Randa Selim, Director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues at the DC-based Middle East Institute, told Al Jazeera last year, “Talking with Assad will neither defeat ISIL nor achieve a political solution. Instead, the US, Europe, and their regional allies should talk to his Russian and Iranian sponsors, while increasing military pressure on the ground to deny them and Assad a military victory in Syria.”
Only time will tell if a new direction can be sought in Syria. It is clear that the answer to the problem of Syria cannot be found within the country itself, or even within the region, but only within the White House and the Kremlin. Could Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin be already forming what, in another time, would be an unlikely alliance? I say “already”, because if Trump’s calls to Taiwan and Pakistan are any indication, he has probably been Skyping his pal, Vlad, for months. They may well be friends on Snapchat.
But what could be good for Syria, in as much as ending the conflict, may not necessarily be good for the rest of the world. Could the US legitimise Putin to pursue other interests, such as in the Ukraine? CNN reported in August 2016 that Trump had claimed Putin would not make a military move into Ukraine, even though Putin had already done just that, having seized the Crimean Peninsula in 2014. Trump either does not know or does not care about such things, which, to understate it somewhat, is rather troubling. It is hard to imagine a misinformed John Fitzgerald Kennedy mistakenly saying that Nikita Khrushchev has no nuclear missiles in Cuba in the Autumn of 1962, before being corrected by the interviewer. Of course, Trump is merely President-elect at this stage, but if he is already eager and willing to pick-up the telephone and call whomever he pleases, regardless of established US policy, it is hard to be sure whether the White House would curtail him, where he will be surrounded by advisors, or empower him further to do as he pleases.
So, how close are Trump and Putin? Much of the speculation is simply based on Trump’s notorious Twitter activity, from where he has sent warm messages regarding the former KGB member. What is clear, however, is that both sides seek a working relationship, but I fear this is a mixture of star-struck, idiosyncratic excitement from Trump, and raw opportunism in the case of Putin. It is not going to be a relationship of intellectual equals. Trump is more KFC than KGB. And Putin is still living in the Cold War; it has been widely speculated that Russia is quietly rejoicing at Trump’s election victory because, in classic Cold War mentality, it makes the US look foolish. It is further speculated that Russia did all it could to assist in Trump’s win, spreading fictitious news and facilitating the leaking of content injurious to Hillary Clinton’s election campaign. If the Kremlin really was as active in the election as has been alleged, what we may be about to witness is an era of manipulation of the US President by a far smarter man, with even less moral scruples. The purely cognitive comparison is not saying much, but the latter, ethical, point is most disconcerting for us all. Putin’s moral convictions make Trump look like a choir boy.
The free world must hope that Trump’s administration is wise to the machinations of the Moscow machine, and that they are able to successfully impart the type of advice that Trump can both understand and implement. For if this is not the case, we could be seeing a new “Special Relationship” forming, but not the traditional Anglo-American one, but a new, antithetical US-Russian incarnation, albeit with the US playing the role of the junior partner. Whilst the US undoubtedly has the upper hand over the Russians in both military and financial terms, when it comes to a battle of wits, it is a non-starter. Only one side has the ability to manipulate the other into achieving foreign policy initiatives. Putin is an implacable student of Machiavelli, Trump is a brazen man-child of McDonald’s. The world awaits a joined-up strategy for Syria, but if Trump does not have his admittedly minor wits about him, or indeed, simply does not care, an agreement over Syria may soon be followed by a shirtless Putin riding jauntily through the streets of Kiev on a white charger.
In a recent podcast covering Brexit, I discussed Winston Churchill’s vision for a post-Cold War Europe, and also looked at Christopher Hitchens’ views on the European Union. I feel that both great men would be most concerned at the developments in Washington in 2016. Please click here to visit the Podcast section.