Can the U.S. under Trump and Russia Cooperate in the Middle East?

Abstract: With Donald Trump on the brink of being sworn in as the new president, relations between U.S. and Russia are also on the verge of rapprochement.  The incoming administration, which sees Moscow as an ally in the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) in Syria, is likely to explore ways of improving relations.  However, the prospects for strategic realignment between Russia and the U.S. in the Middle East and elsewhere, remain unclear. Russia has no willingness or capacity to replace America as a regional hegemon and underwrite political stability there. The uncertain developments on the ground in Syria and the wider region, as well as the responses of local players such as Iran, Turkey and the Gulf countries, will inhibit collective action.  Hence, the relationship is likely to remain transactional. In the longer term, Moscow and Washington may fall back into the familiar cyclical pattern where moments of cooperation are followed by confrontation and conflict.

A basic observation about U.S.-Russia relations since 1991 is that they have moved in cycles.  Periods of rapprochement are followed by recurrent crises.  Most recently, we witnessed how the reset (perezagruzka) inaugurated by the Obama administration in 2009 gave way to a standoff after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of war in Eastern Ukraine.  The U.S. and its European allies imposed economic sanctions to push back. They also scaled up NATO’s forward presence to deter Moscow from pursuing further expansion.  That turn of events is not unprecedented. The honeymoon post-9/11, marked by cooperation in the fight against Al Qaeda, deteriorated into confrontation after the so-called color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine. Putin saw these developments as a Western plot to oust him from power, not unlike his reaction to the protests in Kyiv leading to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in 2013-4.[1]  Further back in time, Boris Yeltsin’s tenure as president ended with the rift over Kosovo in 1999, after years of support by the Clinton administration.[2]

Right now, we are probably on the cusp of another moment of détente. President-elect Donald Trump signaled early on that he would work for improved relations with Russia. The nomination of Michael Flynn, a retired general and former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency who has doubled as a pundit on RT (the international TV channel sponsored by Russia which is generally regarded as a Kremlin mouthpiece) as national security advisor, as well as ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, said to be a personal friend of Putin’s, as secretary of state, are more than a clear indication of this pro-Putin turn. One of the first moves of the new administration might be the partial lifting of the sanctions imposed by Obama over the conflict in Ukraine.  That may also include a removal of restrictive measures introduced by the outgoing president over Russia’s interference in the 2016 elections, most notably the alleged hacking of the Democrat National Committee (DNC). Trump’s team have dismissed the new batch of sanctions as a political ploy to undermine the new administration.[3]

A New Focus on the Middle East?

The focal point of the emergent partnership will be the establishment of a joint front against the so-called Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq. Trump has identified Sunni militants—that is, IS and possibly Al Qaeda’s affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (now rebranded Jabhat Fateh al-Sham or “Front for the Conquest of the Levant”)—as the principal threat to U.S. national security emanating from the Middle East.[4]  That view chimes with Russia’s long-standing argument towards the West that they share a common enemy.  What is more, the Kremlin sees cooperation in the elimination of IS as a bargaining chip to obtain Washington’s acquiescence that the Assad regime in Damascus should remain in place and that its loyalist forces should be allowed to take over the opposition-controlled areas in the west and the north of the country following the conquest of Eastern Aleppo, all under the pretext of wiping out IS and JSF. In his recent interviews in The Times of London and Germany’s Bild,  Trump has indicated that the bargain could involve a mutually agreed cutback in nuclear arsenals.[5]  He also referred to NATO, a cornerstone in U.S. foreign and security policy, as “obsolete”.

The prospects for a dramatic turn of events should not be overplayed however. As the old saying goes, history does not repeat, yet it rhymes.  The initial push to find common ground in Syria might well flounder.  A flare-up in Ukraine, in the Baltic States or the Black Sea could well torpedo efforts at reigniting the U.S.-Russia security partnership. The Republican majority in Congress, incoming Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis, as well as the new head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, take a more conventional hawkish view on international affairs and Russia in particular. During the Congressional hearings on January 12, 2017, Mattis stressed that Putin is “trying to break the North Atlantic alliance”.  A crisis would tip the scale in their favor and against the likes of Tillerson or Flynn in shaping the administration’s foreign policy, even if more than 70% of Republican voters currently appear to support the soft line.[6]  It is furthermore safe to assume that cooperation in Syria will be limited, as it was under Obama.  In such a scenario, we will see the continuation of two parallel air campaigns but no coordinated action. The two failed ceasefires negotiated during 2016 by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Secretary of State John Kerry are not an encouraging precedent. In neither March nor September did the ceasefires agreed by Russia and U.S. hold.[7] The Pentagon and other key agencies never bought into the idea of sharing targeting information or intelligence data with the Russians. Yet the incoming administration can certainly cut off aid to opposition militias and, in effect, give Russia and Assad license to consolidate control over “useful Syria” while U.S.-backed forces recover Mosul and Raqqa.  In short, the relationship between Russia and America in the Middle East will remain transactional at best.

What Consequences?

Will the Russian-U.S. rapprochement provide a long-term fix for Syria and, more broadly, jihadi militancy spreading from the Middle East into Europe? It is highly unlikely. The revamped Assad regime lacks the popular legitimacy or the coercive capacity to reestablish in full measure the status quo prior to the spring of 2011, when violent suppression of civic protests triggered the current civil war. Russia has, in all likelihood, stretched its military capabilities to their limit.  Having salvaged Assad, it will remain averse to putting boots on the ground, fearful of the risks of mission creep. The assassination of Andrei Karlov, the Russian Ambassador to Turkey, as well as the growing death toll among Russian forces in Syria, including the higher ranks, is a glaring example of the risks of the current strategy.[8]  Intervention entails costs as well as benefits. What is more, the war brings no domestic political dividends to Putin, as sociological polls show Russian society oscillates between indifference (in contrast to the takeover of Crimea and even the conflict in the Donbas) and concern about possible escalation into a superpower conflict.[9]  The notion of Moscow stepping in to fill the void left after America’s partial disengagement from the Middle East does not hold. The retrenchment of regimes such as Assad’s in Syria and Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s in Egypt will only exacerbate the threat posed by jihadis. Coupled with state failure and geopolitical competition between regional power centers such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, the jihadi threat will continue to haunt the West for the foreseeable future.  The Middle East will therefore remain a hotbed of radicalism. The U.S. and especially Europe have to face the consequences: the terrorist attack in Berlin on 19 December 2016 is a gruesome reminder of that.

Can the inherent risks of blowback from the Syrian conflict, once foreign fighters head back home, become the basis for cooperation between Russia and the West? To some degree, yes. Moscow finds itself in the same boat as the rest of Europe. Up to four thousand Chechens have reportedly fought in Syria and Iraq at different points in time. Other parts of Russia’s North Caucasus, including Dagestan and Ingushetia, are also sending militants overseas. The Federal Security Service (Federal’naia Sluzhba Bezopasnosti, FSB) sets the overall number at 2700, while the Ministry of Defense has reported that 170 Russian nationals have lost their lives while fighting on IS side.[10] In other words, Russia has to deal with similar issues to countries like France or Belgium: what happens the day after the defeat of IS, when foreign fighters seek to come back home? This overlap of interests necessitates cooperation between Russia, EU member states and the U.S. at the level of intelligence services and law enforcement authorities. Of course, that is easier said than done. Though Western agencies have never severed links with their links with Russian counterparts, despite relations hitting rock bottom in 2014-2015, the mistrust is profound and the widespread suspicions of Moscow meddling in the domestic affairs of Western countries, through various forms of “active measures” (disinformation, support for populist movements, cyber warfare, etc.) hardly makes it better.  The integration deficit between EU member states, made obvious by the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels in late 2015, creates further complications.  The bottom line is that a strong push and long-term commitment on the part of the U.S. remains essential to get this broad coalition to work.  Neither the Europeans nor the Russians can pull it off alone.

Responses from the Region

The putative Russo-American entente will be difficult to get off the ground because of the centrality of local players in the Middle East.  Neither Moscow nor Washington have control over their allies or (presumed) proxies on the ground.  Russia has seen a dramatic improvement in its relations with Iran, catalyzed by their common cause in buttressing the Assad regime, but whether the rapprochement is sustainable remains to be seen. There are competing views of the alignment with Moscow in Tehran.  One critical test will be the discussion over whether to continue the ground operation beyond Aleppo.  Assad and the Iranians look intent on carrying on with the reconquest, but Russia’s endorsement and active contribution of this latter stage should not be taken for granted.  Secondly, Moscow will have to strike a balance between the U.S., a potential partner under President Donald Trump and State Secretary Tillerson, and Iran, which the incoming administration identifies as a threat rather than a partner. If the nuclear deal negotiated under Obama and President Hassan Rouhani is scuppered, Iran will have all the incentives to push back and obstruct the effort by Russia and the U.S. to forge a common cause.  It will have plenty of opportunities to create faits accomplis on the ground in Syria and the wider region, putting a spanner in the wheels of the Putin-Trump double act to come.

It is far from clear how Turkey will react to a U.S.-Russian rapprochement. On the surface, it appears to be in line with its priorities and strategic preferences. Turkey is a member of NATO and America’s ally but it also believes in engaging rather than containing Russia, a mighty neighbor and principal source of energy.  The Russian-Turkish diplomatic initiative in Syria may also bring the U.S. onboard.  Both Moscow and Ankara are in favour of including the U.S. in the talks on Syria, which are to be held in the Kazakh capital of Astana.  They have a strong incentive to lobby Iran, which has thus far opposed the inclusion of America as well as Saudi Arabia.[11]  If Astana takes off with the U.S. at the table as one player amongst equals rather than a hegemon, Russia and Turkey will have scored a major diplomatic point.

However, the government in Ankara will have good reason to be concerned about deals struck between the U.S. and the Russians, not least because its interests might be sacrificed. Turkey has spared America no criticism for working with the PKK’s sister organization in Syria, the PYD, which is the core of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who presently hold territory on the Turkish border. The PYD benefits from good links with Moscow and even has a permanent representative in the Russian capital. It will clearly form part of a future Russian-American push against IS in Eastern Syria if the two powers are able to reach common ground.  And in the unlikely case a power sharing plan to end the war takes shape with the U.S. and Russia as co-guarantors, it is reasonable to expect that Syrian Kurds would be granted some sort of territorial autonomy, perhaps copying the example of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is hard to envisage Turkey acquiescing to the prospect of a PYD/PKK political entity on its southern border. And the way to prevent this is to team up with Iran and possibly focus on trilateral cooperation (Turkey-Iran-Russia) excluding the U.S.   To cut a long story short, Turkey may turn from being an enabler into being a spoiler of the Russo-American détente in the Middle East.

The same applies to the Gulf countries.  The prospect of the U.S. endorsing Assad not just as a lesser evil but as a some sort of a subcontractor in maintaining order and containing extremism is a hard sell in places such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which are deeply involved in the Syrian conflict. They will have plenty of reasons to be skeptical of a new turn in Russian-U.S. relations that reduces their influence and compromises their interests. In a strange twist, the Saudis and the Iranians, who are otherwise sworn rivals, might end up in the same boat as far as the Trump administration’s overtures to Russia go.

Given the constraints felt at various levels, notably those emanating from the Middle East, we should not expect a major transformation in U.S.-Russian relations.  It is a complex set of ties defined by both competing and overlapping interests. Putin and Trump might find it extremely hard, if not impossible, to reshape the logic of the relationship and find a common course in Syria and the Middle East.

 

Endnotes  

[1] Andrew Wilson, Ukraine Crisis: What It Means for the West, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

[2] On the cycles of rapprochement and conflict in Russia-U.S. relations, see Angela Stent, The Limits of Partnership. U.S.-Russia Relations in the Twenty First Century, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[3] Team Trump: We’re the true target of Obama’s sanctions, Politico, 30 December 2016.

[4] See Donald Trump’s speech at the Center for the National Interest, 27 April 2016. Transcript at https://www.donaldjtrump.com/press-releases/donald-j.-trump-foreign-policy-speech

[5] Full text available: http://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/full-transcript-of-interview-with-donald-trump-5d39sr09d

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/polling/russian-trump-approvedisapprove-responded/2017/01/17/9faa2c0e-dcac-11e6-8902-610fe486791c_page.html

[7] Dimitar Bechev, Is Russia’s Gambit Paying Off, Al Sharq Forum, 15 September 2016. http://sharqforum.org/2016/09/15/is-russias-syrian-gambit-paying-off/

[8] In December 2016, Col. Ruslan Galitskii became the highest ranking Russian casualty after being wounded by artillery fire in Aleppo where he served as a military advisor. Officially, Russian losses include 26 servicemen. Unofficially, the number could be higher, taking into account Russian private contractors who are active on the ground, as well as the Tu-154 crash near Sochi on December 25, 2016. http://www.rbc.ru/politics/05/12/2016/58457c589a79473fa152c4a2
On mercenaries and private contractors, see Mark Galeotti, Moscow’s Mercenaries in Syria, War on the Rocks, 5 April 2016. https://warontherocks.com/2016/04/moscows-mercenaries-in-syria/

[9] Levada-Tsentr, a respected pollster, found in October 2016 that 48% of Russians are afraid that Syria could trigger a global conflict.  52% of Russian citizens support the military operation. 28% are against and fully 24% have no opinion. 32% think that the Syria campaign made Russia’s international image worse, as compared to 21% who think that it has improved it. 26% see no change and 21% have no opinion.  Kommersant, 31 October 2016. http://kommersant.ru/doc/3131221

[10] RFE/RL, Foreign Fighters in Iraq and Syria: Where Do They Come From? http://www.rferl.org/a/foreign-fighters-syria-iraq-is-isis-isil-infographic/26584940.html

[11] Iran says it does not want U.S. at Syria talks in Astana, Reuters, 17 January 2017.

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