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Collapse in Iraqi Kurdistan: US’s Plan C fails before it begins

US ploy to use Kurds to increase regional influence and stem rise of Iran disintegrates

Alexander Mercouris

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On 6th October 2017 – less than two weeks ago – I wrote a lengthy article for The Duran explaining how the US, having failed to achieve regime change in Syria (“Plan A”) and having failed to engineer the partition of Syria on sectarian lines (“Plan B”), was now seeking to use the Kurds to destabilise both Iraq and Syria by supporting the setting up of quasi-independent Kurdish statelets in these two countries, in order to stem the rise of Iranian influence there.

In that article I predicted that this Plan C would fail, just as Plans A and B have done, and that its effects would be to alienate Turkey further from the US, bring Iran, Turkey, Syria and Iraq closer together, and would isolate the Kurds in a region where they were already in danger of becoming over-extended.

What I did not imagine when I wrote that article was that it would take all of two weeks for Plan C to start to fail.  This was because I seriously overestimated the strength and coherence of the Kurds, especially those of Iraq, whose Peshmerga militia it is now clear was grossly overrated, not just by me but by many other observers of the region.

Iraq’s effortless recovery of Kirkuk, and the rapid collapse of Peshmerga resistance in the surrounding areas of the city came to me – as I suspect it did to many others – and as it certainly did to the US and to the Kurds themselves, as a total surprise.

I suspect the main reasons for this collapse are threefold:

(1) The Peshmerga does not appear to be the formidable and disciplined force it once was or was reputed to be.

In saying this some qualification is needed since the Peshmerga has never really been tested in a serious way ever since Saddam Hussein’s defeat in 1991, and it consistently failed when pitted against his army both before and after that defeat.

However it did appear following the collapse of the Iraqi state following the 2003 US invasion that the Peshmerga was the only coherent ‘Iraqi’ force left in the country, and the fact that in 2014 ISIS appeared to make little headway against it, whereas whenever the US trained Iraqi army fought ISIS it immediately collapsed, reinforced that impression.

Possibly the long years of apparent peace in Iraqi Kurdistan made the Peshmerga complacent, and perhaps its internal cohesion has been undermined by the notorious corruption of the Barzani regime it answers to; or perhaps the Peshmerga was never as strong as it seemed, and the impression of strength it gave was simply a mis-impression caused by the earlier weakness of all other Iraqi players.

Regardless, the contrast between the abject rout of the Peshmerga units in Kirkuk and in the surrounding region which has taken place over the last few days, and the fanatical resistance put up over many months by ISIS in Mosul speaks for itself.

(2) The Iraqi army has been transformed, and is a far more determined and effective force than it was just three years ago.

As to that, the Iraqi army’s victory in the face of fanatical resistance against ISIS in Mosul, and its effortless victory against the Peshmerga in Kirkuk and the regions surrounding it, speak for themselves.

I will here express the view that the reason for this sudden dramatic improvement in the combat capability of the Iraqi army is not the flood of US weapons and training it has received since its ignominious collapse before ISIS in 2014.  After all the US has been trying to rebuild the Iraqi army in its own image continuously ever since it invaded Iraq in 2003, with no indication prior to 2014 that it was achieving any success.

Rather I suspect that the reason for the Iraqi army’s transformation since 2014 is the less visible but far more effective help it has had since 2014 from Iran.

The result is that though the Iraqi army still uses US weapons, it acts in battle with a determination and discipline it never showed before.

(3) The failure of the US to support the Peshmerga.

I suspect that this is the single most important reason for the Peshmerga’s sudden collapse.

As I wrote in my article of 6th October 2017, I think it is most unlikely Masoud Barzani, Iraqi Kurdistan’s ‘President’, would have dared to hold the independence referendum that he called without receiving at least an amber light from Washington.

That probably made him and the Peshmerga leadership think that the US would step in to save them if Iraq reacted in a way that put them in jeopardy.  This presumably explains why they seem to have failed to prepare even in the most basic way for the Iraqi army attack, which Baghdad publicly warned them was coming.

In the event when the Iraqi attack came the US did nothing, and in its absence Peshmerga resistance disintegrated.

This touches on a point I made previously in my article of 6th October 2017.  Though there is no doubt of the support of many US officials in Washington for Plan C, it has never been fully discussed and agreed within the US government and there is no consensus behind it, so that it is doubtful that President Trump even knows about it, whilst Secretary of State Tillerson – who almost certainly does know about it – is openly hostile to it.

The result was that when the Iraqi army marched on Kirkuk there was no agreement within the US government about what it should do about it, and in the absence of any such agreement the US did nothing.

The result was that without US help and with most of the local population opposing its presence and supporting the return of the Iraqi army the Peshmerga simply melted away.

There were almost certainly other factors behind the Peshmerga’s collapse.

There has for example been much discussion – especially amongst the Kurds – about divisions between the Kurds themselves being the cause of the collapse.  Amidst the angry recriminations there has inevitably also been some talk of betrayal.  I am not sufficiently familiar with internal Kurdish politics to comment about this.

Another factor to which however I give far more credence concerns the role of Iran.

Whilst the last two years have shown that the Russians are the masters of military strategy and technology in this region, it is the Iranians with their exceptional knowledge of the region who are through their various intelligence and security agencies the region’s undisputed masters of covert activity.

To be clear this is an essential tool of statecraft, particularly in this region, and the fact that the Russians and the Iranians have over the last two years been working together with their differing but complimentary skill-sets is the reason why they have so successfully swept all before them.

The nature of covert ‘cloak-and-dagger’ activity is that it is largely invisible, but inevitably there are already reports circulating that Iran’s General Soleimani,- the commander of the IRGC’s Quds’ Force and the reputed mastermind behind all this activity – has been seen in the region, doing whatever it is people like him do.

Whatever General Soleimani and the Iranians have been up to, it is a virtual certainty that they were acting in concert with the Turks, who as I discussed in my article of 6th October 2017 were also incensed – and with good reason – by Barzani’s independence referendum, and who would therefore have been more than willing to help the Iranians and the Iraqis cut Barzani and the Iraqi Kurds down to size.

The Turks have considerable influence in Iraqi Kurdistan, which is dependent on Turkey economically, and they no doubt backed whatever threats and blandishments General Soleimaini may have made to Kurdish commanders and officials with threats and blandishments of their own.

Given that some of these Kurdish commanders and officials have financial interests that connect them to Turkey, threats and blandishments coming from Turkey might have weighed on them heavily.  Regardless they will have been left in no doubt that in any confrontation between the Peshmerga and the Iraqi army, the Iraqi army would have the backing of Turkey as well as of Iran.

Given that Iran and Turkey are by many orders of magnitude the two strongest powers in this region, any Kurdish commanders or officials hearing that would have known that in a contest with the Iraqi army the Peshmerga would not prevail.

However if Kurdish divisions and the undercover activities of General Soleimani and the Turks doubtless played their role in causing the Peshmerga collapse, the overriding reality is that the Peshmerga turned out to be much weaker than expected, the Iraqi army turned out to be much stronger than expected, and the US failed to take action to help the Kurds.

As to the last point, I would refer to a prediction I made in my article of 6th October 2017, which has been proved true far sooner than I ever expected

…….by positioning themselves as the allies or even the proxies of the US and Israel, the Kurds have upset the major regional powers – Iran, Syria, Iraq and Russia – whilst alarming Turkey, which is now threatening to impose an economic blockade on Iraqi Kurdistan.

If the Kurds are not careful they could find themselves isolated in the region, with all the major regional powers uniting against them.

Should that happen there is no guarantee that the US would ride to their rescue.  On the contrary the recent experience of the Middle East suggests that relying on the US to do so would be a serious mistake.

(bold italics added)

What are the implications of these latest events and of the Iraqi recapture of Kirkuk?

Firstly, the Kurdish position in Iraq has been very significantly weakened, though it has not collapsed completely, whilst the position of the Iraqi government in Baghdad has been very considerably strengthened.

The Iraqi army has driven the Kurds out of Kirkuk, a city where Kurds are a minority, and out of various areas of predominantly Arab population.

The Iraqi army has not however challenged the Kurds within the own established territory where they are the majority.  It is unlikely that it has any plan to do so, and were it to do so it might find Peshmerga resistance to be much tougher in defence of ethnic Kurdish territory than it was in Kirkuk.

However loss of Kirkuk and the oil rich region around it deprives Iraqi Kurdistan and the Barzani regime of a key source of revenue. This has decisive implications for the “independent Kurdistan” project.  With Kirkuk and its oil an independent Kurdistan cut out of Iraq’s northern regions looked economically viable (there was even some wild talk of it becoming a Kurdish Dubai).  Without Kirkuk and its oil it no longer does.

What that means is that though the Kurds remain a potentially important force within Iraq, the idea of an independent Kurdistan separated from Iraq is no longer practical, with the balance of power within Iraq having shifted decisively in favour of the Iraqi government in Baghdad.

Though it may take some time for the Kurds in Iraq to accept this – and in the case of some of them they may never do so – over time, urged on by Iran, Turkey and Russia, most of them probably will accept it.

That points to an eventual rapprochement between the Iraqi Kurds and the Iraqi government in Baghdad, one which possibly gives the Kurds a measure of autonomy but which nonetheless keeps Iraq intact within its current internationally recognised borders.

That makes the consolidation and stabilisation of the Iraqi state within its internationally recognised borders a much more likely prospect than appeared to be the case just a year ago.

Moreover this will be an Iraq aligned with Iran and anchored in a regional system consisting of Iran, Iraq and Syria, and probably in time Turkey also, rather than an Iraq aligned with the Saudis and the Sunni states of the Gulf, as was the case with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

Secondly, the loss of Kirkuk puts in jeopardy the Syrian part of the US’s Plan C.

The supplies the US has being sending to the Kurds in Syria – including the vast arms supplies I discussed in my article of 6th October 2017 – have been going to the Kurds in Syria via Iraqi Kurdistan, with most of the supplies flown by the US to the Iraqi Kurdish capital Erbil and transported by road from there to Syria across Iraq.

With ISIS on the brink of defeat and with Iraq now in possession of Kirkuk, US leverage on Iraq has significantly weakened.

With Iraq now even more closely aligned with Iran and Syria than before, the extent to which Iraq will continue to tolerate this traffic across its border from Iraqi Kurdistan to Syrian Kurdistan must be open to doubt.

Whilst there is an alternative route via Turkey – one which the US has used – the Turks are likely to draw a line at large-scale arms supplies to the YPG – the leftist Kurdish militia which leads the Kurds in Syria – which they brand an anti-Turkish terrorist organisation.

Whilst it would be an exaggeration to say that the Kurds in Syria are totally cut off from all supply by the US, the extent and sustainability of that supply is now in doubt.

More to the point, the Kurds both in Iraq and Syria have now been provided with a lesson about the limits of US support for them.

If Barzani and the Peshmerga leadership in Iraq did gamble on US support when they called their referendum, then that gamble has obviously failed.

Both the Kurds and the US have in fact overestimated each other.  The Kurds in Iraq and Syria made their calculations based on assumptions of US support for them if the Iraqis or the Syrians attacked them.  The US made its calculations based on assumptions that the Kurds would be able to defend themselves and would not need US support if attacked.

Both assumptions have turned out to be wrong.

The Kurds in Syria – politically more sophisticated than those in Iraq, and facing potentially even more powerful and dangerous adversaries – seem to be learning the lesson.

Even before the debacle of Kirkuk there were reports that some Kurdish leaders in Syria were becoming concerned that the Kurds in Syria were getting too close to the US, and were becoming over-dependent on the US.

The US’s failure to come to the rescue of the Kurds in Iraq in Kirkuk will have reinforced those concerns.

Unsurprisingly it seems the Syrian Kurds are now trying to hedge their bets, turning increasingly to the other Great Power  – Russia – for help to get them out of their current predicament.  Some reports say that one of their top officials – Sima Hamo, the commander of the Kurdish led ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ – visited Moscow last weekend for talks with Russian leaders.

If the Kurds in Syria really are turning to Moscow for help then it is the clearest possible sign that they realise the extent of their own overreach and that the project of an independence Kurdistan separated from northern Syria is unsustainable.  The Russians are far too committed to President Assad’s government in Damascus ever to agree to it, and the Kurds know it.

The Russians have however in the past shown sympathy to Kurdish aspirations, and they have recently floated ideas about some form of autonomy for the Kurds in Syria.

Possibly it is these ideas that the Syrian Kurds are now looking to build upon.  If so then the Russians will make it clear to them that a precondition for doing so is negotiations in good faith between the Kurds and the Syrian government in Damascus.

Needless to say should such negotiations for a general settlement of the Kurdish question in Syria ever take place – possibly within the framework of the Astana talks – then the US’s Plan C for Syria will have unequivocally failed, before it has properly speaking even begun.

Already there are signs of recriminations in the West over this latest Middle East debacle.

In Britain the Daily Telegraph – a reliable voice for the neocon regime change lobby in the US and Britain – is already complaining bitterly about the ‘betrayal’ of the Kurds.

More harsh words were said on this same subject in a Press TV television debate which I attended by a US journalist who is a strong supporter of the Trump administration.  Significantly it was Iran that he blamed for this turn of events, even though it was the Iraqi army – nominally still allied to the US – not Iran, which drove the Kurds out of Kirkuk.

In truth what the rapid unravelling of Plan C shows is the rapid decline of US power in this region.

Whereas once the US was this region’s undisputed master, now every step the US takes – whether it be its attempt to use the Kurds to destabilise Syria and Iraq so as to stem the rise of Iranian influence there, or its reneging on its nuclear agreement with Iran – seems only to alienate the region further from the US, and to accelerate the decline of US influence there.

Suffice to say that Iran – the US’s prime bugbear in this region – now has good relations with Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Pakistan, as well as with the Central Asian states.  By contrast the US is on bad terms with all of them.

The region is being reshaped in spite of the US and contrary to its wishes, and there seems to be increasingly little it can do about it.

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The man behind Ukraine coup is now turning Greece against Russia (Video)

The Duran – News in Review – Episode 57.

Alex Christoforou

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On July 11, Greece said it would expel two Russian diplomats and barred the entry of two others.

The Duran reported that the formal reason is alleged meddling in an attempt to foment opposition to the “historic” name deal between Athens and Skopje paving the way for Macedonia’s NATO membership. Moscow said it would respond in kind.

Nothing like this ever happened before. The relations between the two countries have traditionally been warm. This year Moscow and Athens mark the 190th anniversary of diplomatic relations and the 25th anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation between the Russian Federation and the Hellenic Republic. They have signed over 50 treaties and agreements.

Greek news daily, Kathimerini says the relationship started to gradually worsen behind the scenes about a couple of years ago. What happened back then? Geoffrey Pyatt assumed office as US Ambassador to Greece. Before the assignment he had served as ambassador to Ukraine in 2013-2016 at the time of Euromaidan – the events the US took active part in. He almost openly contributed into the Russia-Ukraine rift. Now it’s the turn of Greece. The ambassador has already warned Athens about the “malign influence of Russia”. He remains true to himself.

The Duran’s Alex Christoforou and Editor-in-Chief Alexander Mercouris connect the dots between the Ukraine coup and Greece’s recent row with Russia, and the man who is in the middle of it all, US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt.

Remember to Please Subscribe to The Duran’s YouTube Channel.

Via Sputnik News

Actions similar to the expulsion of Russian diplomats from Greece do not remain without consequences, said spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry Maria Zakharova.

“We have an understanding that the people of Greece should communicate with their Russian partners, and not suffer from dirty provocations, into which, unfortunately, Athens was dragged,” Zakharova said at a briefing.

“Unfortunately, of course, we are talking about politics. Such things do not remain without consequences, do not disappear without a trace. Of course, unfortunately, all this darkens bilateral relations, without introducing any constructive principle,” she added.

On July 11, the Greek Kathimerini newspaper reported that Athens had decided to expel two Russian diplomats and ban two more from entering the country over illegal actions that threatened the country’s national security. The publication claimed that the diplomats attempted to intervene in a domestic issue, namely the changing of the name of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) to the Republic of North Macedonia, the agreement for which was brokered by Skopje and Athens last month.

The Russian Foreign Ministry has vowed to give a mirror response to Greece’s move.

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Russia just DUMPED $80 billion in US debt

The US Treasury published a report naming those countries that are the largest holders of US bonds. The list includes 33 countries, and for the first time Russia is no longer in it.

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Russia has stopped “inching towards de-dollarization” as I wrote about on July 3rd, and has now energetically walked out of the list of largest holders of US government bonds, hence this update. For the two months ending in May 2018, Moscow has offloaded more than $80 billion in US Government debt obligations.

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The $30 billion “minimum” listing Rubicon has been crossed by Russia.

As of the end of May, Russia had bonds worth only $ 14.9 billion. For comparison: in April, Russia was on the Treasury list with bonds totaling $48.7 billion. Even then it was offloading US$ debt securities as Russia owned in March over $96 billion. At the end of 2017, Russia had US treasury securities worth $102.2 billion. It is anyones guess what Russia will own when the June and July figures are released in August and September – probably less than today.

This simply serves as a confirmation that Russia is steadfastly following a conservative policy of risk diversification in several areas such as financial, economic, and geopolitical. The US public debt and spend is increasingly viewed as a heightened risk area, deserving sober assessment.

So where have all the dollars gone? The total reserves of the Russian Central Bank have not changed and remain at approximately the equivalent of $ 457 billion, so what we are seeing is a shift of assets to other central banks, other asset classes, just not US$ government bonds.

During the same time (April-May) as this US$ shift happened, the Russian Central Bank bought more than 1 million troy ounces of gold in 60 days, and continues.

For comparison sake, the maximum Russia investment in US public debt was in October 2010 totaling $176.3 billion. Today it is $14.9 billion.

The largest holders of US government bonds as of May are China ($ 1,183.1 billion), Japan ($ 1048.8 billion), Ireland ($ 301 billion), Brazil ($ 299.2 billion), Great Britain ($ 265 billion).

Using the similar conservative metrics that the Russian Central Bank has been rather successfully applying through this geopolitically and economically challenging period with the US and the US Dollar, it may not stretch the imagination too much that other countries such as China may eventually follow suit. Who will finance the debt/spend then?

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Assessing the Putin-Trump Helsinki summit: neither a breakthrough nor a damp squib but a possible start towards detente

The US and Russian Presidents took the first step towards ending the downward spiral in their countries’ relations but the obstacles ahead remain formidable.

Alexander Mercouris

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The US and Russian Presidents took the first step towards ending the downward spiral in their countries' relations but the obstacles ahead remain formidable.

The summit meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin has finally taken place in Helsinki to thunderous condemnation on the part of many in the West.

Some talk luridly of the beginning of the end of the West.  Others talk hysterically of treason.

Others see the summit as a damp squib, which will change nothing and which will leave the relationship between the US and Russia and between Russia and the West essentially unchanged, with the current state of hostility continuing indefinitely unabated.

In my opinion both views are wrong (the first obviously so) and both misunderstand, and in the case of the first wilfully misrepresent, what actually happened in Helsinki.

I discussed the background to the summit in an article I wrote a month ago for The Duran at a time when first reports that the summit was in the offing were beginning to circulate.

In that article I said that there was no possibility that Putin would make unilateral concessions to Trump over the status of Crimea or over the conflict in Ukraine and that the idea that he would agree to the US and Ukrainian proposal for a peacekeeping force to be deployed to the Donbass was certainly wrong and that that idea had already been categorically ruled out by the Russians.

I was also skeptical that there would be any sort of ‘grand bargain’ between the US and the Russians over Syria.

On the subject of Syria, in the weeks leading up to the summit there were some media reports suggesting that Donald Trump was coming under pressure from Israel, the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates to agree a deal at the summit with Putin whereby Russia would be granted sanctions relief and possibly even recognition of Crimea, US troops in Syria would be withdrawn, and in return the Russians would agree that Iranian forces would be expelled from Syria.

The Russians were clearly concerned about these reports.  Not only did they go out of their way to deny them, but Putin and Lavrov held talks in Moscow on 12th July 2018 with Ali Akbar Velayati, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei’s Special Adviser on International Relations, in order to reassure the Iranians that they were not true.

As I explained in my lengthy discussion of Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to Moscow on Victory Day, it would in fact be wholly contrary to established principles of Russian foreign policy for the Russians to agree to a ‘grand bargain’ like this.

From the Russian point of view relations between Iran and Syria are relations between two sovereign nations and are none of Russia’s business.

Not only is it not Russia’s business to interfere in whatever relations Iran and Syria have with each other, but Russia lacks the means to do so anyway, with any request from Moscow to Tehran and Damascus to sever or downgrade their relations certain to be refused, and with Russia having no means to force either country to comply with such a request save through steps which would put at risk its relations with both of these countries.

All Russia would achieve were it ever to make such a request would be to damage to its relations with Iran and Syria and lose face and face accusations of bad faith from the US, Saudi Arabia and Israel when it failed to follow through.

Here is what I said about how Putin would respond to a demand from Netanyahu to rein in the Iranians in Syria if it were made to him during Netanyahu’s Victory Day visit, and nothing which has happened since would have caused Putin to change his position

Contrary to what some people are saying, I think it is most unlikely that Putin would have given Netanyahu any assurances that Russia would act to rein in Iranian activities in Syria.

If Netanyahu asked Putin for such assurances (which I also think unlikely) Putin would almost certainly have told him what the Russians always say when faced with requests for such assurances: Iran and Syria are sovereign states and Russia cannot interfere in arrangements two sovereign states make with each other.

I suspect that the source of some of the stories about a ‘grand bargain’ between Putin and Trump involving the role of the Iranians in Syria is the regular discussions the Russians have with the Israelis, the Iranians and the Syrians whereby the Russians pass on to the Iranians and the Syrians Israeli concerns about the presence of Iranian forces in Syria in particular locations and about specific actions which the Iranians take.

A good example of these sort of discussions was an exchange between Putin and Netanyahu during Netanyahu’s most recent trip to Moscow on 11th July 2018.  The Kremlin’s website reports Netanyahu and Putin saying the following to each other

Benjamin Netanyahu: ……….Of course, our focus is on developments in Syria, the presence of Iran. This is not new to you. Several hours ago, an unmanned aerial vehicle entered the territory of Israel from Syria and was successfully brought down. I would like to emphasise that we will counter any and all attempts to violate our air or land borders.

Cooperation between us is an essential, key factor that can stabilise the entire region. So, I would like to thank you for the opportunity to meet with you and discuss these things.

Vladimir Putin: We are aware of your concerns. Let us discuss them in detail.

(bold italics added)

The Russians are not engaged here in discussions over some sort of ‘grand bargain’ to remove all Iranian troops from Syria, which as I have said they would see as counterproductive and impossible.  Rather they are engaged in the classic diplomatic exercise of conflict prevention: keeping the Israelis, the Iranians and the Syrians informed about each other’s moves and red lines in order to prevent an uncontrolled escalation of the conflict between them, which might risk an all-out war, which nobody wants, and which the Russians are doing their best to prevent.

Recent reports of an understanding between the Israelis, the Iranians and the Syrians supposedly brokered by the Russians whereby Iranian forces agreed not to participate in the Syrian army’s ongoing military operations in south west Syria close to the Israeli occupied Golan Heights are a case in point.

The Iranians and the Syrians  agreed to this, not because the Russians forced them to but because it is in their interest to.  The Syrian army does not need Iranian help to defeat the Jihadis in southwest Syria so keeping the Iranians away from the area allows the Syrians to clear the area of the Jihadis without risking a military confrontation with Israel.

Needless to say, just as the Russians were not prepared to make concessions on Crimea and Donbass or on Syria, so they were not prepared to back Donald Trump’s ongoing campaign against Iran.

Not only are the Russians deeply committed to the JCPOA (which they partly brokered) but they are also committed to improving their relations with Iran.   In addition, given that the ongoing US campaign against Iran is clearly intended to achieve regime change there, the Russians are bound to oppose it because they oppose regime change everywhere.

If the Russians were not prepared to make unilateral concessions to Trump on Crimea, Donbass, Syria or Iran, neither was Trump despite all the pre-summit scaremongering going to make unilateral concessions to Russians.

Stories that Trump would announce a cancellation of US military exercises in Europe or even a withdrawal of US troops from Europe had no basis in reality, and needless to say nothing like that happened.  Nor did Donald Trump recognise Crimea as Russian or announce that he would lift sanctions on Russia.

The question of the sanctions and of the recognition of Crimea as Russian requires a little discussion since there is a widespread view that Trump is prevented by the Countering American Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATS) from either lifting the sanctions or from recognising Crimea as Russian

This is something of a misconception.  In reality, as I discussed last year at the time when CAATS was enacted, CAATS is unconstitutional, as Donald Trump himself carefully explained in his Signing Statement, because of the unconstitutional restrictions it places on the President’s ability to conduct foreign policy.

If and when Donald Trump decides that the time has come to lift the sanctions and to recognise Crimea as Russian, then all he has to do is apply to the US Supreme Court to have CAATS set aside.   His Signing Statement shows that he has had legal advice that it will do so.

That point has not yet been reached for political not legal reasons.  In the meantime it is an error to think of CAATS as the insuperable constraint on Donald Trump’s actions that many appear to believe it is.

Trump did not commit himself to lift the sanctions, and he did not recognise Crimea as Russian, not so much because of the legal constraints placed upon him by CAATS but because doing so would have put at risk his political position in the US in advance of November’s mid-term elections, and because – compulsive deal-maker that he is – he is hardly likely to take such radical steps without first getting something in return anyway.

One of the fundamental problems caused by the hysterical campaign which is being waged against Donald Trump is that it causes even many of Donald Trump’s supporters to believe that he is more supportive of Russia’s positions on a variety of issues than he really is.  The result is that he is constantly suspected of being prepared to make unilateral concessions to the Russians when unilateral concessions are precisely the sort of things which as a self-professed master deal-maker he is known to most abhor.

Donald Trump is – as he repeatedly says – an America First nationalist, and his overriding priority is to make what he considers to be the best possible deal for the United States.  Unilateral concessions just don’t come into it and it is a fundamental error to think that they do.

Putin understands all this very well, as he made clear during his joint press conference with Trump in Helsinki.

VladimirPutin: Regarding whom you can believe and whom you can’t, you shouldn’t believe anyone. What makes you think President Trump trusts me and that I fully trust him? He defends the interests of the United States of America. I defend the interests of the Russian Federation. We do have converging interests, and we are seeking common ground. We have issues that we disagree on so far. We are seeking options to settle these differences and make our work more constructive.

Which brings me to the fundamental reason for the summit, and why it is also a mistake in my opinion to see it as an empty show or a damp squib.

Donald Trump sought the summit – it is clear that the initiative for the summit came from him – because as he has repeatedly said since before he was elected President, prior to the summit he did not know Putin well.

The number of times Trump has said this is in fact practically beyond count.  For example, he said it during a news conference in Miami on 27th June 2016

I don’t know who Putin is. He said one nice thing about me. … I never met Putin….

He also said it during the second Presidential debate on 9th October 2016

I don’t know Putin….

Trump has gone on to say the same thing again and again since.  He has also repeatedly said that only time would tell whether he and Putin would get on with each other and would be able to come to agreements with each other.

A fundamental prerequisite for any successful negotiation is for the two parties to the negotiation to know each other’s minds so that a modicum of trust and understanding – essential if any agreement is to be reached – can be established between them.

As a businessman Trump knows this very well.  He therefore needed to meet with Putin in a lengthy one-to-one encounter in order to get to know Putin properly so as to see whether Putin is in fact the sort of person he can negotiate and eventually do a deal with.

That is the reason why Trump insisted that his first meeting with Putin should take the form of a one-to-one encounter.

That by the way is absolutely standard practice in negotiations – both commercial negotiations and diplomatic negotiations – with leaders of negotiating teams often meeting privately in one-to-one meetings in order to get to know each other better to see whether a deal between them is even possible.  Once a proper relationship between them is established the full negotiating teams can be brought into the negotiations in what in diplomacy are called ‘plenary sessions’.  Needless to say it is during the plenary sessions – with each side’s experts present – that the details are discussed and ironed out.

Not only is this standard practice in negotiations – Putin does it all the time – but it is simply not true as some people are suggesting that there was no one else present in the room when Putin and Trump met with each other.

Both Putin and Trump obviously had interpreters present.  Trump doesn’t speak Russian and Putin speaks English badly.  The job of the interpreters – who are full time state officials – is not just to interpret what the leaders say to each other but also to prepare a written transcript (a “stenographic record”) of what they said.

Once this transcript is written up – something which normally takes no more than a few days – it is circulated to senior officials including in the US case to the US President’s two most important foreign policy advisers, Bolton and Pompeo.  By now it is highly likely that Bolton and Pompeo have already seen and read through the transcript, and that they therefore know exactly what Putin and Trump said to each other.

Since the one-to-one meeting was first and foremost a “get-to-know” you session, no binding agreements would have been reached during it, and neither Putin nor Trump – each in their own way an experienced negotiator – would ever have imagined that they would be.

In summary, the one-to-one meeting between Putin and Trump is not a sign of some secret understanding between them; far less is it a case of an “intelligence asset” meeting his “controller” as some are crazily suggesting.

On the contrary it is further proof of what each of them has repeatedly said at various times: before the summit they did not know each other well, so that the summit was called precisely in order to give each of them the opportunity to get to know the other better.

The essential point about the summit is that Putin and Trump did find that they could deal with each other and did discover areas of common concern which in time it might be possible for them to build on as they search for areas of agreement between them.  During their joint press conference Putin confirmed as much

We do have converging interests, and we are seeking common ground. We have issues that we disagree on so far. We are seeking options to settle these differences and make our work more constructive.

As for the points of possible convergence, Putin in his usual structured way set them out

I consider it important, as we discussed, to get the dialogue on strategic stability and the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction on track. We made a note with a number of concrete proposals on this matter available to our American colleagues.

We believe that continued joint efforts to fully work through the military-political and disarmament dossier is necessary. That includes the renewal of the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, the dangerous situation surrounding the development of elements of the US global missile defence system, the implementation of the Treaty on the Elimination of Intermediate-Range and Shorter-Range Missiles, and the topic of deploying weapons in space.

We are in favour of continued cooperation in the sphere of combating terrorism and ensuring cybersecurity. Notably, our special services are working together quite successfully. The most recent example of that is the close operational interaction with a group of US security experts as part of the World Cup in Russia that ended yesterday. Contacts between the special services should be made systematic. I reminded the President of the United States about the proposal to reconstitute the anti-terror working group.

We covered regional crises extensively. Our positions do not coincide on all matters, but nonetheless there are many overlapping interests. We should be looking for common ground and working more closely, including at international forums.

Of course, we talked about regional crises, including Syria. With regard to Syria, restoring peace and harmony in that country could serve as an example of successful joint work.

Of course, Russia and the United States can take the lead in this matter and organise cooperation to overcome the humanitarian crisis and help refugees return to their hearths.

We have all the requisite elements for effective cooperation on Syria. Notably, Russian and American military have gained useful experience of interaction and coordination in the air and on land.

I would also like to note that after the terrorists are routed in southwest Syria, in the so-called “southern zone”, the situation in the Golan Heights should be brought into full conformity with the 1974 agreement on the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces.

This will make it possible to bring tranquillity to the Golan Heights and restore the ceasefire between the Syrian Arab Republic and the State of Israel. The President devoted special attention to this issue today…..

We paid special attention to the economy. Obviously, there is interest in cooperation in the business circles of both countries. The US delegation was one of the biggest at the St Petersburg International Economic Forum in May. It consisted of over 500 US entrepreneurs.

To develop trade and investment, President Trump and I agreed to establish a high-level group that would unite captains of Russian and American business. Business people better understand how to go about mutually beneficial cooperation. Let them consider what can be done and make recommendations

The emphasis – as I discussed in my article of a month ago – is on arms control, though Putin also seems to have gone out of his way to reassure Trump that the restoration of the Syrian government’s control over southwest Syria would not put in jeopardy Israel’s position in the Golan Heights.  In addition there also seems to have been a fair amount of discussion about future economic cooperation.

The result was an agreement between Putin and Trump to reopen channels of communication between their governments and to meet regularly with each other as they feel their way towards a rapprochement.

To be clear, that rapprochement will not mean and is not intended to mean that the US and Russia will cease to be adversaries and will become friends.

Instead what is being discussed are steps to bring to a stop the downward spiral in their relations, with each side obtaining a better understanding of the other side’s moves and red lines, so that hopefully geopolitical disasters like the 2014 Maidan coup can be avoided in future.

That would be a major advance over what has existed previously given that since the USSR collapsed in 1991 the US has refused to acknowledge that Russia has any right to any opinions at all, let alone act independently or set out red lines.

Needless to say the more often Putin and Trump meet the more ‘normalised’ relations between the US and Russia become, with each meeting provoking less controversy than the previous one, with the whole process beyond a certain point becoming routine so that it attracts ever less attention and (hopefully) eventually becomes uncontroversial.

It is because the powerful forces in the US who scorn the idea of a ‘geopolitical ceasefire’ and want ever greater confrontation between the US and Russia do not want to see relations ‘normalised’ in this way that their reaction to the summit has been so hysterical.

As of the time of writing it is these people who in the media and on twitter are making the running.  However it may be a mistake to see in the volume of the noise they are making a true reflection of their influence.

Last February’s Nuclear Posture Review suggests that there is a very powerful constituency within the US and specifically within the Pentagon which might potentially support the sort of ‘geopolitical ceasefire’ with Russia that Donald Trump appears to be gradually working towards.

The Nuclear Posture Review shows that some sections of the US military understand how dangerously overstretched the US has become as it responds simultaneously to challenges from Russia in Europe and from China in the Pacific.  Both Putin and Trump mentioned during their news conference the extent to which their respective militaries are already in contact with each other and are working well together

Donald Trump: Well, our militaries do get along. In fact, our militaries actually have gotten along probably better than our political leaders for years, but our militaries do get along very well and they do coordinate in Syria and other places. Ok? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin:……..On the whole, I really agree with the President. Our military cooperation is going quite well. I hope that they will continue to be able to come to agreements just as they have been…..

That may be a sign that there is more understanding of what Donald Trump is trying to do – at least within the US defence establishment – than the hysteria the Helsinki summit has provoked might suggest.

Overall, provided it is clearly understood that what Putin and Trump are working towards is a detente style ‘geopolitical ceasefire’ and not ‘friendship’ – and certainly not an alliance –  it can be said that their summit in Helsinki was a good start and a success.

What happens now depends on whether the forces of realism and sanity in the US can prevail over those of megalomania and hysteria.  Given how entrenched the latter have become unfortunately no one can count on this.

However some sort of process which may in time lead to detente and an easing of tensions between the nuclear superpowers has begun.  Given the circumstances in which it has been launched that is more than might have been expected even a short time ago, and for that one should be grateful.

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