An untrustworthy deal with Russia
This appeared in The Washington Post:
President Donald Trump’s latest defence of Russian leader Vladimir Putin included — along with a bow to his denials of meddling in the U.S. election — an appeal to pragmatism. “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” he tweeted, adding that “Russia can greatly help” with problems such as North Korea, Syria, Ukraine and terrorism.
In theory, that’s true. The problem is that Putin consistently disregards the deals he strikes with the United States and allied governments. He promises co-operation while in practice seeking to block U.S. objectives and demoralize and divide Western democracies.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ought to be familiar with this duplicity. He nevertheless has been assiduously pursuing deals with the Kremlin. On Saturday, the State Department announced a new bargain with Moscow about Syria that commits Russia to the withdrawal of Iranian forces from the country and to a UN peace process ending in internationally supervised elections for a new government. Like the multiple accords about Syria struck with Russia by Tillerson’s predecessor, John Kerry, it sounds too good to be true. Most likely, like all those previous deals, it is.
Israel, which objected to the first ceasefire, is not happy with the new iteration. Its officials are saying undisclosed terms require Hezbollah and other Iranian forces to pull back from the sensitive frontier on the Golan Heights, but in some areas to only five kilometres from Israeli positions. There is no timetable for their full withdrawal from Syria. On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made clear that Israel will continue its own operations.
Tillerson and the Trump administration stand at the threshold of the same cycle. U.S. officials reckon they have some leverage, in the refusal of Western and allied Arab governments to provide reconstruction aid to Syria unless the UN peace process moves forward. Putin must also weigh the risk that a failure to prevent Iran’s entrenchment in Syria will trigger a potentially devastating war between Iran’s proxies and Israel. Still, Tillerson ought to avoid the foolish error of Trump: assuming that Putin, in offering improbable assurances, “means it.”