By Deniz Yuksel
“From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First.” declared Donald Trump in his inaugural speech, amid cheers and applause, and added: “America will start winning again, winning like never before.” Statements like this might be appealing to those who believe that America needs to step up its foreign policy game and “start winning again”, but what does “America First” mean in practice?
Throughout his campaign, Donald Trump has avoided outlining his foreign policy ambitions in detail, especially when it comes to major foreign policy issues including the future of U.S.-Russia relations and the fate of the Iran deal, leading to a great deal of uncertainty. “We must as a nation be more unpredictable” he said in a campaign speech in April 2016, and has succeeded in that endeavor so far.
Considering Trump’s vague rhetoric and apparent policy contradictions, examining his closest advisors’ proposals might provide basis for more accurate predictions. This, in addition to his tendency for policy U-turns, have led resourceful analysts to turn to his top aides for glimpses into the new administration’s foreign policy ambitions. One of these aides is Trump’s National Security Advisor, ex-general Michael Flynn, who has been outspoken about his vision for Syria in particular.
Although Trump’s campaign promised reduced U.S. commitments overseas, in a 2015 interview with Der Spiegel, Flynn outlined his “multi-decade project” in Syria, calling for troops on the ground to re-establish stability. He calls for a Balkan-style breaking up of territory into zones of influence, administrated separately by Washington, Moscow and other actors, emphasizing the need for Arab partners to avoid the perception that “America is invading the region all over again.”
Flynn sees no point in trying to get the Russians out of Syria. “Get real” he says, adding that the U.S. must work constructively with Russia. He believes that Syria could provide opportunities for cooperation on the condition that Russia convinces Tehran and its proxies to back out of Syria.
It is important to note Flynn’s general perception towards Islam and Islamism, which he described as a “vicious cancer inside the body of 1.7 billion people that has to be excised” in a speech in August. Similar views are held by Steve Bannon, the president’s chief strategist, who commonly uses language that could be described as apocalyptic, in claiming that the U.S. has long been at war with radical Islam. With the likes of Flynn and Bannon in the White House, whose influence on the president has already been proven by policies such as the immigration ban, it is reasonable to expect attitudes towards both ISIS and Iran will be charged by this rhetoric.
Nicholas Heras, a research fellow at the Center for New American Security, who spoke at a SETA Foundation panel last month, summarized Flynn’s strategy in three parts: the U.S. will focus on defeating ISIS, Al-Qaeda, and their enablers, stabilizing the region before creating Balkan-style zones of influence, while maintaining Russian influence, and letting refugees return to these safe zones, easing pressures on Europe, as well as the United States.
The key element here, is cooperation with Russia and ensuring “positive Russian influence” which is only possible to the extent that the influence of Iranian-Shiite forces is decreased. The Balkan model can work only if sectarian tensions are reduced, and this requires Russia to prioritize cooperation with the U.S. over its relationship with Iran.
To achieve this, Trump seems to rely on his personal relationship with Russian president Putin. Last week, the president had a “positive call” with his Russian counterpart, promising to cooperate on destroying ISIS and repairing relations. The appointment of former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State is also relevant. Tillerson rose through the ranks by managing the company’s Russia account, forming close ties with Putin, who awarded him the Order of Friendship in 2013.
Hassan Hassan, a fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy reflected on the Obama administration’s failures in the Middle East. At the SETA panel, he said: “Obama was shackled by his desire to have a relationship with Iran. Now, we don’t have the problem of appeasing Iran, while still being realistic about Russia.” He recommended uniting local actors, Gulf countries, and Turkey in an alliance against Iran, while maintaining Russian influence, in accordance with Flynn’s vision.
When it comes to Iran’s influence in the region, there is no doubt that the Trump administration will adopt a more aggressive policy, but questions remain. One of the main challenges for Trump, especially in Syria, according to SETA Foundation’s Research Director Kilic Bugra Kanat, will be balancing between maintaining the Iran deal, for the sake of business interests, and convincing Congress and others that he is being more assertive.
One of Trump’s top campaign advisors Walid Phares claimed that Trump is unhappy with the deal, but would rather renegotiate it than scrap it altogether. But realistically, as one columnist puts it, Tehran has little incentive to renegotiate the deal to please Trump, especially given the increasingly sour nature of relations since the inauguration and new sanctions. The most recent wave of sanctions came two days after Flynn stated that the U.S. was “officially putting Iran on notice” and are in response to Iran’s continuing ballistic missile program and its support of organizations considered terrorist groups by the U.S. government.
Perhaps a more important challenge to Flynn’s plan is Russia’s willingness to cooperate with the U.S. at the expense of Iran. Michael Reynolds, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University, and Hannah Thoburn, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, agreed at a Bipartisan Policy Center panel this week, that Russia has a lot at stake when it comes to the future of its alliance with Iran, including contracts for nuclear power infrastructure, weapons deals, and oil contracts, all of which Russia desperately needs given the decline of its economy. Reynolds added: “Russia does not want to risk its relationship with Iran. At the moment, Russia needs Iran more than Iran needs Russia”.
Little is known about what Russia would want in return for a commitment that would have such heavy costs, and Flynn and others have not elaborated on what the U.S. has to offer. One defense intelligence analyst, Matthew McInnis, says there is no way to drive the Iranians out of Syria, but Russia could agree to “support rebuilding a Syrian army that would not be under the sway of Iran”.
Then again, Trump’s promise of defeating ISIS is not a promise to bring stability to Syria. Ideally, he would pursue both goals, in an effort to prevent new extremist groups from replacing ISIS, but Syria is complicated, and Trump has promised isolationist, “America First” foreign policy. It wouldn’t be surprising if he decided to deal with ISIS in accordance with Flynn’s plan, but let Russia and others deal with whatever comes after.