Russian Reset: Trump Style, part 2

by Aaron Spitler

December 21, 2016

This article is part-2 of a two-part series.

While much will depend on how Trump handles his transition into European affairs, his true litmus test on how he will respond to Russian influence begins and ends with Syria.Trump’s departure from the outgoing administration’s policy regarding Syria has been viewed as an olive branch to the Kremlin. With the opportunity to re-align with the Russian and Assad coalition combating the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), Trump aims to elimination confusion regarding objectives. In a speech delivered in November, the President-elect painted a polarizing picture in which the pragmatic choice is Russia instead of the faceless mob of ragtag militias. “Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is becoming powerful, because of us, is aligned with Syria… Now we’re backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who these people are.” Trump continues to say that if the U.S. opts to stay the course, we will be locked into an unavoidable confrontation with the Syrians and Russians, entrenching us in another intractable quagmire in the Middle East. This is the high road, according to the new administration, and a part of a peace initiative that is worth pursuing. But many leading American foreign policy experts think Trump’s naivete will only escalate the tensions and ignore the dire crisis unfolding in the country.

Arizona Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, is chief among them, highlighting that any form of realignment goes against common sense given Russia’s recent string of aggressions around the world. Moreover, McCain’s statement reflects a hawkish mindset that is highly mistrustful of goodwill promises made by an unreliable government: “we should place as much faith in such statements as any other made by a former KGB agent who has plunged his country into tyranny, murdered his political opponents, invaded his neighbors, threatened America’s allies and attempted to undermine America’s elections.” In his view, acknowledging Russia as an honest broker whose intentions are for conflict resolution, would be acting irresponsibly and willfully marginalizing the countless victims of this intolerable conflict.

This being said, Trump has still displayed an eagerness to engage with Russia (despite a Republican Congress’ reservations) and begin a period of de-escalation in the region. With newfound purpose, the incoming administration could refocus its attention to strategic ISIL strongholds while permitting the survival of a Russian-backed Assad government in a protective enclave. U.N. Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura echoes this sentiment, sharing how relaxed relations between the nations gives a small window to not only effectively repel terrorist elements, but also save countless lives. Nonetheless, both parties must prioritize human rights in order to actualize change, particularly when it comes to the besieged and deteriorating situation in the divided city of Aleppo. “It could be difficult for any president in the United States, regardless of his own priorities, to ignore the international outrage [over the] humanitarian tragedy in Aleppo.” As the powers have stressed a desire to end the bloodshed and quickly restore a sense of normalcy, de Mistura’s hope for coordination seems like more than a just hypothetical.

In fact, preliminary talks are underway between Trump’s transition team and the Russian government regarding a different approach to tackling the Syrian problem, showing the international community that progress can be made. Mikhail Bogdanovich, Russia’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, hits the same beats as de Mistura, reminding the global community that Russia’s presence is invaluable to stopping the ceaseless fighting that has torn the country apart. “We hope the outgoing and incoming administration will accept that without Russia it is impossible to solve the Syrian issue, we are ready for open dialogue.” By strategically placing his country front and center, Bogdanovich legitimizes Russia’s position in the conflict while signaling to American hardliners that they are the ones harming coordination. Politicking aside, Trump is on a time crunch to define his Syria policy and with a surprisingly receptive Russia. Squander the moment, and it could hold serious geopolitical consequences for years to come.

While Trump wades into uncharted waters regarding relations with our longstanding rival, a sense of pervasive uncertainty has fundamentally questioned U.S. influence around the globe. The viability of NATO, and the guaranteed protection of its members, hang in the air, for Trump’s contractual, “pay-as-you-go” method for defense arrangements will either sink or salvage the institution. Moreover, Trump’s reconciliation with Russia in Syria could lead to the dismantling of ISIL and the addressing of dire humanitarian concerns in war-zones like Aleppo. Even so, the changeover comes with the caveat of securing human rights abuser Assad’s place in any post-war plan. All in all, the President-elect’s openness towards rapprochement with Russia could be a much needed breakthrough in post-Cold War relations. Yet the way forward can be boiled down to an old adage first used by President Reagan decades ago: trust, but verify.

Aaron Spitler is a Sophomore B.A. student at the College of William & Mary and an Intern for the William & Mary Policy Review.