costs, and although he underestimated them, he understood that it would take all the political capital he had to have any chance at productive talks.
By 2012, Obama recognized that he was not going to get the grand bargain between Israel and the Palestinians that he had hoped for. So he turned his attention toward Iran. Working with U.S. allies in Europe and through the United Nations, he pushed for sanctions to bring Iran to the table. The pressure paved the way for the nuclear talks that would eventually lead, in 2015, to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal.
Obama recognized that Israeli-Palestinian peace and the Iran nuclear deal were each very expensive in terms of political capital. He couldn’t afford to pursue both. It’s a lesson Donald Trump still doesn’t understand. Read more at LobeLog
There are no good options left in Syria. The recent chemical attack in Douma and the response by the United States, United Kingdom, and France to that attack highlighted this point. The attack by the three Western powers raised many questions. In the United States, we are rightly debating the legality of the use of force in Syria without congressional approval. We are also debating the goals of such action, both what they are and what they should be.
The fact is, just like its attack last year, the United States has no real goal in this latest adventure. The strikes did not remove Bashar Assad’s chemical weapons capabilities. Indeed, the sites had been evacuated in advance of the strikes, even though, according to the Trump administration, there had been no coordination with Russia beforehand. No one knows what equipment or stockpiles might also have been moved, but the United States itself has admitted that Assad still has chemical capabilities.
The U.S. action generated more controversy this time, yet it seems very similar to the strike last year. While Trump reveled in positive press coverage at that time, it soon became clear that the 2017 strikes—which were also ostensible responses to a chemical weapons attack—were little more than a show. The new strikes, though larger, seem like more of the same.
Speaking to Al-Jazeera, Ibrahim al-Marashi, an associate professor at the department of history at California State University, said, “The outcome of both [responses] is the same. Both are largely symbolic actions with little consequence on the ground. Both reveal that the U.S. does not have a long-term strategy in Syria.”
Al-Marashi is correct. The US has no strategy, and it’s an open question what a productive strategy would be.
One potential goal is ousting Bashar al-Assad. His crimes are horrifying beyond words. Other than cynical political interests in Moscow and Tehran, there is no conceivable rationale for wanting him to stay in power.
But the simple fact is, Assad has won the war. The fighting may not have ended, and Syria is not going to be whole again for the foreseeable future, but Assad’s position is strong, he is backed by Russia, and his control of a large part of the country is established.
It is possible still to dislodge Assad militarily, but only with a direct assault on his rule, requiring far more Western participation than we’ve seen before. That carries with it the risk of a major escalation with Iran and Russia, and it’s clearly a risk the United States and Europe are not willing to take, with good reason.
Moreover, as noble a goal as it is to get so brazen a war criminal as Assad out of power, doing so by force would mean renewing the war in Syria and doubling down on the human toll it has already taken. That will be the case even if it does not lead to wider conflict between the West and Russia. Assad has certainly proven he will do whatever he deems necessary, no matter how horrifying, to maintain his rule.
We must acknowledge that, short of a major escalation, there is no military path to ousting Assad. We know as well that diplomacy is a difficult road. There were real opportunities earlier in this conflict, first to support the Syrian masses who were rising up in 2011 and were being gunned down; and, later, after many outside groups had established their own roles in the burgeoning conflict, there was a chance to find a diplomatic solution if world powers were willing to prioritize the best interests of the Syrian people and find a compromise.
But the Obama administration was uneasy about any resolution that left any part of the Assad regime in power. Russia was going to ensure that its one toehold in the Middle East, Syria, remained in their sphere of influence at all costs. Iran, Saudi Arabia, and various non-state actors all had their own agendas. Lost in that jumble of political, strategic, and ideological goals were the people of Syria.
Given that stability is not likely to come to Syria in the near term, it is imperative that interested parties, especially in Europe and the United Nations, begin to lay the groundwork now for a long term, diplomatic resolution to the Syrian crisis. The goal should be stability that can end the violence and lead eventually to free and fair elections, as well as constitutional reform. Syria, despite the autocratic and despotic nature of the Assad regime, has, in its current constitution, structures that, with reform could form the basis of an open and even free society. That allows for an international effort to promote Syrian freedom, if it is rooted in Syrian democracy.
This is far from ideal. That process will be measured in years, probably many of them. Both Russia and Iran will have to be involved and their interests considered, as uneasy as that might make the U.S. The United States and Europe will have to recognize that, as tempting as it might be to eliminate Iran’s “crescent” in the Levant, which connects it to Lebanon through Syria, and to eliminate the last firm Russian ally in the region, this will only continue to frustrate diplomatic efforts and make compromise impossible. Russia and Iran, for their part, are going to have to accommodate themselves to a future where, if they want good relations with Syria, they will have to cultivate them with a democratic and popular Syrian government, a much more difficult and costly process than cozying up to a dictator.
U.S. Out Of Syria?
A U.S. pullout, as Trump suggested recently, is just as untenable a prospect. Apparently, given Trump’s quick walkback on this point, someone (probably Defense Secretary Jim Mattis) explained this point to him.
Assad may continue to hold the biggest chunk of Syrian territory, but he is unable to rebuild the devastated country he will rule. Even with full control of the country, the Syrian economy could not sustain such a project. Without the relatively resource-rich areas under opposition control, it is completely impossible. Russia, with its own economic problems, may be able to offer advice, military support and some shielding for Assad at the United Nations, but it simply does not have the capacity to rebuild the country.
This fact is the key to moving forward. No matter how defiant Assad is, he will need international help to rebuild Syria. Eventually, that international effort must come with a price; it cannot be provided to Assad, but to the people of Syria, and that means it will be the reward for talks leading to a transitional, compromise government and free and fair elections that Assad must accept. Otherwise, he will rule a permanently crippled, permanently unstable country.
A U.S. pullout from Syria must be the leverage used to press Assad in this direction—leverage Trump nearly threw away. But the prospect of an imminent US withdrawal presents other dangers.
It is not hard to imagine what would happen if the United States leaves the area. Assad, backed by Iran and Russia, will renew attempts to regain, probably incrementally, the territory anti-government forces aligned with the United States now hold. That means a renewal of the conflict.
But there are graver risks. Turkey would be very likely to strike at the Kurds in Syria, something the U.S. presence currently deters, to a great, though not full, degree. The last thing Syria needs is incentive for other countries to further pursue their own military goals in the country.
And if Turkish incursions are worrisome, how much more are increased Israeli strikes?
Israel has been watching developments in Syria with increasing apprehension. That concern grew considerably when the Trump administration agreed with Russia to permit an Iranian presence, under Russian supervision, in the cease-fire zone in southern Syria last year. The growing Israeli apprehension is reflected in the steadily increasing incidents of Israeli strikes in Syria, strikes which already threaten to escalate into direct conflict with Iran.
Had Barack Obama agreed to an Iranian presence in Syria so close to Israel, the so-called “pro-Israel” crowd would have said he is trying to destroy the Jewish state. Yet, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to embrace Trump, this decision was not to his or any other Israeli leader’s liking. If the U.S. now pulls out of Syria completely, there can be no doubt that Israel will take much more robust steps to counter the Iranian presence. Unintended consequences could even lead to an all-out war between Israel and Syria, Hezbollah, and Iran.
Withdrawal is not an option. The only productive way forward in Syria is through diplomacy, something the Trump administration is both loathe to pursue and ill-prepared to attempt, given the ongoing lack of diplomatic capacity in the State Department and the White House.
Nevertheless, those who wish to see a post-war Syria that is rebuilt and leaving behind the despotism of the Assad regime must press for a realistic, long-term solution. That will mean a process like the various attempts at internationally brokered talks of the past. But for talks to succeed, or even make any progress, they must be approached differently. Russia must be pressed toward willingness to see a post-Assad Syria, but also reassured that their interests will be taken seriously and dealt with in negotiations. Without this, they will have no reason to press the Syrian government to talk.
The goal of the Western countries needs to be a democratic Syria in the true sense, not one that is defined by its allegiance to the U.S. Iraq serves as a cautionary tale here, just as Libya does for an attempt to topple Assad by force.
This approach is not going to be taken by the Trump administration, that is certain. But at least for now, Trump has made it clear that he does not intend to risk escalation, and it seems unlikely that this will change in the near term (with the ever-present caveat that we do not deal in certainty when our foreign policy depends on a combination of Trump’s moods and the daily commentary on Fox and Friends). This is a long term struggle, and if there is to be a useful forum where the will of the Syrian people can assert itself, the international community must begin to build the strategy and the incentives and disincentives to create it, starting now.
“This is bonkers. Israel’s government says don’t overreact to neo-Nazis in the US because it could hurt relations with Trump. Totally insane.”
So said Dr. Brian Klaas, a Fellow in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics on Twitter. Klaas has frequently tweeted his criticisms of U.S. President Donald Trump, but has only occasionally commented on Israel, though he clearly has a background in the subject.
Klaas was moved to tweet this comment by the words of Israeli Minister of Communications, Ayoub Kara. Kara told the Jerusalem Post that “We need to condemn antisemitism and any trace of Nazism, and I will do what I can as a minister to stop its spread. But Trump is the best U.S. leader Israel has ever had. His relations with the prime minister of Israel are wonderful, and after enduring the terrible years of Obama, Trump is the unquestioned leader of the free world, and we must not accept anyone harming him.”
Kara added that Trump has “a proven track record in opposing antisemitism and religious extremism.”
Kara is not a marginal figure, even though very few Americans have ever heard of him. Although he is Druze, not Jewish, he is among the most right wing of Likud politicians and is a staunch supporter of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His position as Minister of Communications, and his very close relationship to Netanyahu, reflect the fact that he is often speaking Netanyahu’s mind, and can usually be counted on to say nothing the Prime Minister would not agree with.
Kara was an outspoken critic of Barack Obama, and his strong support here for Trump should come as no surprise. But just as Trump has refused to credibly condemn the extreme right wing, so has Netanyahu refused to make anything but the most minimal comment on the incidents of public anti-Semitism. And Kara is surely speaking for Netanyahu as to why.
It’s important to note here that even Israeli leaders who have spoken out about the white supremacist demonstrations in the United States have, with few exceptions, either avoided mentioning Trump’s response or only barely alluded to it. But Netanyahu made the weakest statement of all, when his position demands the opposite.
The obvious reasons for this are the ones that Kara listed. Trump has largely ignored the Israel-Palestine conflict, with his envoys having a few meetings and the president himself making an occasional comment. Netanyahu has been mindful not to draw attention to Israeli actions recently, but there is no sign that he is at all concerned about having to negotiate in any substantive way with the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, the strangulation of Gaza continues, settlements keep expanding, the occupation becomes more entrenched, and no one Netanyahu cares about is saying very much.
Israel’s Concerns Ignored
The cynical use of anti-Semitism by the Israeli right is, by now, such an old story it is almost passé. But there’s a very interesting contrast between Trump and Obama that is even more telling than Netanyahu’s lack of response to growing anti-Semitism in the United States.
In early July, Trump had one of his few successes when he and Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed to a ceasefire zone in southern Syria. Israel’s dissatisfaction with the arrangement was well known, even before the agreement was finalized. Netanyahu worked the phones with both Trump and Putin, making it clear he did not consider having Iran’s ally, Russia, as the guarantor of Israeli concerns in southern Syria satisfactory. These concerns were heard and summarily ignored by both Russia and the United States.
Some may see in this a parallel to the Iran nuclear deal, where President Obama heard Netanyahu’s opposition but proceeded with the deal regardless. But there is a crucial difference.
Obama believed, and stated numerous times, that the Iran deal was not only in the best interests of the United States, but also Israel. While that was not a universal opinion, it was, crucially, shared by Israel’s military and intelligence communities, who continue to support the deal to this day. Indeed, it was Netanyahu who, ignoring the advice of his own military and intelligence experts, was endangering Israel’s security for political gains. Now he has a political ally in the White House, rather than someone who shows legitimate concern for Israel’s security.
Trump stated, in response to Netanyahu’s objections, that Israel’s concerns would be addressed. But he didn’t elaborate on that statement, and no aspect of the ceasefire agreement has changed. In contrast to the Iran deal, Israel’s military and intelligence communities are deeply concerned about the potential for Iran to establish a long-term presence in southern Syria. A report last week indicated that the effort to alter the cease fire agreement was much wider than the Prime Minister’s office, and included the military and intelligence leadership. Ongoing Israeli engagement on the issue with the Trump administration by these leaders is not yielding results.
The support of Israeli defense and intelligence leaders was a crucial part of Obama’s ability to sell the Iran nuclear deal. Had these leaders been opposed to the deal, it is quite possible the talks would have failed, not least because Obama himself might have been less committed to them. Despite the actions Netanyahu took to undermine Obama (actions which long preceded the Iran deal) and the often insulting attitude he displayed, Obama never wavered in his commitment to Israel’s security. This was so much the case, even Netanyahu had to repeatedly admit that security cooperation and coordination with the United States reached all-time highs during Obama’s presidency.
Yet when Trump abandons Israeli security, it’s still not enough to get Netanyahu to criticize the President’s tacit support for white supremacists. Instead, Kara, certainly speaking the mind of Netanyahu, praises Trump for opposing what he clearly has not opposed.
It is understandable that Netanyahu would enjoy having a man like Trump in the White House. In many ways, the two are kindred spirits. But more importantly, Trump has essentially given Netanyahu a free hand. He rarely mentions settlements, only occasionally alludes to reviving a peace process, and has a team of right wing American Jews leading what little diplomatic effort there is.
But that does not sufficiently explain Netanyahu’s willingness to ignore both Trump’s tacit support of white supremacists and his total disregard of Israeli security concerns.
What does explain it is much subtler. It is a growing normalcy.
Today, Turkey and Jordan issued a joint statement urging the resumption of peace talks according to international resolutions and with a “precise timetable.” It is unlikely that this call will even merit a comment, let alone any support or action, from any corner. The situation as it stands today is one where Israel has essentially segregated the Arab parts of East Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank and maintains its siege on Gaza. Those conditions have held for years now, and have become the new normal. Only the efforts of the Obama administration prevented their normalization previously.
For Netanyahu, there are both short and long term benefits to this that are very significant. In the short term, the only defense he is likely to have against the corruption charges being readied against him is the claim of his purported popularity, which will certainly be bolstered by an extended period during which Israel is not being attacked on a large scale either physically or politically.
Already, Israelis have seen months go by without any pressure to engage the Palestinians. Meanwhile, the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement is seeing legislation being passed in many US states to marginalize it and criminalize support for it, while in Congress, a bill to do the same has faced significant opposition, but could still pass. In Europe and in the Arab world, the Israel-Palestine conflict continues to drop lower on the agenda, all the more so as concerns (or, in some cases, perceived opportunities) over Trump’s policies or lack thereof occupy more and more space.
So, Netanyahu can credibly claim to have not only achieved the greatest calm Israel has seen in its history, but to be continuing to build on and entrench it. He has shown in the past that he can make such claims without sacrificing his demagogic ability to frighten the populace when he needs to.
Of course, Netanyahu also knows that he is merely holding a lid on a pressure cooker. Gaza cannot long survive in the condition it is in. The West Bank will only remain sedate for so long, as Israel strangles its economy and smothers the rights of the Palestinians living there. The hopelessness and frustration of another generation that has grown up without human or civil rights, without freedom, and without any reason to believe things will get better will eventually lead to another round of violence. But when that does happen, Netanyahu will have established a new status quo, with settlements being seen as parts of Israel and Gaza cut off, that the international community will help Israel get back to, even as they press for final status talks again.
That’s the prize that Netanyahu sees. He has, for years, worked to shift Israel’s American support to a farther right wing base, so he has minimized the damage his silence on Charlottesville caused. And he knows too that, apart from a major regional war, Israel is quite capable of dealing with any threat Hezbollah or Iran might pose in Syria without the help of the United States. He can feel secure that Trump, and very likely his successors, will back any action Israel takes against an Iranian-backed militia.
In exchange for his acquiescence on these matters, Netanyahu believes he will reach an endgame with the Palestinians. He believes he can explode the notion that endless occupation is unsustainable. Obama would never let him test that idea. Neither would George W. Bush, his previous “best-ever president for Israel.” But Trump will. That’s why Netanyahu loves him so much that he is willing to overlook anything.