Washington was preoccupied this week with the fallout from the sacking of FBI director James Comey, in a move that has brought back President Donald Trump’s arbitrary tendencies to mind, after a time in which he appeared as though he had adapted to the solemnness of the presidential office and the need for a well-choreographed functioning of his administration.
The decision to sack Comey also brought back talk of impeachment, Comparisons were made between Trump’s sacking of James Comey and late president Richard Nixon’s sacking of Attorney General Archibad Cox in 1973, and the ensuing impeaching of Richard Nixon.
The main concern over Comey’s sacking comes from the suspicions surrounding links between some of President Trump’s aides and Russia during the election campaign, and their continuation despite warnings issued by the FBI. Aides like former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, with concerns he is vulnerable to Russian blackmail as a result of his actions before the presidential elections and after the Trump administration assumed office.
Suspicions have followed Trump himself, and the possibility that he has ties with Russia that could make him vulnerable to blackmail. The matter not only touches on feelings of anger over Russia’s alleged interference in US presidential elections, but mainly US national security itself, if it is true that Russia has managed to infiltrate the US presidency. The US is divided over evaluating the authenticity of these assumptions. A segment is ready to hold accountable and even put on trial Donald Trump, and is convinced that Trump is involved to his ears.
Another segment is mocking the claims, and cite tense Russian nerves against the backdrop of the current state of Russian-American relations. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Washington on the day James Comey was sacked. Talking to reporters, he took a jocular tone when he was asked about the affair and the links to Russia. It was as if he was saying he had more important issues to discuss with his counterpart Rex Tillerson and with President Trump, more important than US political naivety in the eyes of Russia, because the relationship between the two countries are fateful and have strategic dimensions that go through Europe, the Middle East, and Asia and not via the FBI.
Before going off course with the sacking, the Trump administration was in the process of developing crucial policies, including reviving direct US intervention against terror with European and Gulf allies, who would provide both funds and some boots on the ground needed for the US-led ‘surge’ in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.
The visit by President Trump to Saudi Arabia this month will not just tackle the important bilateral relations, but will become an Arab-American-Islamic summit that will be a precedent on many levels. From the Riyadh summit, US-Gulf relations will be rejuvenated along with traditional security guarantees. Resetting America’s regional relations to before Obama’s engagement with Iran will form substantial fuel for the talks as well as for subsequent interpretations. However, it is important not to over-interpret the positions of the Trump administration to suit those with certain wishful thoughts, because this could have dangerous implications.
For example, let’s take Iran, the big ‘elephant in the room’. Iran is expected to be absent from the summit in Riyadh hosted by King Salman with the guest of honor being Donald Trump. Iran will be present, however, in the conversations, beginning with the issue of security balances in the Gulf region, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and Lebanon and not ending with the Palestinian issue and relations between America and the Middle East.
Anyone who reads Trump’s firm language with Iran as green light for regime change or military confrontation with Tehran would be wrong. The pillars of the Trump administration are clear about one thing: they are not preparing plans for war with Iran. Instead, they are saying Iran is required to withdraw into its borders and stop its incursions in other countries like Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and end its destabilizing tactics and terrorist instruments. If not, then the US and its allies have means other than war to pressure Iran. Regarding the regime itself, Washington is certain that the rule of the mullahs and the Revolutionary Guards will eventually implode without the need for a nudge from the US, and a war that is unpopular among both Americans and their leaders.
One of the Iranian strategists said it more clearly. “Iran will not win as long as its borders have expanded to Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon.” Controlling mobile borders is not possible no matter how well the regime presents its project and no matter how many formidable militias and Revolutionary Guards it deploys. For this reason, there is no need to go into the equation of who loses or who wins and there is no need to talk about the Iranian interior, as long as the actual focus now is on the long Iranian arm extending well beyond Iran. This is the new US policy, and it has no interest in military intervention and regime change in Iran.
The US president following his meeting with the Russian foreign minister, called on Moscow to rein in the Assad regime, Iran, and Iran’s proxies. Several senior figures in his administration have firmly said they intend to prevent the rulers of Iran and their military leaders in the field from claiming the victory against ISIS and seizing the territories recovered from the group. This would deny Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Qods Force, the chance to complete his image as a hero who supposedly protected Iran from and defeated ISIS in Iraq and Syria. That task is now being handled by the US-led coalition in Iraq, and a new coalition led by the new administration, comprising Arab and Western countries and Syrian factions, much to Iran’s chagrin.
On the other hand, there is increasing talk of an Israeli military strike against Hezbollah to destroy its rockets because there is a window of opportunity for this. Those behind this forecast, mainly sources in Kuwait and Lebanon, say Israel intends to devastate Lebanon, because the bunkers housing the Iranian rockets in Lebanon are deep underground.
However, forecasting Israeli strategy is not an exact science, and appears closer to speculation, based on querying several security and political sources. They say that the Trump administration is not in favor of an Israeli war in Lebanon. Rather, the US wants security guarantees for Israel by preventing Hezbollah or Iranian presence in the Syrian Golan, in agreement with Russia. As for the containment of Hezbollah and its rockets, this issue will be subject to regional and international ‘sorting’ of relations, including with Iran. Furthermore, Tehran in turn is not in the process of giving Israel excuses to eliminate its strongest card, namely, Hezbollah. In summation, there seems to be a Russian-American, regional, and international accord to prevent Lebanon from becoming an arena for a new Israeli war.
The Trump administration has a strong desire to achieve secure and recognized borders for Israel at the level of Arab and Islamic countries. This may well be one of the issues Trump will carry to the Riyadh summit before heading to Israel, his next stop in his first foreign tour as president. Saudi Arabia had proposed the Arab Peace plan with Israel endorsed by the Arab summit in Beirut, but it is yet to be accepted by Israel although it calls for normal relations with more than fifty Arab and Muslim nations. So perhaps the Riyadh summit will come up with new incentives to assist Trump’s quest for a breakthrough in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Trump last week met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Washington, and may meet him again with Benjamin Netanyahu when he visits Israel and Palestine after Saudi Arabia and before he flies to meet the pope in the Vatican.
The reception being prepared by Saudi Arabia for President Trump will no doubt stir some envy in Moscow. On Victory Day, Vladimir Putin appeared isolated, with no heads of state from the West, China, or even former Soviet republics showing up. Putin is desperate for Russia to be taken as seriously as the US, but Europe is hindering him and Syria has not brought him this privilege yet. The putative deal with Trump tempts him, but not without limit.
The man in the Kremlin is tense, despite important visits he received from the German chancellor and the Turkish president, and despite the US rejoining the Astana process for a ceasefire and de-escalation in Syria. Putin wants a bilateral summit with Trump, not just a quick meeting on the sidelines of a G20 summit. He must be furious that he has yet to be invited to Washington, which has been already visited by several other world leaders, and must see it as an affront. Even if the reason behind this is Trump’s hesitation and concerns over the investigations into suspicious ties with Russia and now with the Comey sacking that have refocused the light on them, it is difficult for Putin to swallow Trump’s dithering on a summit the master of the Kremlin sorely needs in an election year.
The tensions do not stop here. They are also fueled by US and European proposals in the current bargaining on several issues, and maybe a belated grand bargain later. The German chancellor Merkel, and before her Rex Tillerson, have made it clear that Russia must withdraw from the Donbass in Ukraine and handover the borders to the government in Kiev as a precondition for the Minsk 2 agreement. The Kremlin believes the opposite: Moscow can give and take on the Donbass (but not on Crimea) after the political component of Misk 2 is implemented. This is in relation to Ukraine and the lifting of Western sanctions on Russia.
The even more complicated issue in the context of the Grand Bargain, is that the senior members of the Trump administration have made it clear to their counterparts in the Kremlin that Russia needs to change its policies in Ukraine, Syria, and Afghanistan. What is meant is not just a cosmetic change but a change in approach adopted by Putin, in support of Taliban in Afghanistan and Assad in Syria.
The senior members of the Trump administration are also keen on Russia ending its interference in Western elections. If the investigations prove that senior members of Trump’s campaign had solicited Russian intervention in the elections, or that there were suspicious ties between men in the White House and men in the Kremlin, then the cards will be reshuffled radically. Then, the talk about accords or a grand bargain will no longer be realistic, because the I word, impeachment, will chase Trump and put him in history with his predecessor Richard Nixon.