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The real Russia challenge Trump faces


March 16, 2018

(JNS)—After beating ISIS, the administration can’t stand by idly as the chaos in Syria leads to war between Israel and Iran’s Hezbollah auxiliaries.

Donald Trump was elected president of the United States promising an “America First” foreign policy. That was an ominous echo of America’s pre-World War II isolationists, and as troubling as that sounded to anyone with a sense of history, it seemed to match his belief that the United States had spent too much blood and treasure on wars in the Middle East.

Though he promised to defeat the terrorists of ISIS, Trump also seemed to assure a pullback from the region. And while he criticized his predecessor for the success of Islamist terrorists, his approach to the Middle East now oddly enough resembles the continuation of President Barack Obama’s decision both to abandon Iraq and leave the people of Syria to their fate.

The irony is that while Trump has been attacked for his desire for better relations with Russia, which his critics link to accusations of collusion during the 2016 election, this point of view would be an extension of an Obama policy that acquiesced to Russian intervention in Syria, which for all intents and purposes made it the pre-eminent foreign power in the region.

The impact of this surrender after Obama’s 2013 “red line” threats against Russia’s client, Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, also fit with America’s appeasement of Iran, a country that also backed the Damascus government. The combined brutality of Russia, along with an Iran that had been empowered and enriched by the nuclear deal and Tehran’s Hezbollah auxiliaries, guaranteed that Assad would remain in power.

Their success has led to a human-rights catastrophe in Syria. But the aftermath of a war that is winding down in more bloodshed has set the stage for yet another conflict: a possible war between Israel and Hezbollah.

With Iran building weapons and missile factories in Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon, coupled with a devastated Syria, Israel is rightly worried that Tehran is setting the stage for another war that would make the 2006 Second Lebanon War seem like a picnic. Since that conflict, most Israelis assumed that Hezbollah understood the price of another war would be too high to pay. But the fear now is that Iran’s missile factories have changed the equation to the extent that Israel’s strength may not be enough to deter another conflagration.

That has left the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scrambling to get Russia to ensure that the balance of terror between the potential antagonists isn’t overturned. Israelis hope that Russian President Vladimir Putin shares their desire to preserve the peace and prevent more bloodshed, though their leverage over him is limited.

That’s why it’s time for Trump to prove that the 2018 version of “America First” doesn’t mean that the United States will stand by helplessly as the mistakes of former President George W. Bush, whose Iraq war had the unintended consequence of strengthening Iran, and Obama lead to a new war involving Israel.

As it happens, Trump did keep his word on ISIS. The war against the Islamic State had been stalemated for two years under Obama. But by changing the rules of engagement and how U.S. forces fought the terrorists, Trump was in no small measure responsible for helping to turn the tide of battle as ISIS was routed in 2017.

When running for president, Trump promised that the United States wouldn’t stay to clean up the mess left after the terrorists were defeated. To his credit—and contrary to the spirit of “America First”—that isn’t what he’s now doing. The administration has announced that U.S. troops will stay in Syria after ISIS is wiped out to make sure that the terrorists don’t come back under another title—exactly the sort of policy he denounced as “nation-building” prior to taking office. It’s also something that has annoyed the Russians, who have been hoping for exactly the kind of isolationism that Trump’s critics feared would define U.S. foreign policy.

All that leaves Trump facing the basic contradiction that has always been at the heart of his Middle East policy pronouncements. While he has been quite open about his desire for a rapprochement with Russia, he has been equally vocal about confronting Iran, both in terms of renegotiating or dumping a weak nuclear deal and in restraining Tehran’s adventurism.

It has always been clear to everyone, except perhaps the president, that he was going to have to choose between those two goals since there was no way to make nice with Moscow while getting tough with Putin’s Iranian allies. Much as he would like to put off that choice, the possibility of Iran and Hezbollah picking a fight with Israel means the United States must make it clear that this is not an outcome Washington will tolerate.

Does the administration have the tenacity or diplomatic skill to compel or persuade Russia to force its allies to behave? There’s good reason for pessimism on this score. But if Trump is serious about wanting to strengthen Israel and the moderate Arab states that rightly fear Iranian adventurism, now is the time for him to tell Putin rather bluntly that whatever he gained from the slaughter in Syria will be potentially lost, along with any hope that America will regard him favorably if the region erupts.

Since the goals of Russian foreign policy under Putin have been to reassemble the Soviet empire—and annoy the United States as much as possible—there’s no way of knowing if Putin thinks more chaos will help or harm him. Trump can’t undo the mistakes of the past that led to this mess. But if he cares as much about Israel as his recent stands on Jerusalem and holding the Palestinians accountable for subsidizing terror would lead us to believe, he can’t leave Netanyahu on his own to deal with Putin, Hezbollah and Iran. Standing by idly as the situation unravels is not an option.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.


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