No, we are not referring to James Comey’s dismissal (though this too, does reflect a change of mode). Perhaps we should have paid closer attention to Roger Stone, a long-time friend of the President, and his erstwhile campaign manager, who insists, and insists trenchantly, that Trump is his ‘own man’. Those who think Trump can be manipulated are mistaken, Stone says. They misread the terrain, and subsequently will find that they are mistaken. No, by ‘change of gear’, we refer rather, to the Astana-Syria talks.
In all the dust kicked up in Washington over Comey, Astana has passed largely unnoticed. But there (Astana), the ‘gear change’ is substantive and merits close attention. In gist, Trump is willing to let Astana unfold, and to see whether it may lead to a strategic change in the Syrian situation. Two things emerge from this: Firstly, Russia and Iran are being tested by Trump. Ideological prejudices are being suspended for the moment, and both countries will be judged by their actions. (I think both states will stand content with this situation).
The second shift of mode, concerns certain (but not all) of Trump’s military advisers. The latter have been quite prominent in the formulation of US foreign policy until now. No more (at least in Syria). There can be no doubt — strategic Syria policy now lies with Rex Tillerson and Sergei Lavrov, who have been mandated to follow up the Astana de-escalation process. And in the recent talks in Astana, unlike before, the US had a senior diplomat attend and observe the talks – an Assistant Secretary of State. In brief, the baton has passed from the Generals Mattis and McMaster, from the sphere of military intervention primarily, to the primacy of negotiations. To make this clear, Trump said explicitly in the wake of the Tomahawk attack: “We’re not going in to Syria” — implying that the strike was a one-off action.
Two caveats need to be made: Firstly, that Syrian-led military action (against ISIS and al-Qaida) will not cease, and the ceasefire eventually will likely breakdown. And, secondly, the British, French – and parts of the US military – will not give up their tactical inserting of wrenches – as they see it – into Assad’s wheels. These actors, together with Turkey will continue to play both ends of the game.
What precipitated this change? Well, as so often with Trump, it seems it was personal contact and chemistry that changed events. Former Indian diplomat, now political commentator, MK Badrakhumar puts it succinctly:
“The cracking of the ice on the frozen Russian-American lake can only mean a temperature change. The telephone conversation between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on Tuesday can be compared to ice cracking after an unusually cold and long winter. The readouts from the White House and the Kremlin both give a positive spin to the phone call.
The White House said the conversation was a “very good one” and the Kremlin was satisfied that it was “businesslike and constructive”. It was left to US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to add texture to it. He said: “Well, it was a very constructive call that the two presidents had. It was a very, very fulsome call, a lot of detailed exchanges. So we’ll see where we go from here.”
Syria was a principal topic of the conversation. In sum, US-Russia engagement on Syria is resuming. The two presidents focused on “future coordination of Russian and US actions” in Syria. The two countries will jointly seek ways “to stabilize the ceasefire and make it durable and manageable”, the Kremlin readout said. There is a hint here of the two militaries cooperating.
The Kremlin readout added: “The aim is to create preconditions for launching a real settlement process in Syria.””
The notion of turning the 'old' safe zones notion into the de-escalation framework, I understand was Tillerson’s, but it was President Putin who seized the opportunity to turn it into a political framework – and to engage the Americans.
What is the de-escalation plan's intent? It is to bottle up the jihadists into four ‘pens’; to divide, where possible, al-Qaida and ISIS from the already divided Ahrar-Sham (and to re-target the latter against the former); to re-stimulate the reconciliation process; and to free up the Syrian Army.
The freed-up Syrian army, buttressed with embedded Russian ground forces, now aims to take the eastern dessert area of Syria. The focus here, is not so much Raqa’a per se, but the need to begin normalising the Syrian state. The latter needs income. It cannot rely perpetually on Russia and Iran to fund it: Syria needs to re-gain its oil and gas fields, and its border with Iraq, so that trade with Iraq – once its biggest customer – can be resumed. The Iraqi government and the Iraqi Peoples’ Mobilisation Units (PMU) are working together with Damascus to open the trade routes to Iraq from their respective sides of the border.
So how might all this work in the regional context? Firstly, Russia has induced both Turkey and Iran to be guarantors of the de-escalation agreement, with Russia effectively becoming its pivot, situated neatly in the middle, as the principal co-ordinator with the White House. Both Iran (however much the ‘Syrian’ opposition groups may huff and puff at Iran’s guarantor status), and Turkey, are clearly essential to this political plan.
How was this achieved? Well, Putin seems to have worked some (undisclosed) magic with President Erdogan at Sochi (perhaps the unloading of the first cargo of pipes of what is destined to become Turkish Stream, had something to do with the Sochi ‘understandings’). And perhaps, also, America’s threat that it might arm the Kurdish YPG, is intended to help keep Erdogan’s eye on the ball of the de-escalation plan – we shall see.
The next stage is to operationalise this outline plan (to more closely define the de-escalation zones). No doubt there will be an attempt to oust Iran from the de-escalation process and attempts, as President Assad has warned, by parties who will do everything they can to sabotage the success of the ‘de-escalation’ plan.
In respect to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, it seems possible that Mohammad bin Salman may prove to be one of those whom Roger Stone described as prone to misreading the Trump map, when the former chose dramatically to escalate the rhetoric – promising to carry ‘the war’ against Iran into Iranian territory – in advance of Trump’s visit to the kingdom.
I understand that Washington acknowledges the importance of the Iranian role in bringing Astana to a successful conclusion (apart from providing boots on the ground, and other resources, Iran also carries considerable weight in Damascus). It seems that the US now is prepared to judge Iran by its actions in that context and suspend its animosity pro tem. I have been told (though unconfirmed) that the order to renew the waiver on secondary sanctions on Iran may have already been signed by the President. Bin Salman may have thought that he had won over President Trump at his Oval Office meeting, but as Stone notes, this is a common occurrence – to think that Trump has been successfully ‘manipulated’, for it to then turn out that Trump does things ‘his way’.
So, it seems that Trump has shifted: from projecting the narrative of ‘America the Strong’, to using that narrative for the purpose of making peace. For in Oslo, too, America’s representatives have quietly been sitting down with their North Korean counterparts to talk de-confliction.