An un­trust­wor­thy deal with Rus­sia

The Hamilton Spectator - - OPINION -

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.”

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