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Trumps "Syria Minus Iran" overture to Putin & Assad may restore Washington-Damascus Relations

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Franklin Lamb, Damascus. Not for at least three quarters of a century have the American people elected a president who so disparages, discards and seemingly abhors the principles, standards, policies, ideas, and institutions at the center of post-WW II US foreign policy. Trump seems to dismiss human rights even as a foreign policy principle, much less a standard, while focusing rather on deal-making, diplomatic and economic, and championing the fight against Islamic terrorism.

No one knows, least of all this observer, how the foreign policy of the Trump administration will take shape. Or how his priorities may twist and turn as he encounters the assured torrent of events and mayhem from a plethora of crises just around the corner that will wreak havoc. What is known is that the Mideast expects big changes under Trump. They may well happen.

President Trump is reported, by two US Senate Foreign Relations staffers among others, to be considering a broad new U.S. partnership with Russia, starting with Syria. Trump allies have also hinted at possible White House acceptance of Syrian President Bashar Assad, which would amount to a dramatic reversal from years of the Obama administration calls for Assad's ouster.

Trump's cozying up to Putin is being reciprocated via an emerging Russian "Trumpomania" and love fest directed toward the American public, since election result, which in Russia was greeted by the issuance of commemorative coins and Trump matryoshka dolls. An all-night party in Moscow was endorsed by the Kremlin to celebrate Trump taking over the White House. The festivities were attended by thousands and even televised live on Tsargrad TV, a pro-Putin Russian Orthodox TV channel. And some Moscow shops have offered 10% discounts to "American guests." Why such new-found good will?

Russian Nesting Dolls
Russian Nesting Dolls
(Image by Open Source)
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[10% discount on Trump & Putin matryoshka dolls dolls for Americans visiting Moscow]

Trump not only has labeled NATO obsolete, words which coming from the President of the country that created NATO doubtless were music to Putin. Trump has also signaled that he will lift US sanctions imposed following Russia's annexation of Crimea if Russia cooperates on a nuclear disarmament deal. Putin will presumably keep his cards to his chest while he studies this offer, but following more than a decade of frustrated ego, Putin appears to be seeking the role of senior partner with Trump. With or without the leverage of "golden shower' videos, Putin is in a strong position to defend Trump's weak reputation and he can defend Trumps widely questioned legitimacy while serving in a sense as Trump's mediator, advocate and protector. Thus shoring up Trumps presidency globally if not among the more than one million US citizens who the day after his inauguration took to the streets across America in protest Trumps announced agenda and even his election.

As Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov has frequently reminded John Kerry who reportedly agreed with him and before him Hillary Clinton who reportedly did not, Moscow has some legitimate grievances of its own. Since the collapsed of the Soviet Union a quarter century ago US presidents and congress have broken several agreements with Russia. Clinton enlarged NATO by adding former Soviet republics which violated a U.S. commitment not to do so. The Bush administration pledged that if the Soviets pulled nearly 400,000 military forces out of East Germany, the United States would not "leapfrog" over East Germany to assert itself in Eastern Europe. But it did by expanding NATO to include the three former soviet republics of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Bush's abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), which served as the cornerstone of strategic deterrence and the arms control relationship between Russia and the United States, was another example of the United States taking advantage of Russia's geostrategic weakness angering Moscow and many Russian citizens to this day.

Trump has also been signaling Russia's ally, Syria's President Assad, claiming in the media that while Assad may not be America's first choice to lead Syria, it's for the Syrian people to decide and that the rebels fighting to topple Assad "could be worse." Trump regularly insists that the U.S. has no idea who its allies in Syria are, implying that Assad's Syria might turn out to be one.

For his part, Bashar Assad recently suggested that the U.S. and Syria could be "natural allies." Admittedly such a shift would have consequences especially among American Sunni allies in the Gulf and elsewhere in the region if they view the Trump administration as strengthening the hand of Assad's second main partner, Shiite Iran who blocked them from a role in the Turkey-Russia organized peace talks currently getting underway in Ashtana, Kazakhstan .

Assad, who gives high praise for Putin's help since its major 2015 involvement reiterated this week his hope that Trump will join with them and become a partner going forward. Said Syria's President on Trump's inauguration day: "We hope that they are genuine to forge a real and realistic alliance to fight the terrorists in the region, and that of course will include Syria first of all." Turkey appears on board with officials now saying there can be no settlement without President Assad. If Assad now seriously takes on IS in Northwestern Syria one could imagine that Trump might accept a tacit if informal partnership.

The Trump offer to Moscow and Damascus, being pushed by the Israel lobby in Washington has a price tag. The Trump team wants Iran out of the six countries it is currently accused of occupying and insists on the dismantling of the Shia militia crescent Iran has methodically put in place the past several years which funnels weapons and explosive devices as well as cash and militia from Iraq, Yemen, the Fatemiyoun Division" of the IRGC organized from Afghanistan, Pakistan's Zaynabiyun Brigade, Lebanon's Hezbollah, and elsewhere. The Shia militia "highway" runs from Iraq into and across Syria, north of Aleppo, westward to the Mediterranean and turns south into Lebanon and on down yet further south and along the Naquora-Maron el Ras border with Palestine/Israel

The US Congress and the six GCC countries also want the end to Iran's reported ethnic cleansing and population transfers in Syria and the Four Villages Agreement which they claim Iran's militia have not honored as its continues to besiege Madaya and 16 other towns. All actions Congress claims are designed to increase Shia domination of strategic Sunni areas including the regions oil reserves and eviscerate Syria's heretofore secularism and its tolerance for all religions and ethnicities.

Trump is about to be heavily lobbied by Israel and Congress to accept this view and act accordingly. Israeli officials claim that Obama and his team adopted a policy of slowly bleeding Iran and Hezbollah in Syria and arming Syrian rebels just enough not to lose the war, but not to win either unless those who would assumed power were properly vetted. A prolonged fight in Syria, according to this rationale, would not only weaken the Syrian army so that it is no longer a threat to Israel, both directly and indirectly, it would also increase the growing opposition within Iran's regime and especially Iran's restive civilian population and weaken the Iranian regime. Many in Tel Aviv and Washington are advocating that with prolonged economic sanctions against Iran, this will likely lead to the collapse of the Iranian regime, or at least weaken it to the point that it is no longer a threat and can be forced to accept international legal norms. These views have also been voiced by Trumps choice for US Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman who told Congressmen on the sideline of his Confirmation hearing that the simplest way to destroy Hezbollah is to stop the Iranian arms shipments traversing Syria. Israel is also seeking permission from the Trump White House for a green light to destroy Hezbollah bases in Lebanon and if necessary to neuter Iran's air force and armed forces. To some, Trump appears to be listening.

President Putin is reported to be interested in the prospect of working with Trump in Syria as are the current Sunni Ottoman revanche inspired Ankara government, the eleven Arab states in the region, NATO, the EU among others. All have expressed varying degrees of frustration with what they viewed as Obama's moralizing rhetoric, confused signals and unfulfilled red lines, and favoring a Trump pivot to counterterrorism and security.

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Since 2013, Professor Franklin P. Lamb has traveled extensively throughout Syria. His primary focus has been to document, photograph, research and hopefully help preserve the vast and irreplaceable archaeological sites and artifacts in (more...)

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