Trump, Russia and the Middle East

The FBI probe of the Trump administration’s ties to Moscow remains in full flower. This is especially true with the untimely (not to mention unseemly) firing of the agency’s director, James Comey, by the President Trump last Tuesday. One of two things is going on, and both will have extremely bad consequences for the Middle East. Either Trump is the most incompetent foreign stooge ever to hold the Oval Office, or the US Democratic Party is engaged in the worst witch hunt in American history.

Trump’s most recent action (the untimely firing of the FBI Director– the investigation head) reminds nearly everyone over the age fifty-five of President Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal in October of 1973. Back then, Nixon also fired a key investigation boss, independent special prosecutor, Archibald Cox. This led to the principled resignations of both the US Attorney General and his Deputy. This one act eventually sealed Richard Nixon’s fate the following summer.

Israelis and Jews around the world remember October 1973 as the moment the significance of the combination of the West Bank and the Golan Heights became of critical importance for the Jewish state. Without these two territories under IDF control, combined Arab armies could have bombed Tel Aviv from the east, altered Israel’s strategic call-up of reserves, and captured the entire north of the country without even much of a fight. Luckily for Israel, no Arab army occupied the extremely strategic West Bank. Because of the inherent slowness of a call-up of reserves (crisscrossing in the dense urban environment of metro Tel Aviv), Syria came very close to sweeping into the north anyway, even without the aid of a hostile army poised above the Sharon Valley.

Also, the world remembers October 1973 because the American nuclear weapons arsenal was placed on the highest alert. This was a warning to the Soviets in the Kremlin that their direct military support for their Middle East ally, Syria, would be challenged by the highest order of US military power. For the Americans, material aid to allies was all a part of the Cold War game, but direct military involvement would have been to cross a line-in-the-sand. In other words, proxy wars were fine but direct action would become a casus belli.

Now, forty-four years later, the Kremlin and Washington are once again at strategic loggerheads. However, this time in the Middle East and Europe, the Russians that are playing for keeps. Unlike the 1970s, the Kremlin has lost its crucial buffer zone in central and eastern Europe. Moscow has been attacked twice from the West in the last two centuries. Napoleon burned Moscow and Hitler came within less than 100 kilometers of much worse. No nation could ever forget such perilously close calls. But Germany and its key ally in Washington have branded Russia as the international villain in the 2014 Ukrainian affair. Never mind that NATO has expanded right up to Russia’s border; Germany and its seventy-year ally, the US, consider this movement an appropriate geopolitical response to Russia’s Cold War defeat.

Enter Vladimir Putin. Putin is an ice hockey player. He understands that toughness, aggression and power are as important to hockey as agility, speed and improvisation. This is precisely why the Russian leader has moved with such adeptness and chutzpah into the Ukraine and Syria. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If the EU or NATO want to play games with the Ukraine under some bogus “international rule” that governments can be overthrown without any geopolitical consequences, Putin was more than willing to play the oldest geopolitical game in history — alternative facts on the ground. In other words, while Obama played basketball and called it international order (maneuvering for an opening with only limited contact), Putin played ice hockey and scored many goals.

Enter Donald Trump. Trump became President of the US wanting to establish much better relations with Putin and Russia. This sent shock waves across NATO, especially Germany. Germany lost WWII, but it sure doesn’t look that way seventy-two years later in the aftermath of the first Cold War. Either Trump was in direct collusion with Putin during the election or he was sincere about pursuing a “Grand Bargain” with the Kremlin over issues in the Middle East and Europe.

The connection between European and Middle Eastern affairs, directly involving Germany and its long-standing relation to the US, was more than the NATO establishment could tolerate. I don’t know if Donald Trump colluded with the Russians during the US election of 2016. But what I do know (and I’ve written about it for years) is that neither Putin nor any American president can accomplish any breakthroughs in the Middle East without an understanding on the future of European security. For that matter, neither president can have any kind of logical geopolitical strategy without extensive cooperation with each other across both regions. This fact alone put the original Trump campaign team on the NATO hot seat. Somehow, this early team discovered that the world will either have a “Grand Bargain”, or all hell will break out somewhere.

Putin is now (temporarily?) aligned with Iran in Syria. However he wants to have good relations with all the states of the region. Putin would like nothing better than to extricate himself from his Middle East dilemma but he needs a European sweetener. Putin’s problem is Tehran and its hegemonic designs for the Middle East. How long can Russia live with an aggressive Iran without being tarred by the same brush? Putin needs good relations with the Sunni world and Israel. The vast majority of Muslim Russian citizens are Sunni, and Israel has over a million Russian speakers, many with vast technical-scientific expertise. The Kremlin was counting on either Trump, Le Pen or a far left-wing German chancellor to provide the European sweetener. Le Pen lost and the next German chancellor will definitely not be from the far-left.

However to every one’s surprise Trump won the US election. He came to power as the opposite of Obama. Where Obama was soft on Iran, Trump would be harder, much harder. In order to accomplish this goal, he knew he needed the Kremlin to alter its Syrian policy, hence, some kind of negotiated deal over the military future of Europe. This triggered diplomatic smoke alarms within the respective US and German establishments. There is no power on earth that is as reflexively anti-Russian as the US military, with their fixation on a US military presence in Central and Eastern Europe. Added to this US perception is its equivalent right-wing German perception of Mrs. Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany.

Trump’s initial plan to pursue a “Grand Bargain” with Putin immediately became embroiled with accusations of Russian hacking of the American election and the possibility of Trump administration collusion. These accusations have served the American establishment and Mrs. Merkel well. Trump found out early in his presidency that changes to the NATO Alliance are completely forbidden.

With the demise of Trump’s Kremlin-leaning first national security advisor, Michael Flynn, the pressure on Trump to abandon a “Grand Bargain” with Putin became dramatic. Trump is inexperienced in the nuances of American politics. He ran as an outsider. Once Flynn was gone, all top US national security appointments fell to the establishment and establishment policy figures (although US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson might just be a wild card). Meanwhile, the Russian hacking and possible Trump collusion investigation has now taken on Watergate-like dimensions. However, even within this charged atmosphere, progress on the Middle East and Europe must go forward. Trump is correct, good relations and partnership between Russia and the US are a must for world peace.

If the Kremlin was smart, it would attempt to freeze the Syrian civil war, disallow an Iranian land-bridge to the Mediterranean, support Turkey and the moderate Kurds in Northern Iraq, cut the PKK mini-state on the Iraq-Syrian border, stabilize the Minsk Agreement, and slowly begin to establish much better relations with the American establishment through the office of the US Secretary of State.

With the Trump administration hamstrung by a serious political investigation, it falls to Israel and the Sunni Arab states to provide a roadmap as to the future of war and peace within the region of the Middle East. This would include both the security from nuclear proliferation, as well as the future dismantlement of any current arsenal. This roadmap must also provide conventional security for all within a total non-hegemonic structure. The future of foreign military power must be under the strictest rules as to their relationship to the region. Non-state actors (militias) must be outlawed. The criteria of permanent peace within a binding international non-aggression treaty, whereby the diplomatic relations between all parties to the treaty must be firmly established.

It must be clearly understood by everyone in the Middle East that without a regional blueprint for peace, the overarching basis for Russian-US cooperation on Syria and beyond will remain amorphous. Therefore, it is up to Israel and the Sunni Arab states to create a much farther reaching vision as to the peaceful nature of a future Middle East. This must be done in order to move both Moscow and Washington closer together. The Palestinian question should be put aside until such time as the Palestinians forego their permanent desire for liberation. Now, Sunni Arab state cooperation with Israel has become the paramount overriding issue of this new era. In a region whereby one power alone, Iran, could begin to dominate the entire Middle East, an alternative security structure must be put in place that takes into consideration everyone’s concerns (Iran included).

Trump and Putin need to plan for an historic European-based bilateral summit (Warsaw?), as soon as the American political process can determine whether or not the US president is guilty of anything at all. This should be done sooner rather than later. Only an enhanced Russian and American cooperation, leading to partnership, can save the Middle East and Europe from a dangerous confrontation between nuclear superpowers. The world desperately needs such cooperation, because only a “Grand Bargain” on Europe and the Middle East can save the world from increasingly dangerous superpower proxy wars. With so many nations feeling such existential stakes, the world hasn’t been this unstable since WWII. Historic diplomatic action is needed!

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).