Su-24 warplanes buzzed the USS Porter destroyer in the Black Sea.
Overlaying US President Donald Trump’s extraordinary, hour-long skirmish with reporters Thursday, Feb. 16, was bitter frustration over the domestic obstacles locking him out from his top security and foreign policy goals. Even before his inauguration four weeks ago, he had arranged to reach those goals by means of an understanding with President Vladimir Putin for military and intelligence cooperation in Syria, both for the war on the Islamic State and for the removal of Iran and its Lebanese surrogate Hizballah from that country.
But his antagonists, including elements of the US intelligence community, were turning his strategy into a blunderbuss for hitting him on the head, with the help of hostile media. Thursday, in a highly unconventional meeting with the world media, he tried to hit back, and possibly save his strategy.
That won’t be easy. The exit of National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, the prime mover in the US-Russian détente, sent the Kremlin a negative signal. The Russians began unsheathing their claws when they began to suspect that the US president was being forced back from their understanding. The SSV 175 Viktor Leonov spy ship was ordered to move into position opposite Delaware on the East Coast of America; Su-24 warplanes buzzed the USS Porter destroyer in the Black Sea.
Before these events, Washington and Moscow wre moving briskly towards an understanding. DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources disclose that the Kremlin had sent positive messages to the White House on their joint strategy in Syria, clarifying that Moscow was not locked in on Bashar Assad staying on as president.
They also promised to table at the Geneva conference on Syria taking place later this month a demand for the all “foreign forces” to leave Syria. This would apply first and foremost to the pro-Iranian Iraqi, Pakistani and Afghan militias brought in by Tehran to fight for Assad under the command of Revolutionary Guards officers, as well as Hizballah.
Deeply troubled by this prospect, Tehran sent Iran’s supreme commander in the Middle East, the Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, to Moscow this week to find out what was going on.
Flynn’s departure put the lid on this progress. Then came the damaging leak to the Wall Street Journal, that quoted an “intelligence official” as saying that his agencies hesitated to reveal to the president the “sources and methods” they use to collect information, due to “possible links between Trump associates and Russia.. Those links, he said “could potentially compromise the security of such classified information.”
A first-year student knows that this claim is nonsense, since no agency ever share its sources and methods with any outsider, however high-placed.
What the leak did reveal was that some Washington insiders were determined at all costs to torpedo the evolving understanding between the American and Russian presidents. The first scapegoat was the strategy the two were developing for working together in Syria.
Defending his policy of warming relations with Moscow, Trump protested that “getting along with Russia is not a bad thing.” He even warned there would be a “nuclear holocaust like no other” if relations between the two superpowers were allowed to deteriorate further.
It is too soon to say whether his Russian policy is finally in shreds or can still be repaired. Trump indicated more than once in his press briefing that he would try and get the relations back on track.
Asked how he would react to Russia’s latest provocative moves, he said: “I’m not going to tell you anything about what responses I do. I don’t talk about military responses. I don’t have to tell you what I’m going to do in North Korea,” he stressed.
At all events, his administration seems to be at a crossroads between whether to try and salvage the partnership with Russia for Syria, or treat it as a write-off. If the latter, then Trump must decide whether to send American troops to the war-torn country to achieve his goals, or revert to Barack Obama’s policy of military non-intervention in the conflict.
Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis treated relations with Moscow with kid gloves in his debut appearance before the Munich Security Conference on Thursday, Feb. 16. “We are not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level,” he said, then added: “But our political leaders will engage and try to find common ground.”
Later that day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in another first diplomatic encounter by a Trump appointee, met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Bonn on the sidelines of the G20 ministerial meeting. He too laid stress on finding common ground between Washington and Moscow.
DEBKAfile’s sources report that the relations will quickly roll downhill without a strong hand to haul them back. It is up to Donald Trump to show whether or not he is capable of breaking through the siege clamped down on him by his enemies and save his key foreign policy goals. His next moves are being watched very intently in many parts of the world, especially in Middle East capitals. Governments in Tehran, Riyadh, Ankara, Damascus, Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Jerusalem are bracing to jump either way.
Coming Trump-Putin-Erdogan deal rumbles thru ME
The NBC report that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be considering making President Donald Trump the “gift” of turning over former NSA analyst Edward Snowden is part of a much broader scheme that is already sending tremors through the Middle East. Snowden won asylum in Moscow after leaking secrets to journalists four years ago. The Trump administration appears to have leaked the rumor about the US leaker, seen by some Americans as a whistleblower, as a trial balloon in the secret give-and-take maneuvers afoot between the two presidents and a third, Turkey’s Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, over a trilateral pact for leading the war to eradicate ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
When Trump talked on the phone to Erdogan last Tuesday, Feb. 7, he was told that America’s extradition of Turkish opposition leader Fatullah Gulen was a sine qua non for any deal. Erdogan has accused Gulen, who lives in exile in America, of orchestrating the failed military coup against him last July and the plot for his assassination. Gulen denies he had any hand in the coup.
Erdogan made it clear to the US president that if he wants Turkey as a partner for fighting terror, Gulen’s party, whose FETO party he insists is a terror organization, must be included in that heading
- Trump promised to examine Turkey’s Gulen dossier, which would have to stand up in a US court as sufficient grounds for extradition. Four days later, on Friday, Feb. 10, the new CIA Director Mike Pompeo arrived in Ankara on his first foreign trip, to discuss plans for cooperation in Syria. He was also handed the Gulen dossier.
The Trump administration then extendied this trade-off by a bid to gain the extradition from Moscow of Edward Snowden, whom the president has called a “spy” and a “traitor.” This would count as a gesture by Putin for promoting the three-way pact for their joint Middle East ventures.
From Ankara, the CIA director continued to Riyadh to see about harnessing the Saudis to those ventures.
Trump was deadly serious when he vowed that “The United States will swiftly and completely destroy the Islamic State – ISIS.” He is proposing to embark on a herculean task that calls for a coalition of several armies and whose consequences are unforeseen. When George W. Bush set out to destroy Al Qaeda in Iraq 11 years ago, he never imagined he was creating fertile soil for the rise of the equally menacing Islamic State. Therefore, the mission to destroy ISIS can’t stop there. The combatants must be ready to sustain a massive long-term military presence in the Middle East to make sure that a new bane does not raise its head.
- Trump has also set his would-be partners a stiff price for their pact. It was signaled by the news report that his administration is contemplating branding Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps and its intelligence and operational arm, Al Qods, a terrorist organization. In addition to their combined war on ISIS, the US president is adamantly demanding that his designated allies come together to rid Syria, Iraq and Yemen of Iran’s military presence. This would require the overwhelming military presence in the Middle East of the combined might of the US, Russia, Turkish, Saudi and Egyptian armies.
His goal is to knock the Islamic Republic off its pedestal as the leading Middle East power set up by Barack Obama and his secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, in eight years of strenuous diplomacy and the outlay of hundreds of billions of dollars.
Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will therefore be bursting through an open door if he tries delivering a lengthy harangue to Trump on the threats posed by Iran and Hizballah when he begins a visit to Washington on Wednesday, Feb. 15. He would do better to ignore the counsels of the pundits and advisers at home who have not yet caught up with the new president in the White House, or grasped the scale of the earthquake Trump and Putin are preparing for the entire region.
Netanyahu will find the US president fully conversant with the Iranian threat to Israel. But he will also need to understand that there is a new way of doing business in Washington:
1. Trump sets his own order of priorities and will not be swayed by Israel.
2. He will always demand a quid pro quo for his cooperation.
3. He will get straight down to brass tacks, namely, a direct question: What are Israel and the IDF prepared to contribute to his prime objective of destroying the Islamic State?
The prime minister will no doubt reply that Israel already contributes intelligence and other forms of assistance to the international war on Islamist terror. However, he will almost certainly find that this does not satisfy his host, who will ask for more direct Israeli military involvement in the campaign against ISIS. Trump will point to the precedent of 2006, when Israeli special operations officers and soldiers took part in the fighting in Iraq.
Since the president intendeds for Saudi, Emirates and Egyptian troops to join his campaign against ISIS, he envisages their armies fighting shoulder to shoulder with the IDFand so providing an opening for diplomacy towards am Israeli-Arab peace accord.
Trump is holding in abeyance for a number of weeks his decision about transferring the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, he will expect to come to terms with Netanyahu on a US-Israel formula for the future of Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria, just as the late Ariel Sharon struck a deal with Bush.