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Putin’s Syria plan and America’s reactions

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16th-May-2017       
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Stephen Sestanovich :
There is no more hopeful way of describing President Trump's foreign policy than to say it is slowly becoming 'normal.' We are told that sensible and experienced advisers have growing influence and that disruption for its own sake is no longer prized. I'm hopeful too, but a lot of evidence still points the other way.
For that reason, Trump's willingness to endorse Russian proposals to "de-escalate" the civil war in Syria will be a crucial test of policy normalcy.
The president, optimists could argue, has distinguished his approach from Barack Obama's in three ways that should strengthen his hand in the Middle East: He reached out to traditional allies of the United States, cultivating the presidents of Turkey and Egypt and announcing visits to Israel and Saudi Arabia. He expanded the American military effort against major strongholds of the Daesh in Iraq and Syria. And - the best-known move - he ordered a cruise-missile strike on Syrian forces that had used chemical weapons. What better way to show other players, especially Russia's president, Vladimir V Putin, that the United States was back in the game?
If Trump were to succeed, skeptics like me would have to admit that he knows how to get things done - and to get others to help him. But his effort to restore American influence is floundering.
Washington isn't leading in these efforts. It's following in Moscow's wake. Putin's plan of de-escalation, if accepted, would enhance Iran's regional role and consolidate the regime of Bashar Al Assad of Syria, the very outcomes administration spokesmen have said they were trying to avoid. American officials say they want to learn more about the agreement Russia has reached with Turkey and Iran, but one telling detail - that American warplanes would not be able to fly over the so-called de-escalation zones - shows who's calling the shots.
Before he associates himself with this scheme, President Trump should ask his advisers to explain to him why a seemingly traditional effort to strengthen American policy has produced such a disappointing result. He would find the answers instructive far beyond the Middle East.
First, although Trump's headline-grabbing cruise-missile strike won him praise for decisiveness, it changed little on the ground. If the Pentagon is right that the United States managed to knock out 20 per cent of the Syrian Air Force, Defence Secretary Jim Mattis must surely regret that he didn't push for two or even three strikes. Knocking out 60 per cent of Syria's planes, especially while Russia stood by helplessly - that would have been a game changer. Someone might tell the president what Richard Nixon used to say: It takes only a little more effort to really solve a problem than to almost solve it.
Second, if Trump felt he had to endorse the Russian initiative on Syria to prove that his strikes had had an impact, his impatience gave President Putin priceless leverage. This is an odd, even embarrassing, about-face for an administration that ridiculed Barack Obama's "long game" in the Middle East and the "strategic patience" strategy that many administrations have followed toward North Korea. Being too patient may well invite others to take advantage of you, but so does not being patient enough. The president's advisers need to persuade him that a mania for quick results is a first step toward failure.
Third, although Trump aims to mend relations with estranged Middle Eastern friends of the United States, he seems focused more on personal atmospherics than on our allies' substantive concerns.
Finally, the president should understand the price he pays for not enunciating clear policies. In the space of a month he let Secretary of State Rex Tillerson say that the United States did not seek Assad's ouster, then that it did, only to move toward an agreement that strengthens the Syrian leader.
Trump calls this confusion a strategy of "unpredictability," but by now he ought to see how self-defeating it is. If other countries think unpredictability means that the president of the United States will agree to unwise concessions, they have every reason to challenge him. Suppose Trump asked Secretary Tillerson: What would most help you in your job as America's chief diplomat? The secretary's honest reply would have to be: Make United States policy as predictable as possible. Only after the president and his advisers figure out what they want, and how to get it, can American officials tell their foreign colleagues where the United States actually stands.
All these lessons will be doubly relevant if Trump aims to revive the idea of a rapprochement with Russia. To get Putin to pull out of eastern Ukraine, the president first needs to convince him that there's no other way to win relief from Western sanctions. If Trump wants Moscow to rethink its approach to arms control (including compliance with existing treaties), he must show Putin that Russia's own policies lead to an arms race that it cannot win. Before Putin decides to work with Nato, he will have to be convinced that he can't do better by trying to divide it.
Sooner or later, Trump will see that better Russian-American relations depend more on effective diplomacy than on imagined personal rapport. They require not just a balance of power but also predictability, patience, scrutiny of the fine print and negotiators who can speak for their boss.
Experts enjoy lecturing the president about the differences between the real estate business and foreign policy. (I've done it myself.) But surely the two realms overlap in ways that Trump can learn from. Over many years, for example, his company was never able to build a big hotel in Moscow. My guess is that too many Russians wanted too large a cut and that no one ever made a credible and attractive offer. Whatever the reason, no deal came together.
That Trump never did get his hotel in Moscow may turn out to be one of the best things that ever happened to him - one questionable connection to Russia that doesn't have to be investigated.That example offers a lesson for today. The deal Putin seeks in Syria would empower America's adversaries far more than America's friends. The president would be better off without it.

(Stephen Sestanovich is a professor at Columbia and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relation. - NYT Syndicate)

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