Su-24 warplanes buzzed the USS Porter destroyer in the Black Sea.
Overlaying US President Donald Trump’s extraordinary, hour-long skirmish with reporters Thursday, Feb. 16, was bitter frustration over the domestic obstacles locking him out from his top security and foreign policy goals. Even before his inauguration four weeks ago, he had arranged to reach those goals by means of an understanding with President Vladimir Putin for military and intelligence cooperation in Syria, both for the war on the Islamic State and for the removal of Iran and its Lebanese surrogate Hizballah from that country.
But his antagonists, including elements of the US intelligence community, were turning his strategy into a blunderbuss for hitting him on the head, with the help of hostile media.
Thursday, in a highly unconventional meeting with the world media, he tried to hit back, and possibly save his strategy.
That won’t be easy. The exit of National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, the prime mover in the US-Russian détente, sent the Kremlin a negative signal. The Russians began unsheathing their claws when they began to suspect that the US president was being forced back from their understanding. The SSV 175 Viktor Leonov spy ship was ordered to move into position opposite Delaware on the East Coast of America; Su-24 warplanes buzzed the USS Porter destroyer in the Black Sea.
Before these events, Washington and Moscow wre moving briskly towards an understanding. DEBKAfile’s intelligence sources disclose that the Kremlin had sent positive messages to the White House on their joint strategy in Syria, clarifying that Moscow was not locked in on Bashar Assad staying on as president.
They also promised to table at the Geneva conference on Syria taking place later this month a demand for the all “foreign forces” to leave Syria. This would apply first and foremost to the pro-Iranian Iraqi, Pakistani and Afghan militias brought in by Tehran to fight for Assad under the command of Revolutionary Guards officers, as well as Hizballah.
Deeply troubled by this prospect, Tehran sent Iran’s supreme commander in the Middle East, the Al Qods chief Gen. Qassem Soleimani, to Moscow this week to find out what was going on.
Flynn’s departure put the lid on this progress. Then came the damaging leak to the Wall Street Journal, that quoted an “intelligence official” as saying that his agencies hesitated to reveal to the president the “sources and methods” they use to collect information, due to “possible links between Trump associates and Russia.. Those links, he said “could potentially compromise the security of such classified information.”
A first-year student knows that this claim is nonsense, since no agency ever share its sources and methods with any outsider, however high-placed.
What the leak did reveal was that some Washington insiders were determined at all costs to torpedo the evolving understanding between the American and Russian presidents. The first scapegoat was the strategy the two were developing for working together in Syria.
Defending his policy of warming relations with Moscow, Trump protested that “getting along with Russia is not a bad thing.” He even warned there would be a “nuclear holocaust like no other” if relations between the two superpowers were allowed to deteriorate further.
It is too soon to say whether his Russian policy is finally in shreds or can still be repaired. Trump indicated more than once in his press briefing that he would try and get the relations back on track.
Asked how he would react to Russia’s latest provocative moves, he said: “I’m not going to tell you anything about what responses I do. I don’t talk about military responses. I don’t have to tell you what I’m going to do in North Korea,” he stressed.
At all events, his administration seems to be at a crossroads between whether to try and salvage the partnership with Russia for Syria, or treat it as a write-off. If the latter, then Trump must decide whether to send American troops to the war-torn country to achieve his goals, or revert to Barack Obama’s policy of military non-intervention in the conflict.
Defense Secretary Gen. James Mattis treated relations with Moscow with kid gloves in his debut appearance before the Munich Security Conference on Thursday, Feb. 16. “We are not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level,” he said, then added: “But our political leaders will engage and try to find common ground.”
Later that day, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, in another first diplomatic encounter by a Trump appointee, met Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Bonn on the sidelines of the G20 ministerial meeting. He too laid stress on finding common ground between Washington and Moscow.
DEBKAfile’s sources report that the relations will quickly roll downhill without a strong hand to haul them back. It is up to Donald Trump to show whether or not he is capable of breaking through the siege clamped down on him by his enemies and save his key foreign policy goals. His next moves are being watched very intently in many parts of the world, especially in Middle East capitals. Governments in Tehran, Riyadh, Ankara, Damascus, Beirut, Abu Dhabi, Cairo and Jerusalem are bracing to jump either way.