American intervention in Syria may lead to an international crisis with Iran, Turkey and most of all Russia.
By choosing Saudi Arabia for his first foray outside the United States, President Donald Trump intended to make it clear that there was a complete reversal in American policy. In his carefully crafted speech he singled out the enemy: radical Islamist organizations – the so called Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas and the like – Assad and his patron Iran which is trying to topple Sunni regimes to assert its hegemony on the region.
Trump refrained however from mentioning Russia, which had taken advantage of the vacuum created by Obama’s disengagement from the region to re-establish itself in the Middle East and is now cooperating with Iran and supporting Assad.
There can be no resolution of the Syrian crisis without coming to an understanding with Putin.
Given the uneasy relationship between the two superpowers, and the number of current issues, from continued cooperation on armament control, to North Korea, Crimea’s annexation, fighting in the Ukraine, and NATO, it’s hard to see how they could come to an agreement on Syria which would not be part of a larger settlement.
Then there is the ongoing investigation about possible links between Trump and his men and Putin during the presidential campaign.
There might be some facts unknown at this time which could be used by the Russians to pressure the American president, and this might seriously hamper his ability to negotiate.
In his speech in Riyadh, Trump pledged increased American assistance, but made it clear that it was up to Muslim countries to fight Islamic terror, singling out Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States – having concluded with them armament deals of truly awesome scope.
Financing of terror had to stop, extremists had to be driven away from mosques and communities until terrorism had been eradicated.
In effect Trump has resurrected the old pragmatic Sunni alliance against Iran comprised of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Jordan, Morocco – with Israel discreetly behind – which had not survived the nuclear deal secretly concluded with Iran by Obama and his European allies.
He also undertook to set up in Riyadh a world center to combat radical ideologies behind terrorism; a second center led by America and Saudi Arabia, will be tasked with tracking the financing of terror. His speech – and the implicit promise to act – was warmly received and extravagantly praised by the Saudis and roundly denounced by Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.
It may well have been the first time that a sitting president had openly named them as the spearhead of Islamic terrorism and had targeted them for urgent action.
Still, Trump’s Saudi hosts as well as the delegates of Qatar and Turkey present in Riyadh know that it was Saudi Wahhabism and the Muslim Brotherhood which laid the theological foundation for modern radical Islam. Saudi Arabia Wahhabism is directly responsible for the creation of Taliban and Al Qaeda and the propagation of Islam in the West.
The Brotherhood “refined” the teachings of Jihad adopted by all Sunnite jihadi organizations and is present in thousands of Islamist movements and mosques in the West and financed mainly today by Qatar and Turkey – two countries which also support Hamas.
For Trump’s vision to be implemented, all places of higher learning in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, including Al Azhar in Egypt, would have to thoroughly change the teachings of the Sharia and oral traditions (including the Hadith and the Life of Mohammad) which are the theological basis of the creation and operations of Jihadi Islamic organizations.
Those states would have to stop financing the Muslim Brothers and the thousands of Mosques throughout the world asserting the supremacy of Islam over all other faiths and inciting against the West; they would have to make sure that individuals in the Gulf states no longer transfer money secretly to radical organizations.
It must be noted that the Egyptian president has already urged Al Azhar to do away with extremist trends in Islam, so far to no avail. Can Trump be more successful? It does not seem likely. Arab countries will fight terror organizations more forcefully but will be reluctant to touch the tenets of their religion.
Today Syria is the most pressing issue as well as the most volatile. Renewed American intervention might lead to an international crisis. Russia and Turkey, by now well entrenched on the ground, have very different objectives from those of Washington and Riyadh.
It is also hard to see how Iran could be forced to leave Syria and to put an end to its subversive activities in the region. There has been a serious incident in the past few weeks, with US planes targeting Assad forces reinforced by Iranian militias in southern Syria near the border passage between Syrian, Jordan and Iraq at Tenf which has been held since March 2016 by rebels backed and trained by US troops present on site.
The bombing was intended to deter Assad forces closing on their positions. There was no reaction from Russia but there will be other incidents as Assad’s army and its Iranian militias with Russian air cover move to retake areas from moderate rebels ahead of July 4 when the Astana agreement on safe zones will be implemented.
With the expected fall of the town of Al-Raqqa, the so-called capital of Isis in Syria, there might be serious clashes not only with Russia but also with Iran and with Turkey all sides wanting to establish their presence on the ground in view of the negotiation to come.
Ankara is bent on preventing at all costs autonomous Kurdish areas along its border and contiguous to its own Kurdish zone.
Washington has sent lately 400 elite troops to help Syrian Democratic Forces (a mainly Kurdish militia supported by the US) prepare for the conquest of Al-Rakka and continue to arm it with heavy weapons. The Turks threaten to attack them if they will target their troops or the Syrian militia they support.
Regarding Egypt, President Sisi has openly asked Trump for help in fighting Islamic terror in his country but the developing political, military and economic links with Russia, which is helping to set a nuclear plant, could hinder American military activities.
Russia and America have so far managed not to enter in open conflict, but a showdown looms. Trump wants Iran out of Syria and Assad ousted from power, and the Sunni world is backing him. Will Russia back down, or will it exact a price? Regarding sanctions, Crimea or the Ukraine for instance? Trump will have to walk very carefully indeed to avoid a military clash. A test of brinkmanship which will set the tone for his presidency.
Zvi Mazel, a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, is a former ambassador to Egypt, Romania and Sweden