Sunday,24 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)
Sunday,24 February, 2019
Issue 1340, (13 - 19 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

The dark side of Trump

By behaving erratically US President Donald Trump is trying to outmanoeuvre his enemies, but such tactics will not defeat them, writes Nafeez Ahmed

“I really believe that we should have and still should take out his airfields and prevent him from being able to use them to bomb innocent people and drop sarin gas on them.”

These were US Democratic Party politician Hillary Clinton’s words just hours before her nemesis, US President Donald Trump, ordered US air strikes launching 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat Airfield southeast of Homs in Syria.

The Trump administration described the strikes as a “one-off” and insisted there were no plans for escalation. But an escalation is rapidly underway. Russia, despite being given advanced warning of the bombing from the US, has now suspended an agreement to avoid mid-air collisions in Syrian airspace.

The US government’s goals for the Syria strikes can be deduced from the background role of one of the most powerful diplomats in American history, former secretary of state Henry Kissinger. Once accused by the late British commentator Christopher Hitchens of complicity in US “war crimes” in Latin America and Southeast Asia, Kissinger has been a key advisor to Trump in negotiating US relations with Russia and China.

Kissinger was previously a secret national security consultant to former president George W Bush, and under former president Barack Obama was directly involved in the US National Security Council’s chain-of-command. He also frequently advised Hillary Clinton during her term as secretary of state.

His influence in the Trump administration is also visible through his former acolyte, K T McFarland, now Trump’s deputy national security advisor, who previously served under Kissinger in the 1970s in the National Security Council.

The sudden Syria air strikes fit into the philosophy of “unpredictability,” or “madman theory”, that Kissinger has long argued is a hallmark of the greatest statesmen. Kissinger’s approach is for US administrations to avoid the recommended caution of experts, instead opting for “the constant redefinition of goals” and “the strength to contemplate chaos”.

By behaving erratically, and even seemingly “irrationally”, US leaders can outmanoeuvre their opponents and rivals and put them permanently on the back foot in fear of the dangerous volatility of American power. This is why Trump’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was able to move from claiming that “steps are underway” to remove Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad from power to insisting that the US was not planning further actions.

“I would not in any way attempt to extrapolate that to a change in our policy or posture relative to our military activities in Syria today,” he said. The upshot appears to be that these were one-off strikes designed to send a message to US rivals that the US is able and willing to deploy military power without fear of the consequences and that past commitments to Al-Assad are no guarantee.

But the deeper goal is to clear the ground for the Trump administration to pursue its strategic ambitions in Syria. Those ambitions can be gleaned from the thinking of its key advisors.

Before he resigned in disgrace over allegations of dishonesty regarding his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the US, Trump’s former national security advisor Michael Flynn had just co-authored a book, The Field of Fight, with neo-conservative US defence consultant Michael Ledeen.

The significance of this is that Ledeen was earlier directly involved with the “yellowcake forgeries” attempting to fabricate a weapons of mass destruction threat to justify the 2003 Iraq War. He has long campaigned for US military interventions in Syria, Iran and beyond, and he has articulated a foreign policy vision that was deeply influential in the George W Bush administration.

Ledeen’s vision for the region can be summed up by his endorsement of the “cauldronisation” of the Middle East in 2002. “One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronised, it is the Middle East today,” Ledeen wrote prior to the US-led invasion of Iraq.

This sort of vision correlates with the Trump administration’s preference for chaos, backtracking and the constant shifting of priorities. To be sure, much of this can also be attributed to real confusion and incompetence. No one should underestimate that. But simultaneously, we are also seeing an administration making decisions on the basis of competing ideologies, one of which naively sees the escalation of chaos in countries like Syria as a strategic opportunity.


AL-ASSAD NOT REMOVED: It would seem, though, that the strategic purpose of the strikes was not to begin the removal of Al-Assad, even though the Syrian rebels, some of whom have fought alongside Al-Qaeda, some of whom vehemently oppose both the Islamic State (IS) group and Al-Qaeda, and many of whom nevertheless want to replace the Al-Assad regime with their own type of Islamic state, have welcomed the strikes.

But they also rightly point out that simply hitting one airbase achieves little, given that Al-Assad launches domestic air strikes from at least 26. A hint at what was really at stake comes from the talks that have been going on between the Israeli government and the Trump administration over the last few weeks. For Israel, the real “red line” in Syria is not about chemical weapons. It is about Iran and Hizbullah’s potential encroachment, through the Al-Assad regime, on the Syrian-Israel border in the Golan Heights or on the Syrian-Jordanian border.

Sources familiar with the US-Israeli talks told the Israeli newspaper Haaretz that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted “buffer zones” established on the Syrian side of the border. The plan would also entail that Syria’s Golan Heights were de facto partitioned off from Syria to Israel.

It so happens that the Israeli subsidiary of US energy company Genie Oil & Gas is currently drilling for oil in the Golan Heights under a licence from Netanyahu’s government. Among Genie’s equity-holding board members is the Anglo-Australian media magnate Rupert Murdoch, who has astonishingly intimate ties with the Trump family, business empire and administration.

This vision does not see Al-Assad’s removal as the answer to the crisis in Syria, but seeks merely to limit his territorial power to a small enclave concentrated in Damascus and further to break up the scope of the Russian and Iranian support for his regime. Simultaneously, the Trump regime wants to use the Syria strikes as the first step in a strategy to drive a wedge between Russia and Iran.

By gifting to Russia the Crimea in one theatre, namely the Eastern European one, Trump’s government wants to convince Russia in a different theatre, the Middle East, to back off on its alliance with Iran in Syria, allowing the US a greater playing field to impose a diplomatic settlement that suits its own geopolitical goals for the region.

The end result of this, though, will be to maintain a state of permanent instability in Syria, in which no particular faction wins: the US is now at once tolerating Al-Assad, threatening regime change, selectively targeting his regime but not taking actions that would actually remove him; allowing its Gulf allies to continue supporting Syrian rebels of their choice, ranging from secular groups to Islamist militants, some with connections to IS and Al-Qaeda; and carrying out air strikes on IS.

US actions to date will neither defeat IS, nor Al-Assad. Instead, they will prolong the war, while attempting to contain it: an approach that is destined to defeat itself. The problem is that the Kissinger-like tactic of “playing with fire” to get what you want does not work. Instead, it tends to make things spiral out of control.

The writer is an investigative journalist, international security scholar, and bestselling author.

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