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Manuel Ochsenreiter is the director of German Center for Eurasian Studies and Editor in Chief of the German news magazine ZUERST!

Syria, Iran, Russia – what is Donald Trump doing?

Published: February 15, 2017, 11:09 am

    After Donald Trump was sworn in as 45th president of the United States on January 20, he took immediately action. Trump presented a fireworks display of quick decisions and quick actions – a political style of conducting state business the West isn’t used to anymore. In the West people are actually rather used to the fact that election campaigns are filled with lies and false promises, giving a newly elected government at least leeway for a 100 days before judgement is passed. Of course the Trump-administration too deserves that leeway, as any other government in the world would.

    The public is discussing Trump’s measures, including the so-called “Muslim Ban”, his order to build the wall on the border with Mexico, and his action against “Obamacare”. The Western mainstream media is deeply upset about his attacks and rants against US established media outlets.

    While everybody is occupied by American immigration politics under Trump, some other moves of the new president are – well – not really discussed – although they are worth analysing.

    Trump made some important pronouncements during his inauguration speech, words that may be interpreted as a change of direction in US foreign relations:

    “We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world, but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

    These words are essential.

    But the first moves in foreign policy decisions by the new US government do not auger well for those of us who believed these words. Trump promised he “would absolutely do safe zones in Syria” for refugees fleeing violence in their country. The reason, Trump said, was that Germany and other European countries had made an unbelievable mistake by allowing millions of refugees through their borders. “I don’t want that to happen here,” he told the US media. The draft order from the White House instructs officials to “produce a plan to provide safe areas in Syria and in the surrounding region”. Even the Kremlin was confused about Trump’s move. “Washington must think about the potential consequences of establishing safe zones”, a Kremlin speaker said. Moscow commented as well that there was no communication with the White House about these plans.

    Quite frankly, the concept of “safe zones” reminds one of Obama and Clinton. “Safe Zones” is an euphemism for “boots on the ground”. In other words: for a full military intervention including infantry and air force.  Establishing “safe zones” in Syria without the permission of the Damascus government is quite the contrary of “isolationism” and “anti-interventionalism”. It would constitute a direct military aggression against the Syrian Arab Republic.

    Is this what Donald Trump wants? Most probably not. The Trump project of “safe zones” in Syria highlights two problems of the new Washington administration: First of all the basically good intentions of the new US president. There is nothing bad about being concerned about the huge exodus of people from Middle East to Europe. It is bad for both regions. The idea of making Syria safe for civilians is exactly the plan of the Syrian government, who has been conducting a war against terrorism since 2011 on its territory. But secondly there seems to be a sort of “vacuum” in the area of new foreign advisers and experts who are not representatives of the old liberal and neocon elite in Washington.

    Also Trump’s verbal attacks against Tehran cause irritations. In his public statements he stigmatizes Iran as the “#1 in terror”. Already during his election campaign he attacked Barack Obama for his “soft policies” towards the Islamic Republic. Tel Aviv understandably has been giving standing ovations to Trump’s anti-Iranian rants. What about all that? Has nothing changed? How does that correspond to the words of Trump about “the right of all nations to put their own interests first”? Isn’t Iran also a nation which has the right to put its own interests first?

    The reaction from Tehran was moderate and calm. But the Iranian leadership is accustomed to American threats. Right now these are just words from Trump. His fans are applauding from Washington to Tel Aviv, the others are pointing at Trump calling him a “war monger”. But Tehran knows exactly how to take the latest Washington outburst. “Barking dogs don’t bite”, as the proverb goes. The Iranian leadership knows very well that the most dangerous Western threats are actually not the military machine and sanctions or embargos, but the extensive use of so-called “soft power”, the meddling with domestic policies as we witnessed during the Maidan coup in Ukraine 2013/2014. And exactly this is one of the key talents of the “liberal swamp” in Washington Trump is trying to dry out. We will have to get used to it: Trump will bark loud at Tehran, but he won’t go on war. But for many even the barking is disgusting enough.

    And what about Israel? Trump’s statements against Iran and his declarations of sympathy towards Israel confused those who expected him to be an “isolationist” president, who shuns foreign conflicts. But Trump is mainly a business man who is imposing his business related blueprint of a “good deal” onto politics. And for him – this is his nature – US-Israeli relations until now has not really been a good deal. Israel currently receives 3.1 billion US dollars per year from Washington. Trump has stated several times that US allies should have to pay if they expect American defense, including Israel. That statement was a break with a decades-old Washington policy to maintain a special security relationship with Israel, and came as Israel and the US were negotiating a new defense package said to be worth tens of billions of dollars over ten years. There is no doubt: Trump will always deliver nice and warm statements towards Israel – but he most probably will rein in the dollar largesse.

    The same goes for NATO: It is very unlikely that US president Trump would abolish NATO, even when he says in interviews that he considers the Western alliance “obsolete”. But he will make allies pay more, in an effort to improve the deal for his country. And if he does so, the sexiness of NATO will decrease especially in the eyes of future Eastern European candidates for NATO membership.

    And Russia? The new US ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, offered a strong condemnation of Russia in her first appearance at the UN Security Council, calling on Moscow to de-escalate violence in eastern Ukraine and saying that US sanctions against Moscow would remain in place until it withdraws from Crimea. Her remarks were notable for the difference between her rhetoric and Trump’s own, who said several times he was ready to discuss the lifting of sanctions and would seek a closer cooperation with Russian president Vladimir Putin in the war against terrorist gangs in Syria. One the other hand: The statement by Haley was more or less harmless as it carried no serious consequences. They correspond more or less to the protests leveled by the Obama administration. Western mainstream media has attacked Trump because of his lack of anti-Russian passion in the past.

    It will be interesting to see how president Trump deals with Ukraine in future. Kiev is right now a really “bad deal” for Washington. In the eyes of Donald Trump the Kiev regime must be one of the worst “business partners” ever: corrupt, inefficient and expensive. Kiev’s expectations about becoming a NATO member, begs one simple question: Who is going to pay for all that?

    One problem remains however: Trump is a business mogul and no expert in international relations. He has to rely on advisers and expert networks. But most of those circles are made up of the old liberal elite, those who want to spread LGBT rights in Russia, Iran and Afghanistan, those who would like to see the “catalogue of values” of the liberal West as a type of eschatological paradise which ought to be spread all over the world. It is not enough to liberate yourself from the agents of this dangerous ideology – they have to be replaced by geopolitical experts and advisers who are in favor of exactly that which Trump stated in his inauguration speech: “friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world”.

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