With the ball in Putin's court, the US President needs to pursue a grand barter on Assad, Iran and Turkey
The art of the deal needs Russia to succeed
Since US President Donald Trump announced he would order military action against the Syrian regime over its use of chemical weapons in Douma, a race has ensued between a “deal” and a “strike”. This has echoes of the situation in which former president Barack Obama found himself in 2013, before he backed down at the 11th hour as part of a deal with Russia over dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal.
That outcome forever tainted Mr Obama with hesitant leadership as he abandoned his own red line and became a spectre that haunted Trump, who takes pride in his firmness and determination. But at the same time, Trump is also known for boasting of his deal-making credentials and would certainly invoke this should he reach a worthwhile deal with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. As tensions escalate, some argue the prospects for reaching a deal also increase. In truth, the two main belligerents are Russia and the United States. Because neither side is interested in a direct confrontation with the other side, the elements of the deal open to them are the fate of Bashar Al Assad, the Iranian and Turkish presence in Syria and more broadly, Ukraine and Russia’s position in Europe.
There is division inside the White House and a schizophrenia within Mr Trump himself regarding Russia. Part of his administration insists on avoiding a confrontation with Russia at any cost. They believe the presence of Russian and American military assets in close proximity in Syria entails major risks that should be addressed.
The proponents of this view were the ones who advised Mr Trump to declare his intention to withdraw from Syria “soon”, nearly a fortnight ago. This camp does not see Russia as the main enemy or biggest challenge to the US. For them, China is the main long-term challenge while the near-term challenge is best represented by Iran and Turkey. This faction wants neither a deal nor a major intervention in Syria beyond the limited overnight strikes carried out by the US with the UK and France.
The other traditional camp believes the only language Russia understands is the threat of military force. Accordingly, they have advised the US president to make all military preparations to underscore the seriousness of the US and reassert US prestige as a superpower, the opposite of what Mr Obama had done. This faction does not believe in soft power, especially vis-a-vis Mr Putin and believe it is time to curb Russia’s overconfidence. They believe that with the threat of further military strikes, Mr Putin could back down, especially with regard to his sponsorship of Bashar Al Assad and his tolerance of Iran and Turkey’s agendas in Syria.
The ball is now in Mr Putin’s court to accept a deal or otherwise face the prospect of expanded strikes. Yet even if Mr Putin refuses to give Mr Trump a ramp to abandon further strikes, both sides will ensure the armed conflict is contained away from direct Russian-American confrontation. But the danger lies in miscalculations and accidents that could lead to undesired consequences for both sides. In this context, the personalities of Mr Trump and Mr Putin do not help. Both are stubborn narcissists and their forces are too close to each other in Syria for comfort.
The coordination between the US and Russian militaries, which has not stopped since the two countries both intervened in Syria, continues. A political dialogue is also likely to be taking place in secret, even as diplomatic war is being waged in the halls of the UN, where Nikki Haley was seen kissing the Russian envoy Vassily Nebenzia on the cheeks before sitting at the Security Council to lambast him and the Russian leadership.
The Security Council attempted to absorb the tensions and buy time, including by dispatching a new wave of Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) inspectors to Syria on a fact-finding mission. Yet the US president ordered a strike without waiting for their mission to be concluded, targeting remote Syrian targets far from where the inspectors were present. According to reports, the western strikes also targeted Iranian positions.
Unravelling the Russian-Iranian alliance (with Turkey not far behind) remains an American objection but the strategy for what comes after in Syria as well as what kind of deals Washington will offer to the Russians, remain unclear. All indications suggest the threat of military force – or the limited military action – is part of the deal with Russia, where Russia’s part of the bargain would be to isolate Iran and Turkey in Syria.
Mr Putin holds the keys to curbing Turkey and Iran in Syria as well as the fate of Mr Al Assad. If he is still convinced he can keep all three and keep Syria, then more escalation lies in store, as this would be unacceptable to Washington.
Betting on Mr Trump’s incoherence is unwise because he is not deterred by Russia’s presence in Syria. Yet if he is to avoid cultivating the same reputation as Mr Obama, he must successfully secure a Russian commitment to things that go beyond dismantling Syria’s chemical weaponry.
Mr Trump has proven he would not accept being a hesitant and weak president. What he needs after the strike is to pursue a grand barter with Russia on Mr Al Assad, Iran and Turkey. With the prospect of further strikes in Syria, the ball is in Mr Putin’s court but the US grand strategy remains in flux.