5 April 2017   Leave a comment

There are a variety of ways to interpret most diplomatic statements.  Generally speaking, diplomatic language strives to leave room for a variety of options, even if concrete policies lie behind them.  Such is not the case with the most recent statement by US Secretary of State Tillerson on the ballistic missile test by North Korea yesterday:  “North Korea launched yet another intermediate range ballistic missile. The United States has spoken enough about North Korea. We have no further comment.”  The statement is also more significant because the day before US President Trump is scheduled to meet Chinese President Xi.  What remains unclear is whether the US has a policy right now to back up Tillerson’s statement.  It sounds like an outright declaration of war if the North Koreans launch another missile.  We shall see.

Parsing the press conference at the White House with King Abdullah is difficult.  After yesterday’s blog post, I was of the mind that President Trump was going to stick with Syrian President Assad.  But today’s press conference confused me a great deal.  Here are the issues that seem strange.

  • President Trump blamed former President Obama for doing nothing in Syria after the first reports of the use of chemical weapons by the government of Syria in August, 2013.  It is true that President Obama made a serious mistake by declaring that the use of such weapons was crossing a red line and then not really responding in any effective way to that war crime.  One should also remember, however, that the British Parliament voted not to use military force in Syria after Obama’s declaration, thereby depriving the US of an important ally.  The US Congress also refused to pass a resolution authorizing the use of military force in Syria.  Finally, President Trump himself was strongly against taking any action in Syria.
  • President Trump indicated that his view of President Assad had changed because of the chemical attack that was reported yesterday.  Indeed, Mr. Trump said: “It crossed a lot of lines for me.  When you kill innocent children, innocent babies, little babies with a chemical gas that is so lethal that people were shocked to hear what gas it was, that crosses many lines beyond the red line. Many, many lines.” Presumably, the change in view should have some corresponding change in policy, but Mr. Trump did not indicate how the US position might change.  So we are left to speculate about what changes are possible or likely.
  • First, any change in policy would require a degree of opposition to President Assad, so the language of Secretary of State Tillerson that the “longer-term status of President [Bashar] Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”  Does the US now support the overthrow of the Assad regime?  The US has precious little leverage over the regime itself–it has had virtually no relations with Syria since the CIA and Britain’s MI6 tried to overthrow the government of Shukri al-Quwatli in 1957.  So if regime change is now the objective, then the US must work through the two main supporters of Assad:  Russia and Iran.
  • Second, President Assad could not survive without the strong support of Russia.  But President Trump did not mention Russia once in the press conference.  Russian interests in Syria are two-fold.  First, it wants a military presence, both ground and naval, in Syria.  Second, it wants whatever government exists in Syria to continue to oppose the natural gas pipeline from Qatar and Saudi Arabia that would bring natural gas to Europe, undermining Russian control of the natural gas market there.  It is conceivable, within the world of realpolitik, that Russia’s interests could be satisfied in ways that do not require Assad to be in charge.  It remains to be seen if President Trump can make a deal with Putin on these issues.
  • Third, Assad could also not survive without Iranian support.  Iran supports Assad because he is amenable to Shia Muslim interests, even though the Syrian population is overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim.   In recent years, Iran has seen its influence grow substantially since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.  Iraq’s population is 60% Shia Muslim and the new government is sympathetic to Iranian interests.  Iran also has strong influence in Lebanon and, now, in Yemen.  The US has virtually no leverage over Iran.  Indeed, the US and Iran have the same objective of defeating Daesh (the Islamic State) in both Iraq and Syria.  The Iranian Revolutionary Guard has been an effective ground force in Iraq and it is unlikely that the military progress against Daesh in Iraq would have been possible without Iranian troops.  The US needs Iran in Iraq if it does not wish to send in its own ground troops.   It is doubtful that the US could persuade Iran to abandon Assad.
  • Fourth, overthrowing Assad without the cooperation or at least tacit approval of both Russia and Iran would be the height of stupidity, even though we all want him to leave.  Overthrowing Saddam Hussein without having a plan to replace him is the source of most of the issues we currently face in the Middle East.  As much as everyone wants Assad to go, one should not forget that the country is in the middle of a savage civil war.  Losing the central government in Syria would simply unleash even more atrocities in the areas that the government currently controls.
  • Finally, everyone seems to have ignored King Abdullah in the press conference.  The King emphasized the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the current violence in the Middle East.  The Ammon Times of Jordan summarized the King’s comments:

“Turning to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, His Majesty said it is essentially the core conflict in the region. ‘The President’s early engagement as beginning in bringing the Palestinians and Israelis together has been a very encouraging sign for all of us,’ King Abdullah indicated, adding: ‘It was that initiative that allowed us at the Arab Summit last week to extend through the Arab Peace Initiative the message of peace to Israel, which we all hopefully will work together to make that come about.” He pointed out that all Arab countries launched the Arab Peace Initiative last week, which offers a historic reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as all member states of the Arab League. The King stressed that the Arab Peace Initiative remains the most comprehensive framework for lasting peace and it ensures statehood for the Palestinians, but also security, acceptance and normal ties for Israel with all Arab countries and hopefully all Islamic countries.'”

The King’s insights should not be ignored.

Thus, it is not clear what the US can do on its own.  However, mobilizing global opinion against Assad and indicting him for crimes against humanity would isolate the Russians and Iranians and that objective is essential if the US wishes to take any sort of military action.  At this stage, I suspect that President Trump cannot back up his own words.

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Posted April 5, 2017 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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