February 13, 2017
President Trump’s first few weeks at the White House were like a tropical storm. Some of America’s core values were challenged. Washington’s relations even with its long-standing friends and allies were thrown into uncertainty.
The Washington Post, referring to Defense Secretary Mattis’ visits to Japan and Korea, reported that although the General had a long list of tasks ahead, including devising a more aggressive campaign to combat the Islamic State and restoring military readiness after years of budget cuts, his most visible role has been soothing Americans and allies unnerved by the President and some of his top advisers. In a similar endeavor, Secretary of State Tillerson met with Foreign Secretary of Mexico Luis Videgaray in Washington. An official statement said that they had a constructive conversation on a range of U.S.-Mexico collaboration including law enforcement, migration and security. Mr. Tillerson also spoke with his counterpart in Australia and he underscored his determination to work closely together on regional and global priorities. And according to the White House, President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping had a lengthy and extremely cordial conversation during which Mr. Trump “agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor America’s ‘one China’ policy”.
So, it appears that strong White House winds which followed Inauguration Day are slowing down and relief efforts are being directed to seriously affected areas. Thus, Mark Landler reported in the New York Times that President Trump is proving to be less of a radical than either his campaign statements or his tempestuous early phone calls with foreign leaders would suggest. And, there are others who seem to share the view that Mr. Trump is undergoing the same evolution or recalibration that all of his predecessors went through. However, the stand-off between the Trump administration and the courts over the refugee ban continues. President Trump’s calls with other world leaders continue apace but these are unlikely to allow for meaningful discussions of substantive issues. At any rate, the clouds of uncertainty will not dissipate any time soon.
Washington’s relations with Iran merit particular attention. During the election campaign, Mr. Trump threatened to rip up the nuclear deal. By contrast, European Union’s top foreign policy official Federica Mogherini was told last week in Washington that the United States would fully carry out the agreement. However, the Trump administration appears to believe that honoring the nuclear deal and containing Iran are not mutually exclusive.
Administration’s first response to the latest medium-range ballistic missile tests was a statement that Tehran was being put “on notice.” This was followed by targeted sanctions against officials and entities involved in acquiring materials for missiles. Generally, these were seen as moderate steps. But even among the advocates of respect for the nuclear deal there are those who refer to the need for measures to address other perceived Iranian threats such as Shiite militiamen deployed in Iraq and Syria; support for Houthi rebels in Yemen; and threats to U.S. naval vessels in the Gulf. Thus, there is a real possibility that Iran may soon become Washington’s principal foreign and security policy target. The administration may believe that through cooperation with region’s Sunni countries and Israel Iran can be contained and forced to behave. Saudi Arabia and the Netanyahu government will no doubt encourage such a policy. The Israeli Prime Minister seems to believe that with Iraq and Syria conveniently knocked out of region’s equilibrium Iran should be next in a Middle East version of the domino theory. This would be a dangerous course for three reasons:
Firstly, Russia, China and even the EU will, in varying degrees, oppose such a policy.
Secondly, the readout of President Trump’s phone call with King Salman of Saudi Arabia said that the two leaders agreed on the importance of rigorously enforcing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and of addressing Iran’s destabilizing regional activities and that King Salman also extended an invitation to President Trump to lead a Middle East effort to defeat terrorism and to help build a new future, economically and socially, for the people of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the region. Whatever the two leaders may have discussed, America’s targeting yet another Middle East country will further antagonize region’s masses regardless of the Sunni-Shia divide.
Thirdly, Iran is neither Iraq nor Syria and the people of Iran will unite behind the regime against any attempt which in their perception aims at cornering their country. Iran is not a world power but it is a powerful country.
In brief, continuing President Obama’s policy of engagement with Tehran is the better option.
President Trump also spoke by phone with President Erdogan about the close, long-standing relationship between the United States and Turkey and their shared commitment to combating terrorism in all its forms. According to the White House readout of the call, President Trump reiterated U.S. support to Turkey as a strategic partner and NATO ally, and welcomed Turkey’s contributions to the counter-ISIS campaign. This language is very much reminiscent of what State Department spokesmen repeatedly said in response to strong criticism directed by Ankara at the Obama administration for latter’s support to YPG.
Probably testing Turkey’s reaction, Russian Foreign Ministry’s Fourth European Department Director, Alexander Botsan-Kharchenko, said during a press conference last week that neither the PKK nor the YPG are in the list of terrorist organizations in Russia. He also said, “we look at every specific incident independently and deem terrorist actions according to the facts and depending on the results of an investigation.” Ankara did not react because on the one hand the future of the relations with Washington remains uncertain, and on the other hand, full restoration of cooperation with Russia is not yet assured.
Turkish troop losses around the besieged Daesh stronghold of al Bab are rising. Russian aircraft due to lack of better coordination killed and wounded Turkish soldiers in an air attack on Daesh targets. Al Bab may soon fall but what then? What about ensuring coordination if not cooperation between Turkish and Syrian government forces? Will Turkey participate in the assault to liberate Raqqa? What if Moscow and Washington succeed in a reset and what if they don’t? What about Iran? What about the prospect of Washington designating the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps as terrorist organizations? Ten days ago, Turkish police conducted coordinated raids on people suspected of being Islamic State operatives. According to media outlets, 690 suspects were held at the end of the day. What does this figure mean for our long-term internal security? What about the Turkish economy?
In a nutshell, during a period characterized by unanswered questions, extreme uncertainty, polarization and our gallop towards a constitutional referendum, there is one indisputable reality: Turkey’s foray into the Syrian conflict has been a disaster and will continue to exact a price no matter what.
As for the broader picture, tropical storm Trump may be over but climate change in international relations appears likely to continue with no Paris deal yet in sight.