As the war in Syria grinds towards some kind of resolution, it is possible to say a few definitive things about what is going on in the region and the role of external players.
The war in Syria has devolved to a significant victory for Assad, whose obituary had been written by so many poorly informed wishful thinkers in the West. Despite unsubstantiated claims about his use of chemical weapons, and Assad’s unpopularity across the country, there is no doubt that the government in Damascus has regained control of much of the country recently under the rule of ISIS and an assortment of equally violent rebel groups.
Vladimir Putin’s intervention in the war was decisive and ultimately successful, not only in keeping his ally in power in Damascus, but in dealing Russia back into shaping the future of the Middle East. Putin has mended bridges with Israel, KSA, Iran and Turkey, which is an extraordinary diplomatic achievement by anyone’s standards – unprecedented in modern geopolitics. No solutions to the region’s problems can now be considered without his involvement and tacit approval.
US influence in the region, on the other hand, is severely diminished thanks largely to the indecisive vacillations of Barack Obama. The long-standing incoherence of Washington’s Syria policy is emblematic of this decline: does anyone actually know precisely who the United States has been supporting in Syria’s civil war or can identify one successful policy outcome? The US is not the indispensable state it was once seen to be by regional players.
The Saudis view the turmoil in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and, to a lesser extent in Lebanon, as their best chance of establishing some form of regional hegemony or dominance, providing they can put Iran back in its box. Together with Egypt and other Gulf tyrannies such as the UAE and Bahrain, they are applying enormous pressure on the US to do this for them, illustrated in part by Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA (the Iran nuclear agreement). However, they will find little support for their objectives in European capitals or in Moscow, despite enthusiasm from Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel. Meanwhile the Iranian economy is a shambles and the rule of the mullahs have never been more unpopular.
Donald Trump does not have a coherent strategy beyond what makes him look good in key domestic constituencies and is unable to provide anything remotely resembling leadership. Even his most loyal supplicants in Canberra are not prepared to follow his lead when he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem. Trump horrifies the Europeans, not least because of his brazen nationalism and personal self-aggrandisement, as well as his historical amnesia on subjects like NATO.
Trump should be given credit for changing the stasis on the Korean peninsula and for improving relations with Putin despite imposing much harsher sanctions on Russia than anything Obama was prepared to try, to say nothing about his military attacks on Putin’s ally in Damascus and his opposition to Russia’s energy policies. The obsession of Trump’s political opponents with Russian interference in US elections is little more than a distraction comedy. It ignores the more extensive domestic meddling of countries such as Israel, the much more decisive role of party funding in determining election results, absolves the Democrats for preselecting a terrible candidate, and ignores the long history of US interference in the internal politics of countries across the world, including numerous coups d’etat.
Trump is isolated on Israel but knows that no-one – not even their traditional Arab supporters – will lift a finger to help the Palestinians, regardless of the horrendous massacres in Gaza or the ongoing expansion of illegal Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Jared Kushner’s “deal of the century” for Israel-Palestine is stillborn, which will give Trump the excuse to cut his uppity son-in-law loose and blame everyone else for yet another failed peace plan in the region.
Too many commentators see Trump as an ideologue and seek to fit his foreign policy into some pre-existing conceptual framework. This will lead nowhere. His policies are strategically incoherent and are motivated by insatiable avarice and populist support for his ego. He could quite easily go from threatening war with Iran to meeting Rouhani for coffee in the space of 2 weeks, without feeling any need to explain his contradictions or inconsistencies. This flexibility confounds his critics, academics and journalists alike, but it gives him unprecedented space to tear up the scripts that are written for him by the foreign policy establishment who thought he could be controlled.
Trump is rightfully suspicious of the Deep State (just ask Colin Powell what he thinks of US intelligence briefings) and will produce a crisis by unmediated tweet or comment and then move on from it to something else whilst his critics obsess over yesterday’s news, always one or two steps behind him. Being a shameless liar means he is largely immune to any moral pressure to explain his inconsistent or vulgarian behaviour.
In the meantime his “trade war” with China will finish soon, or when someone tells him that China’s eastern seaboard is the America’s largest manufacturing centre. The messages from Apple, Dell, Tesla and others are already being heard loud and clear in the White House. But they miss the point: Trump’s protectionism is all about domestic messaging to those he needs for votes in 2020.
Meanwhile Malcolm Turnbull has declared that Australia is “joined at the hip” to the White House incumbent, despite US economic and strategic policies that do Australia no favours at all. Given that an independent foreign policy is apparently inconceivable in Canberra and would require at the very least a hip joint replacement from our great and powerful friend across the Pacific, Australia is now willingly attached to an incoherent, unpredictable global leader who owes us nothing and whose only constant in eighteen months has been criticism of America’s traditional allies.
If nothing else, it will remain fun to watch Malcolm Turnbull and Julie Bishop explain the inexplicable.
Dr Scott Burchill is Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Deakin University.