Revisionist Powers and Rogue Regimes in the Trump Doctrine

President Donald Trump will on Monday declare a new US national security strategy for the next four years based on four pillars: protecting the homeland, stimulating American prosperity, promoting peace through strength, and enhancing American leadership in the world. National security adviser H.R. McMaster gave a preview of the Trump administration’s new national security policy, using interesting terminology to describe Russia and China as “revisionist powers”, and Iran and North Korea as “rogue regimes”. McMaster cited extremist jihadist groups as the third challenge facing the United States, but went beyond ISIS and al-Qaeda to include the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood in this category of threats, accusing Turkey and Qatar of endorsing, supporting, and promoting the Brotherhood.

Moscow responded swiftly, questioning the knowledge of the national security adviser and denying any “sophisticated subversion” in the United States. This came amid continued bickering between Washington and Moscow, the Kremlin having recently responded to Washington’s questioning of Russian victory against ISIS in Syria and attempting to take credit for that victory itself, by saying 'victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan'. The American-Russian bickering in Syria is both superficial and deep, especially with regard to the fate of foreign forces in Syria – US troops, Russian forces, Iranian militias, and Turkish soldiers – as well as the fate of Bashar al-Assad himself.

According to UN sources, the Syrian government is now working to kill off the Geneva Process, which has had the backing of the Security Council as a roadmap for a political settlement in Syria culminating with a transitional government with executive powers. Damascus’s bet is that the putative Sochi process would be the bullet that terminates Geneva. The Syrian government thus wanted the Geneva meeting to convene as a last stop without any further meetings, because in Sochi, under the auspices of its Russian ally, Damascus can possibly manipulate the transitional process away from the UN and Geneva path, complete with a new constitution, elections, and transitional mechanisms.

UN Syria envoy Staffan De Mistura is currently engaged in talks with the Russian authorities to agree on principles to link the Sochi process to Geneva’s. The UN hopes for a national dialogue to convene in Sochi on a basis that would enshrine a UN supervisory role in drafting the new constitution and holding elections, which should be the outcomes of this dialogue. But if De Mistura’s efforts to agree a clear framework for the Sochi process fail, Sochi will no doubt replace Geneva. This could spell the end for the idea of a transitional government with full executive powers, as promised by Security Council resolutions.

Regarding the role of the Syrian former foreign minister Farouk al-Sharaa, amid reports he could lead the transitional process, a UN source revealed Syrian opposition figures had suggested to Russia that Sharaa lead the Sochi meeting, as a figure acceptable to both sides. The Russians reportedly were open to the idea, and have communicated this to Damascus. However, according to the same source, the Syrian government has not given a conclusive answer. If an agreement is reached on Sharaa heading the Sochi meeting, it is likely his role would be expanded to head a broad-based national government agreed by both sides. However, this does not mean that Bashar al-Assad would step down. That outcome was related to the Geneva process, but if Sharaa comes to head a transitional government through Sotchi, the terms are entirely different both practically and politically.

The US administration seems less interested in the fate of Assad, his powers, and the transitional government than it is in the issue of permanent US military deployment in Syria. The US is determined to prevent Russia from monopolizing this strategic location to the exclusion of US interests. In equal measure, Washington is not concerned with the Syrian constitution and elections as much as it is concerned with the fate of Iran’s strategy in Syria and its corridor to Lebanon via Iraq and Syria.

US high-level military sources have mocked speculations suggesting Washington is going to turn a blind eye to Iran’s foothold in Syria and allow it to gain a strategic advantage there. Diplomatic sources say the US administration’s moves this week are crucial on the Iranian issue, ahead of President Trump’s announcement of his new national security strategy. Indeed, both McMaster and the US envoy to the UN Nikki Haley have moved to highlight their administration’s intention to confront Iran, especially in Syria, as McMaster said, and in Yemen, with Haley preparing a dossier on Iran’s actions there at the UN.

A starting point for the US campaign against Iran in Yemen would be the UN Security Resolution that prohibits Iran from exporting weapons and missiles to the Houthi rebels. Haley has ‘evidence’ of Iranian support for the Houthis, and intends to present it to the Security Council after presenting it to the media and public opinion, to mobilize support for a firm US policy against Iran’s role in Yemen. In truth, this marks a shift in US policy, which previously steered clear from the issue of Yemen. It is also a shift from the policies of former President Obama, who avoided challenging Iran’s regional policies including its intervention in Yemen.

This is an important shift, because it has a dimension related to US-Saudi relations under Trump, who resumed the strategic alliance with Riyadh after Obama’ downgraded those ties to a notch below his Iranian priority. It is also important because Obama had unburdened Iran from the Security Council resolutions that banned the export of weapons and fighters, under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, under the nuclear deal with Iran. Today, the Trump administration is attempting to re-uphold the ban through Yemen, on the basis of a binding international resolutions with sanctions in the event of non-compliance.

Haley is seeking to present evidence of Iranian violations and threats to the stability of US allies including by means of facilitating the launch of ballistic missiles against them, to pressure the European Union powers to stop abetting Iran’s actions in order to safeguard the nuclear deal. Indeed, the Trump administration intends to lobby the Europeans to impose sanctions on Iran, especially the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) for its deep incursions into Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. According to one US official source, however, it may be impossible to pass a resolution like that at the Security Council because of the Russian and Chinese vetoes. However, it is not impossible to take a firm stance with the Europeans on Iran’s destabilization of US allies.

The doctrine Trump is expected to unveil on Monday will be based on confronting threats to US national security as a strategic commitment. Confronting Iran as a matter of policy, philosophy, and doctrine for the Trump administration upends Obama’s doctrine of appeasing Iran and its regional adventures.

The introduction of the Muslim Brotherhood to this doctrine is new, along with its inclusion in the list of Islamic radicalism and the accusations against Turkey of sponsoring the Brotherhood, and Qatar of promoting them. This in parallel with the expansion of the scope of what constitutes Islamic radicalism to include Iranian-backed Shia groups.

The priority for the Trump doctrine will not be the ‘rogue regimes’ like Iran and North Korea, as much as it will be the ‘revisionist powers’ engaging in subversion in the domestic politics of Western states, undermining the international system, and waging economic aggression, like China and Russia, as designated by McMaster.

McMaster is not Rex Tillerson, who is reined in by the White House each time he speaks, most recently when he expressed willingness for ‘unconditional dialogue’ with North Korea. McMaster is one of the leading figures of the Trump administration, while Haley is a tough executor of what the US president wants. What they said this week is a curtain raiser paving the way for what Trump is going to declare in the context of US national security strategy, based on ‘strength’ and initiative-taking, rather than Obama’s doctrine of leading from behind.

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