As it appears, Donald Trump’s inaugural speech has put the US foreign policy onto a path that would probably allow the US to flex its military muscle rather more openly in the Middle East. Period. The question, however, is the manner in which the military might is actually used and for what objectives. Will Donald Trump deploy US military in Syria and Iraq and potentially continue the Obama administration’s policy or will he really do what he has clearly vowed to do: eradicate Islamic terrorism “from the face of the earth”? While it doesn’t sound qualitatively much different from what Obama spent years of his presidency saying, the “America first” policy, when seen from a military-strategic aspect rather than an economic one, still indicates his intention to considerably reduce, if not completely cut off, the support the US has been providing to different militias and channelize its military resources against one true enemy of humanity: Islmaist militancy. Will, then, Trump co-operate with Russia?
As of yesterday, the US has refused to send its delegation, refusing to take an “essential part” in deliberations, to Astana talks (read: the US will be present only as an observer), however, this need not be taken as an indication of “lack” of co-operation. What we can say, on the contrary, is that the “America first” policy, including all of its contingents, is not necessarily an anti-Russia policy or be made into one that tends to get anti-Russia or pro-proxy-war. Here is why:
This policy elaborates on the approach to defeating the Islamic State and “other radical Islamic terror groups”. As such, it is premised on the possibility of aggressive joint and coalition military operations when necessary. Russia would, under the circumstances, welcome this. In the context of Syria and Iraq it may even lead to joint or coordinated Russian-American operations.
To this possibility, Donald trump had added a lot of substance even before he was inaugurated into the Oval office.
In a recent interview to the Wall Street Journal, he stated in explicit terms “If you get along and if Russia is really helping us, why would anybody have sanctions if somebody’s doing some really great things?”, adding further that he would be prepared to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin once in office.
While the willingness to co-operate is yet to turn into actual co-operation, what we need not forget is that Syria is not only a “terror problem” for the US, it is equally a test of the US foreign policy and Trump’s biggest foreign policy challenge. Syria has already turned into a nightmare for the US where its position has dramatically declined from that of the “decider” to an “observer” and where it is now forced to look upon itself as “marginalized.” Hence the question: can Trump’s “America first” policy rescue the US out of the quagmire the Obama administration has left it in?
To get to a reasonable answer to this question, we need to put Syria’s ground realities in perspective. The ceasefire announced last month is holding by and large and a key agenda item at Astana in going to be consolidation of the ceasefire regime all across Syria.
To this end, Russia has, making a sound tactical change, decided to deal directly with field commanders. Leaving the political opposition, which wields no real influence on the ground, commanders of the various groups have emerged as the key protagonists at the peace table, who will directly participate in the drafting of a new constitution, holding of a referendum and the subsequent elections.
The main difference is that Astana is going to be a meeting of people who use weapons against each other on the ground and control certain areas of the Syrian Arab Republic.
At the broader level of geo-strategy, this tactical change means that the US has been further sidelined in Syria. It is therefore, in the hindsight, a masterstroke that Moscow and Ankara have dealt to the proxy elements of Washington and its allies and instead deal directly with the free-wheeling field commanders, who are facing defeat, to get them to talk directly with the Syrian government and cut a deal.
How, in this context, Trump’s “America First” policy, which explicitly extends to eradication of terrorism, rescue the US out of such scenario? Most certainly, the only way Trump has at the moment is to further extend this policy to co-operation with Russia and tap into the high degree of cooperation and coordination between the Russian and Turkish intelligence that certainly has gone into the strategic planning of the Astana talks.
However, to stretch the “America First” policy to co-operation with Russia, what Donald trump needs to do is to actually reverse the US policies of the recent past and instead enter into effective cooperation with Russia and other plyers on Syria and other counter-terrorism issues.
There is, however, a riddle that needs to be solved. Extending co-operation to Russia also implies indirect co-operation with Iran which is, in the words of the newly appointed US secretary of defense, the most “de-stabilizing” country in the Middle East.
Many in the Republican Party seem to believe that backing Russia in Syria means backing Iran, and backing Iran means alienating the US’ Sunni allies in the Middle East. The question of co-operation with Russia is, therefore, nothing short of an enigma for the Trump administration, resolution of which does ask for some major policy changes.
As such, while we have seen Trump making positive overtures to Russia, nothing of this sort has happened with regards to Iran. Hence, the question: can Donald Trump and his team devise a policy to separately deal with Russia and Iran over the Syrian question? It is a difficult riddle to solve at the moment for the new president. But what is evident, given the changes taking place in Syria, is that the US would, were it to persist in following a restricted policy and close its options of co-operation, land itself on a marshy territory.
The “America First” policy is, given what we have said above, cannot, on its own, rescue the US out of the Obama-made crisis. It requires a fundamental reversal of polices both vis-à-vis Russia/Syria/Iran and the US’ Arab allies, particularly Saudi Arabia. Only then can Donald Trump succeed in securing American national interests. Only then can Islamist terrorism be permanently defeated and only then can Trump make America “great again.”
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.