Trump is right about challenging Russia over Syria
The ceasefire in three Syrian provinces announced Friday after the Trump-Putin meeting in Hamburg is the first step in the right direction that the United States has taken in the Middle East in more than 20 years. The Syrian deal should be understood in the context of President Trump’s address in Warsaw the day before, a challenge to Russia to “join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself.” Syria’s civil war has become a school of subversion for tens of thousands of Shi’ite as well as Sunni terrorists, and the major powers have an urgent interest in extinguishing it.
As a first step towards a “broader and more detailed arrangement,” in the words of a senior State Department official, the ceasefire opens a path to what I have called a Westphalian Peace, referring to the 1648 treaty that ended the devastating Thirty Years War. Trump achieved this result by calling Russia to account for past misbehavior while offering a deal that is in both countries’ best interests. It is a small step involving only a fraction of contested Syrian territory, but the agreement nonetheless breaks new ground.
The senior official briefing reporters July 6 said, this is an important step, but it is a first step in what we envision to be a more complex and robust ceasefire arrangement and de-escalation arrangement in southwest Syria. The official added that “there’s an expectation the Russians will use their influence to ensure that [the Iranians] respect the ceasefire.” He added, “The basis of the whole understanding is obviously that each side, each party to it uses its influence with those parties on the ground with which we have relationships. So we and Jordan, in particular, have good relationships with the Southern Front, with the principal armed factions in southwest Syria.”
As I explained in a June 9 essay [“No-one likes Trump, I don’t care”], “There is no way to end the conflict without an agreement with Russia and China, who are backing Iran’s intervention in Syria as much as Washington backed the Sunni rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime. That means both sides must leash their own dogs.”
Trump sent a double message to Moscow in Warsaw. The address was reminiscent of Reagan’s spirited defense of freedom before the Berlin Wall in 1987, and not by accident. The defense of a beleaguered Western Civilization echoes a speech that White House chief strategist Steve Bannon made before a Vatican conference in 2014. The salient fact about the speech, though, is where it was given, namely in Poland, not in the Ukraine. America has fundamental interests in Poland, which is a NATO member and the land of origin of nearly 10 million Americans. It does not have fundamental interests in the Ukraine, a country artificially stitched together from Russian, Ruthenian, Polish and other ethnicities by Nikita Khrushchev as a buffer against the West.
The West makes two chronic mistakes with Russia: the first is to try to bully, and the second is to try to coddle it. Russia correctly understood the Obama Administration’s support for the Maidan coup in 2014 as an expression of intent to change the regime in Moscow, and in the meantime deprive Russia of its only warm-water port in the Crimea. Russia responded brutally and illegally and determined to make Ukraine a running sore of instability in the flank of the West. America opened a Pandora’s box of jihadists by destroying the only Sunni regime in the Levant and Mesopotamia, turning Iraq over to Shi’ite majority rule, and leaving the Sunnis to the ministrations of non-state actors like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Both Obama and the McCain Republicans egged on by the neo-conservatives at Commentary and the Weekly Standard, supported the disastrous “Arab Spring” of 2011, which led to half a million deaths in Syria and many more in Libya.
Again, Moscow reacted brutally by intervening in Syria and unloading a great deal of its Cold War inventory of dumb bombs on parts of the country controlled by US-backed Sunni rebels. One-seventh of the Russians are Muslims and more than 2,000 of them are fighting for ISIS in Syria.
All that George W. Bush and Barack Obama got for their blundering, in short, was a bloody nose from an angry bear. Supporters of their policies depicted Russia as a monster. Hillary Clinton compared Russian President Vladimir Putin to Hitler, and Establishment Republicans like John McCain and Marco Rubio agreed. A grand tantrum of self-justification motivates the Establishment’s witch-hunt for supposed collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Nothing would bring the past 20 years of American policy-making into so much discredit as a deal with Russia. Putin is not Hitler; he is just the sort of man that has governed the unwieldy, crisis-prone, mass of territory known as Russia since the days of Ivan the Terrible. No-one in Russia talks about “Ivan the Reasonable.” For more explanation, see my December 2016 essay, “How the US should engage China and Russia.”
President Trump gave Russia a warning as well as a way out. America and Russia, he emphasized had a common enemy:
We are confronted by another oppressive ideology – one that seeks to export terrorism and extremism all around the globe. America and Europe have suffered one terror attack after another. We’re going to get it to stop … While we will always welcome new citizens who share our values and love our people, our borders will always be closed to terrorism and extremism of any kind.
Today, the West is also confronted by the powers that seek to test our will, undermine our confidence, and challenge our interests. To meet new forms of aggression, including propaganda, financial crimes, and cyber warfare, we must adapt our alliance to compete effectively in new ways and on all new battlefields.
We urge Russia to cease its destabilizing activities in Ukraine and elsewhere, and its support for hostile regimes – including Syria and Iran – and to instead join the community of responsible nations in our fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself.
Translation: The United States, in short, is prepared to reach an agreement with Russia over Ukraine if Russia stops destabilizing Ukraine and if it leashes its Iranian dog.
Trump later announced that it was “time to move forward” with Russia and announced that he would include Russia in a cyber-security group including Western nations. The usual suspects – senators McCain and Rubio from the Republican side, and assorted Democrats – expressed outrage that Trump had not made Russia “pay a price” for an attempt to influence the 2016 elections, in McCain’s words. Russia, however, did not determine the outcome of the US presidential election, in which the voters chose Trump to drain the swamp of just the sort of characters who are now complaining most loudly.
But the US President kept the most important carrot and stick in his vest pocket, namely sanctions against Russia, a matter of great importance to Moscow. “Sanctions were not discussed at my meeting with President Putin. Nothing will be done until the Ukrainian & Syrian problems are solved!,” he tweeted Sunday morning. Russia will have to demonstrate its bona fides in both theaters before the issue can be addressed. The Russians (and their European customers for natural gas) fear that the United States, with its immense capacity to expand the extraction of gas from shale, may attempt to poach the European market by shipping liquefied natural gas to Europe in place of the Russian product, at higher cost. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel denounced sanctions against Russia as “disguised protectionism.” No-one should expect the Washington-Moscow relationship to be anything other than a prolonged, turbulent negotiation. Nonetheless, the first critical steps have been taken.
President Trump’s defense of the Poles in their long and often lonely fight to preserve their nation against foreign occupiers was moving. The Poles make the mistake of thinking they matter. Russia does matter. Only a few years ago American strategists nonchalantly forecast a Russian “implosion” (for example in Ilan Berman’s eponymous book).
Russia’s fertility rate has risen sharply during the past several years, almost intersecting the declining US fertility rate, while Poland’s remains among the world’s lowest at only 1.3 children per female. Russia has had demographic problems in the past, for example in 1945, after the Germans killed 25 million or more Russians, but nonetheless nearly won the Cold War.
The demographic hollowing-out of Europe makes it less important over time, and also less willing to commit resources to its own defense: No European will sacrifice his life for a future generation that won’t be born. Russia is nonetheless a fact of life to be dealt with, and Trump has made an excellent start.