Is There Rhyme or Reason in Trump’s Approach to Syria, Afghanistan and North Korea?

History News Network

In November 2016, Donald Trump swept to the White House making some bewilderingly simplistic promises, which meant keeping out of foreign wars, and concentrating on dismantling America’s internal power structures to recreate them in his own vision. Three months after taking office, he has ordered two big military attacks on Syria and Afghanistan, both within a week. And he is warning of retaliation against North Korea’s maverick leadership.

The start of the Trump administration has been chaotic. He is having to fight hard to implement his plans, especially health care and immigration. He has found that his dehumanizing anti-Hispanic and anti-Muslim rhetoric since his presidential campaign began in June 2015 will be problematic, and slow, to turn into reality.

Hence, Trump has turned his domestic frustration abroad at a dangerously early stage. It took President George W. Bush seven months, and the traumatic events of 9/11, to go on the warpath. Trump has not completed his first hundred days yet.

Donald Trump’s foremost targets are the Muslim world and North Korea. Like al-Qaida during the Bush administration (2001–2009) Trump singles out ISIS, an umbrella for many dispersed violent groups of Sunni fundamentalists, for the ills emanating from the Muslim world, and threatening civilization. He is also consumed by North Korea and its advancing nuclear weapons program. China, North Korea’s ally, has come under fierce criticism from Trump for not restraining the Pyongyang regime, and for manipulating its own currency to steal American jobs.

The Trump administration saw President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his Russian patrons as useful tools in fighting ISIS. The decision to hit the Shayrat airbase with cruise missiles three days after a chemical attack was reported in the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun was a policy reversal by Trump.

One noteworthy aspect of the American attack on Shayrat was that while other Syrian facilities were hit at the airbase, the runways which Russia had expanded in 2015, and which Russian warplanes currently use, were spared. Within hours, bombers were flying new missions against anti-Assad forces. The attack on the Syrian airbase also helped Trump counter domestic criticisms of close ties with Putin and the Kremlin lobby, though it was not enough to stop new revelations.

To say that mutual accusations of recent days between the White House and the Kremlin amount to a phony war would be an exaggeration. For domestic political reasons, some tension with America’s foremost nuclear adversary serves a useful purpose, and the Trump administration is learning about political expediency. Nonetheless, Trump’s personal esteem for Vladimir Putin is obvious, and his language about the Russian leader and government is restrained.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s recent visit to Moscow was full of warnings on both sides, but they were civil to each other. And Tillerson had a two-hour meeting with Putin. The relationship between Washington and Moscow may not be what President Trump would have instinctively wanted. But to say that it is at the lowest point is way over the top. US-Soviet relations were near a catastrophically low point all along from the early 1950s to the end of the Cold War in the late 1980s.

The change in Trump’s approach to China is also intriguing. He had predicted a “very difficult” meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping (April 6-7). Yet, after their state dinner and talks, Trump announced that they had made “tremendous progress,” and that they were going to have a “great relationship.” Trump made no mention of China the currency manipulator, causing a massive trade surplus in Beijing’s favor. On North Korea, Trump said that President Xi had explained the situation, and that he was confident that China would do something.

Trump’s manner of telling the Chinese President over chocolate cake that cruise missiles were on their way to hit Syria was strange and amusing. If the idea was to deliver a shock to his guest over sweet dish, it seemed not to have worked. China gave its verdict soon after Xi had returned home, with the state news agency, Xinhua, calling it “the act of a weakened politician who needed to flex his muscles.” The Chinese Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, phoned his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, offering to coordinate with the Kremlin to “cool” the escalating row. Trump had managed to push China and Russia closer.

The United States, meanwhile, sent warships to the region. Not to be left behind, North Korea showed off new missiles in a huge military parade in Pyongyang to celebrate the 105th anniversary of its founding leader Kim Il-sung. As American warships were sailing in the region, North Korea test-fired another missile. It failed, but there may well be more to follow.

As President Trump deals with Syria and North Korea, the stakes are high because of Russian and Chinese involvement. Afghanistan has no such risks. Nearly ten thousand US troops are already deployed in the country, and the Kabul government is totally dependent on American military protection and economic assistance.

Like the cruise attack on Syria, Trump’s decision to drop a 22000 pound GBU-43 bomb (called the Mother of All Bombs) on a network of caves in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan filled him with excitement. It also generated considerable enthusiasm among journalists and analysts in the media.

The instant flurry of excitement aside, the bombing deserves a critical examination of facts which are often ignored. The underground caves were built for, and by, the Mujahideen forces, who received massive support from the administration of Ronald Reagan in the 1980s – the decade in which the United States fought a proxy war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan.

Those fractious Mujahideen groups disintegrated, and new recruits were attracted, giving rise to the Taliban. They, in turn, found common cause with al-Qaida in opposing the United States. Following the assassination of Osama bin Laden, elements of al-Qaida morphed into ISIS. The collapse of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Libya, meant that more fighters were free to join ISIS.

President Trump called the bombing of the cave complex in Afghanistan “another success,” which made him “very proud” of American military. His administration first claimed that 36 ISIS militants had been killed in the attack. Afghan officials later said that more than 90 people had died.

Contrary to Arab countries, ISIS has found it difficult to establish a firm foothold in Afghanistan, where Afghan nationalism comes in direct conflict with pan-Arab Islamism. Consequently, ISIS-Khorasan (Afghanistan’s old name) is a small group compared to the Taliban – estimated to be no more than a few hundred. ISIS fighters include some disgruntled former Taliban, some new recruits, even fewer Arabs.

It prompted the Economist newspaper to say that although President Trump relishes headlines about his success, the significance of bombing in Afghanistan should not be “overstated as a military game-changer.” In 2001, the predecessor of the GBU-43 bomb (BLU-83) was used against the Taliban in the Tora Bora cave network. But the Taliban survived, have since thrived, and would make it very difficult for the present Afghan government to survive without American protection.

Since the early days of the Cold War in the 1950s, we have witnessed plenty of theatrics from rival leaders with narcissistic tendencies. History tells us about Joseph Stalin, Mao Tse-tung and North Korea’s founding leader Kim Il-sung. But theatrics can go wrong, and can lead to disastrous unintended consequences.

We have entered a new era of dangerous theatrics in international politics. Donald Trump and Kim Il-sung are the two leading actors. Let us hope that the rest of the cast will exercise a restraining influence.

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What is Going on with Russia and Turkey?

History News Network

Two recent events amid the turmoil in the Middle East are of particular interest, for they illustrate the complexity of the region’s politics, and shed light on the players’ motives as they act. On November 24, Turkey shot down a Russian aircraft flying a bombing mission against ISIS targets in Syria. The Turkish government said that the plane was one of two Su-24 bombers which had violated the country’s airspace for 17 seconds, and had been warned ten times before being shot down. Was the Turkish action taken in the heat of the moment or was it part of a calculated move is difficult to know for certain. However, the incident certainly sparked furious reactions from Moscow and Ankara. President Putin called the Turkish action a “stab in the back.” President Erdogan warned Russia not to “play with fire.”

A few days later, Israel’s defense minister Moshe Yaalon told Israel Radio that a Russian jet recently breached Israeli airspace by “mistake,” but was not shot down. Yaalon said that Russian planes “don’t intend to attack us” and therefore there is “no need to shoot them down.” When the Russians were informed, the plane, which had entered about a mile into Israel, was said to have turned back.

These incidents raise intriguing questions about relations between all three countries, and why Israel and Turkey responded so differently to brief “violations” of their territory by Russian aircraft. They provide insights into the true situation in the Middle East. They explain competing, as well as common interests, of various players in the region. They also suggest that a degree of order exists even in a seemingly chaotic set of circumstances.

Deep suspicion, even hostility, afflicted Turkish-Syrian relations since the beginning of the Cold War until the 1990s, well after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The reasons were threefold: Turkey’s membership of NATO and Syria’s alliance with the Soviets; Syria’s Baathist ruler Hafez al-Assad’s support for the Kurdish Workers’ Party (PKK) fighting for independence from Turkey; historical baggage of Ottoman rule between the early sixteenth century and World War I.

Following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in WW1, and the creation of a new Turkey by its founder Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, successive Turkish governments had seen the country as more European than Middle Eastern. Turkey’s desire to become a full member of the European Union seemed logical. However, reluctance among some EU members caused long delays. Often cited obstacles were Turkey’s 1974 invasion of Cyprus, and creation of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, recognized only by Ankara. The end of the cold war, meanwhile, opened the way for improvement in relations with Russia and Syria. Disenchantment over the EU membership issue, and the rise of the governing Justice and Development Party originating from the Islamist tradition, renewed Turkey’s interest in the Middle East.

More than 95 percent of Turkey’s population is Muslim, mostly Sunni. Demography is, therefore, an important determinant in the country’s domestic and foreign policies. When President Hafez al-Assad of Syria expelled the Kurdish separatist leader Abdullah Ocalan after sheltering him for 20 years, the stage was set for a dramatic improvement in relations between Ankara and Damascus. Under the leadership of Erdogan and al-Assad, military cooperation and formal trading ties were established; Erdogan helped Assad’s visit to France in 2005, and talks between Syria and Israel were held under Turkish mediation in 2008. Syria was brought in from the cold.

Relations between Israel and Turkey had historically been good. Ankara recognized the State of Israel in 1949, but remained mindful of its ties with the Muslim world. Diplomatic relations with Israel were downgraded during the 1956 Suez Crisis – a conflict in which Israel, France and Britain launched an unsuccessful invasion of Egypt to regain control of the Suez Canal and remove President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had nationalized Suez. Half a century later, a major crisis developed in Israeli-Turkish relations following a series of events which began after the landslide victory of Erdogan’s party in 2002.

Turkey condemned the Israeli assassination of the blind Palestinian cleric Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 2004; Erdogan denounced Israel’s 2008-9 bombing of Gaza as “state terror” and said Israel will reap what it sows; Israel, in turn, rejected Turkish mediation in talks with Syria; then in May 2010, Israeli defense forces attacked the “Gaza Freedom Flotilla” carrying humanitarian supplies, killing nine activists, including eight Turkish nationals and one Turkish-American. The flotilla had been organized by Turkey’s Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (IHH).

These events caused a sharp deterioration in Turkish-Israeli relations. However, Ankara remained pragmatic. When asked why his government doesn’t break off relations with Israel, Prime Minister Erdogan replied: “We are running the Turkish Republic, not a grocery store.” Turkey is an overwhelmingly Muslim country. Its government is of an Islamic and conservative disposition. However, the country is also a member of the Western alliance. Ankara’s ambitions to become a full member of the European Union have been set back for now, but Turkey and the European Union remain important for each other. Turkey, a leading NATO member, and Israel, America’s most important ally, can hardly be enemies no matter how serious their differences about Middle East politics.

The outbreak of civil war in Syria in 2011 made Ankara reassess its developing ties with the Assad regime. Erdogan’s decision to switch sides and back the Syrian opposition was a calculated move based on a number of considerations, none without risks. In the final analysis, however, Erdogan and his party decided that Turkey had more to lose by continuing its association with the Assad regime. In the light of how long the Syrian regime has lasted, the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the Russian intervention in Syria, that calculation is open to question.

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From Georgia to the Brink of a New Cold War: A Pawn in Their Game

Deepak Tripathi

The conflict between Russia and the pro-US regime of Georgia has been a decisive turning-point in Russia’s relations with Washington and has taken us to the brink of a new Cold War.  

For the first time in almost twenty years, the West faces a resurgent Russia that has put the trauma of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the resulting chaos behind. Today’s Russia is run by a younger leadership with autocratic efficiency, confident because of its vast energy resources and determined to resist American hegemony, by force if necessary. The crisis in Georgia goes beyond the Caucasus region. Its roots lie in America’s overwhelming ambition to expand and its tendency to make colossal miscalculations under the Bush presidency.

It is often said that the first casualty of war is truth. Behind the fog of disinformation coming from Washington, London, Tbilisi and, indeed, Moscow, the fact remains that the Russian invasion came after Georgia’s bombardment of the breakaway region of South Ossetia. The vast majority of residents in the enclave are Russian citizens and Moscow had deployed its peacekeepers there. Many experts in Europe are depressed over the events in Georgia and blame hardliners in the Bush administration for provoking the Georgian President, Mikheil Saakasvili, to adopt the aggressive posture that has brought this disaster. 

What we see in Georgia is a classic proxy war between Russia and America, which has become heavily involved in the republic since a popular revolt in late 2003 ousted Eduard Shevardnadze from power, with Western help. Today, US troops occupy Georgian military bases of the Soviet era, on the southern fringe of Russia. America provides weapons, training and intelligence to the Georgian armed forces. America’s involvement, which began under the umbrella of the ‘war on terror’ after 9/11, has since become much more. If President Bush had his way, Georgia would be granted membership of NATO as part of the alliance’s expansion around Russia.

The impoverished former Soviet republic is, in effect, a pawn in the broader US design to encircle Russia. It is also located in a region which has some of the largest energy reserves in the world. For the Kremlin, the prospect of NATO coming so close to its southern borders is a step too far. Fortunately, some NATO members, most notably France and Germany, also do not see Georgia either as a full democracy or a stable country. And many in the alliance and the European Union have doubts about Saakasvili’s ability to take mature decisions.

In an era when America has assumed the right to launch pre-emptive strikes, it is difficult to see the Kremlin behaving differently. The prospect of Georgia joining NATO, which might deploy nuclear weapons on Georgian territory, is simply not acceptable to Russia. Remember the Cuban missile crisis of 1962? At the time, Soviet nuclear missiles, deployed just 90 miles from the coast of Florida, brought America and the Soviet Union close to a disastrous war and the Soviets were forced to back down. Does the White House not know history? Or do the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration not care? 

Saakasvili’s decision to order the bombardment of the Russian-majority South Ossetia gave the Kremlin a convenient cover to invade Georgia, just as the Bush administration had found it expedient to invade Iraq in March 2003 based on claims that Baghdad had weapons of mass destruction, which were never found. Russia is playing for bigger stakes now just as America did in Iraq a few years ago. 

About one-fifth of Georgia has fallen under Russian military occupation and the Kremlin leadership seems to be in no mood to entertain the idea of Georgia’s territorial integrity in any negotiations sponsored by the West. There are daily condemnations of Moscow in the Western capitals. However, the West is powerless to prevent the Russians doing anything they want in Georgia.

This US-Russia proxy war in the Caucasus region has created a serious humanitarian crisis. President Saakasvili, the pro-US leader of Georgia, has been humiliated. Its chances of joining NATO are negligible after the latest events. They have demonstrated that the West cannot and will not intervene militarily to protect Georgia from the Russian threat. The most important clause in the NATO constitution says that an attack on one member-state will be regarded as an attack on the whole alliance, which will use all possible means to protect the member-state under threat. NATO’s inability to defend Georgia now is a defeat for the West. It is difficult to see how the alliance will accept the republic as a member. 

The description by President Bush of the Russian action as ‘disproportionate and unacceptable’ is laughable in the context of America’s own conduct in its foreign wars in recent years. Washington should be more worried about the damage the crisis has done to its authority in the world. Diplomacy was never a strong point of the Bush administration. The blunders in Washington and Tbilisi have made the conduct of relations with Russia much more difficult. They may also have created other problems for the next occupant of the White House, for an increasing number of countries around the world may begin to look to Russia now that it has risen again.

The above article appeared in CounterPunch on 16 August 2008.