Donald Trump fancies himself a dealmaker. He campaigns as the shrewdest of negotiators and appears fond of projecting the impression that there isn’t conflict on Earth that cannot be parlayed away. This is a comforting fiction, but it is also one that Trump must find useful. He also contends that a President Trump would enhance American military capabilities until the armed forces are so strong that no president would ever have to contemplate using them. But the United States maintains the most powerful military without close competition today. What’s more, it is regularly deployed all over the world precisely because the U.S. remains the only nation still capable of projecting sustained force across the planet. When Trump makes this contention, it is not a policy proposal but a plea for remittance. He is hoping that this blusterous pronouncement provides him with a way out of talking about geopolitics and international security challenges, which would expose his supremely shallow understanding of global affairs. Still, Trump occasionally reveals with careless flippancy the depths of his ignorance on matters related to national security. Most hardly merit a response, but his most recent contentions concerning Vladimir Putin’s Russia certainly do. Trump’s claim that Americans should welcome Russia entangling itself in Middle Eastern politics is popular, broadly shared, and incredibly dangerous.
In an appearance on Bill O’Reilly’s Fox News Channel program on Tuesday evening, Trump gave Vladimir Putin an “A” grade in the subject of global leadership. “He, frankly, wants to fight ISIS, and I think that’s a wonderful thing,” Trump exclaimed. “If he wants to fight ISIS, let him fight ISIS. Why do we always have to do everything?”
“I say there’s very little downside with Putin fighting ISIS,” he continued.
Trump could do with some policy advisors who are possessed of even a middling understanding of Russian geostrategic priorities. This statement should go down in the annals of history as among the most profound examples of reckless ignorance.
Yes, Putin has said he is interested in engaging in the fight against ISIS wherever he can, but it’s a lie. Moscow long ago seized on the West’s concerns about the Islamic State threat to advance its own national interests in the Southern Caucuses and in Russia’s “near abroad.” Moscow calls every entity in the Middle East it dislikes “ISIS,” most of which share with that barbarous group only the Islamic faith. In Syria, Russia spent August using military drones to survey areas that were not under the control of either ISIS or the al-Qaeda affiliate Nusra Front. On Wednesday, Russian warplanes began executing strikes in areas around Hama, Homs, and Latakia – places that are only occasionally threatened by either Islamist militia group. “The northern countryside of Hama has no presence of ISIS at all and is under the control of the Free Syrian Army,” a former Syrian commander who defected in 2012 told Reuters.
“Al Arabiya also reports that the headquarters for a moderate Free Syrian Army unit in the area was hit,” wrote The Interpreter’s James Miller. The FSA, you might remember, was the “moderate opposition” that the U.S. Congress at one point pledged to fund in support of Barack Obama’s mission to create a ground force capable of securing a Western-oriented future for Syria. Putin’s immediate aim is not to fight ISIS militants but to secure Bashar al-Assad’s position as Syrian president.
The proliferation of forces operating in the Syrian theater is becoming an immediate threat to international stability. On Wednesday, just hours before Moscow began executing strikes on Syrian targets, a three-star Russian general arrived in Baghdad where he informed American officials that Russian bombs would start falling any minute and that U.S. forces should clear the airspace around Homs. The United States obliged. NATO air assets including those from the United States, France, and Turkey are also operating in Syrian airspace, targeting either Islamist militias or Kurdish forces (some of which are supported by U.S. special forces on the ground). The number of military assets from a variety of unaligned nations with limited military-to-military contacts all shooting at different targets in the same theater of operations is supremely dangerous. The likelihood that any one of these nations might make a mistake and trigger a spiraling international incident has become exponentially more likely.
As I wrote yesterday, the notion that the West should welcome Russian intervention in the Middle East with the anticipation that it will eventually overextend itself is misguided. The Kremlin can do quite a bit of damage to U.S. national interests while Washington is waiting for Russia to bleed itself white in Syria and Ukraine. Trump’s contention, however, that working with Russia to ensure Assad retains power is even more reflective of an individual who does not often occupy himself with deep thoughts about the region in question.
Trump has indicated in the past that he would “get along” with Putin, a figure who has shattered the peace in Europe and become the first autocrat since 1945 to invade and annex sovereign European territory. He has flirted with appeasing Putin in Ukraine and now has embraced appeasing him in Syria. Trump clearly admires and respects the audacity of the Russian strongman. Leave aside for the moment that Trump would essentially affirm Barack Obama’s fecklessness in Syria and embrace the dictator who has subverted the international norm prohibiting the battlefield use of chemical weapons (on civilians, no less) and legitimize him. Trump seems to be forgetting that the present set of circumstances in Syria is of Putin’s own design.
It was Barack Obama who accepted the off ramp Putin negotiated in 2013 that allowed the president to back down from his “red line” for military action in Syria. Russia sought only to preserve its client in Damascus, a client that had dutifully protected Russia’s last post-Soviet port on the Mediterranean, which is located in the Syrian city of Tartus. Russia immediately began pouring intelligence assets into the country in preparation for this very moment. Russia’s motives are betrayed by the kinds of assets it is moving into the Syrian theater. “Many of them don’t seem to be well-suited to fighting ISIS,” the Daily Beast’s David Axe observed. “They’re built to battle adversaries like the United States.”
“The positioning of Russian aircraft in Syria gives the Kremlin an ability to shape and control U.S. and Western operations in both Syria and Iraq out of all proportion to the size of the Russian force,” warned Fredrick and Kimberly Kagan in a report for the Institute for the Study of War. “It can compel the U.S. to accept a de facto combined coalition with Russia, Syria, Iran, and Lebanese Hezbollah, possibly in support of indiscriminate operations against any and all regime opponents, not just ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra.”
NATO high command warned this week that Russia is building an air defense bubble around Syria. Moscow has spent Obama’s second term in office aggressively establishing diplomatic and military links with key Middle Eastern nations from the Nile Delta to the Persian Gulf. Russia’s objective is as it has always been: Decouple the United States from Europe and Asia, and position itself as the preeminent geopolitical power in the Eastern Hemisphere.
Donald Trump’s policy prescriptions, though borne out of a superficial understanding of geopolitics, are seductive for a nation as war-weary as the United States. Many Americans from across the political spectrum would like nothing more than to see the U.S. abdicate its role as guarantor of global security and to outsource that obligation to other nations. But there are no alternatives to the United States. Geopolitics is a zero-sum game, and Putin does not have America’s best interests at heart. Allowing Moscow to supplant the U.S. and NATO in the Middle East would not enhance American security; it would weaken it. Most Americans with a modest knowledge of international affairs know instinctively that the vacuums of power the United States leaves in its wake as it retrenches will be filled by bad actors. It is unclear that Donald Trump shares that basic understanding.