January 14, 2017

The Astana talks - President Trump's first foreign policy challenge?

Almost immediately after he is inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States on January 20, Donald Trump will face his first foreign policy challenge. The United States has been invited to attend talks about the future of Syria, sponsored by Russia, Turkey and Iran to be held in Astana, Kazakhstan - the talks are scheduled to start on January 23.

The Astana talks are the result of a ceasefire arranged by the Russians and the Turks which took effect on December 29, 2016. Notably absent from the negotiations was U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. I believe the Obama Administration policy that Syrian President Bashar al-Asad had to be removed from power was a sticking point with the Russians. Russian President Vladimir Putin's primary reason for ordering Russian military intervention in Syria was to ensure the survival of the al-Asad regime. (See my earlier article, Russia and Turkey broker a ceasefire in Syria - where is the United States?

Putin appears to have been successful, on many fronts. His military forces - primarily air power, but also artillery, long range missiles and special forces - turned the tide of battle. Without the presence of Russian forces, Iranian troops and irregulars, Lebanese Hizballah, as well as Iraqi and Afghan Shi'a militias, the Syrian military would not have been able to dislodge the rebels from their stronghold in Aleppo.

The opposition forces are now on the defensive as the battle shifts southwest to neighboring Idlib governorate. The presence of the former al-Qaidah affiliate in Syria, now known as Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (JFS, Levant Conquest Front), in Idlib provides the fig leaf for continued Russian air strikes at the new opposition center of gravity, since "terrorist" groups are not covered by the provisions of the ceasefire.

Although there have been some violations, the ceasefire is holding, or holding well enough. The key to this ceasefire is the provision that after a 30 day period of adherence to the truce, negotiations on the future of Syria will be held under the sponsorship of Russia, Turkey and Iran.

The timing of the talks, the venue, and the invitation to the United States are all calculated to demonstrate just who has become the current power brokers in the region - the mere fact that there are going to be talks demonstrates that Moscow and Ankara can bring the parties to the table - and the Americans cannot.

The timing excludes the Obama Administration and opens a channel of communication with the new Trump Administration. The venue in a Central Asia former Soviet republic keeps the talks somewhat in the region (as opposed to western Europe) and central to the three sponsors.

As I said in my earlier article, "It appears that once again, President Putin and his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, have outplayed American President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry. As I have said in the past, the new power brokers in the region - especially when it comes to Syria - are Russia, Turkey and Iran."

Well played, Mr. Putin, well played.

That said, it is not all smooth sailing. The Syrian government and the opposition have agreed to send representatives. Although President Bashar al-Asad said that "all things are on the table," they are not. He will not discuss leaving office in the talks. He also wants a say in who represents the opposition. (See my earlier article, Syrian political talks in Astana - why Bashar al-Asad has little to fear.)

The Turks have ruled out Kurdish participation in the talks - the Kurds are the United States' best allies on the ground in Syria in the fight against ISIS. The Kurdish YPG comprises the bulk - and most effective part - of the Syrian Democratic Front (SDF). The Turks consider the YPG to be nothing more than an extension of the PKK, a Kurdish separatist organization designated as a terrorist group by the United States, NATO and the European Union. The situation is more than mere rhetoric - Turkish aircraft have bombed SDF units, despite the fact that these units are engaged in direct combat with ISIS.

The problem with the last-minute invitation to the United States is that it puts the Americans in almost an "afterthought" or "second-class" status and not really in a position to make demands. Still, when the President of the United States of America sends a delegation, America's status of a superpower cannot be ignored.

Here is the dilemma. During the polarizing political campaign leading up to the election of Donald Trump, there have been numerous stories and accusations of ties between the new President and the Russians. I am not in a position to judge if or any relationship exists - I am mainly concerned with what effect that has on the situation in the Middle East, particularly Syria.

There is no question that the Russians have conducted brutal military operations against almost exclusively anti-regime targets in Syria. When the Russians launch attacks on Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) targets, it is in support of the regime.

Although the Russians have couched their intervention in Syria as an anti-terrorism, anti-ISIS operation, the reality remains that the mission is to prop up the al-Asad regime. At times, the operations may be considered to rise to the level of war crimes - deliberately targeting hospitals and medical facilities, civilian housing areas, markets, schools, etc. Recall Senator Marco Rubio's rather harsh questioning of Trump Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson on this matter.

Should the new Trump Administration accept the invitation to the Astana talks? In my opinion, yes. You cannot affect what happens at the table unless you are at the table.

Obviously, the Obama Administration existent bifurcated policy is not working. This is an opportunity to lay out a new policy - just what is our primary national security objective in Syria? Is it the defeat of ISIS, or is is the removal of the regime of Bashar al-Asad? The Obama Administration wanted both, and it was sidelined by the other major players.

Do we need to chose one over the others? If we do, I believe the new Administration will chose the defeat of ISIS. I think any demand for the removal of Bashar al-Asad is a non-starter with the Russians, and that the Turks and Iranians will go along. President al-Asad has said that if his remaining as president of Syria is an issue, then the country should follow the Syrian constitution (yes, he said that without laughing) and go to the ballot box. Anyone of us who have lived in Syria knows that is ludicrous.

This will be a real test of the direction of President Donald Trump's foreign policy. How he handles this will set the tone for future situations, not only with the Russians, but around the world as well. How will the "new sheriff in town" respond to challenges and crises?

If the new President were to ask me - and he hasn't - I would advise that we focus on the defeat of ISIS, even if that means limited cooperation with the distasteful government of Vladimir Putin. We have cooperated with unsavory regimes in the past to attain our foreign policy objectives - we can address the Syrian regime later.