The problem with trying to understand Trump’s relationship to Israel and the Middle East in general is that he knows nothing about either, and has no foreign policy record. His positions are confused and contradictory especially with respect to Iran and Saudi Arabia. He seems to care very little about most places except Iran in which he has threatened to pull out of the US-Iran nuclear agreement. And this is particularly dangerous if Trump surrounds himself with a Secretary of State such as Bolton or Giuliani both of whom are bellicose and more capable of inflaming differences then cooling them. Trump is sufficiently confused such that he is publicly critical of Iran but supportive of Bashar al Assad in Syria. Soon it should occur to him or his advisors that supporting the Syrian governing regime bolsters Iran, not to mention being on the wrong side of the ideological spectrum.
Israel primarily wants two things from the United States – its regular military aid, and the support and recognition that comes with our cultural and democratic affinities. Both of these can be in potential danger depending on which planks of Trump’s tangled platform end up emerging as the strongest. Trump has, on the one hand, signaled a lack of interest in the Middle East and an almost isolationist sensibility. In his businessman’s language, he does not see it as a “good investment.” On the other hand, Trump is committed to defeating ISIS and does not seem to fully realize the central role Israel must play with respect to intelligence and support. Moreover, continuing his confusion, he has taken highly inflammatory and unrealistic positions by expressing support for the settlements and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem. At other times he just wants to remain distant from the issues. The Forward has suggested that Trump will probably reduce America’s involvement in the Middle East. This is generally not good news.
His conservatism is not yet fully honed because Trump sometimes appears to be the isolationist who does not want to be the world’s policeman, and at other times he seems to resonate with neoconservatives who want to assert American political and military power. Trump has a lot to learn and it is the type of learning that requires some development and maturation. He cannot see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as just one negotiation trick away from resolution. He is more comfortable with business deals and negotiations which are subject to more rational marketplace considerations. “The art of the deal” is governed by a logic that requires one to maximize benefits and minimize losses and the deal is done when both sides can accept their gains and losses. This is not the governing logic of asymmetrical ethnopolitical conflicts that are intractable; in other words, the issues of sanctity, identity, fractured history, violence, and deep emotions are not part of the rational model of the “art of the deal.”
I suspect Trump’s limited experience in international affairs blinds him to the type of communication necessary to solve problems such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which does not profit much by seeing it only through a prism of rational exchange. I fear that when he becomes fiercely entangled with the knotty issues that characterize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict he will see it through a narrow American prism rather than a broader global and cultural one. And the tools that enabled him to succeed in business will not serve him so well in the arena of international conflict.
The Republican Party is generally more blindly supportive of Israel but for now all we know about Trump is the blind part.
Even at the risk of overstating the point, Russia has an increasingly more accommodating stance toward Israel than most people realize. One reason for this is Russia’s claim to support political systems that defend their citizens. Edward Luttwak, writing in Tablet, sang Putin’s praises for his “defense of his friends” and criticized the Obama administration for abandoning their partners every time the police shoot at a protester. Putin supports Syria surely because he wants to keep his base at Tartus, but he also wants to establish Russia as a friend who can be counted on.
Putin expresses the same sensibilities about Israel – he respects their right to defend themselves. The more general and encompassing relationship between Russia and Israel is accommodating even though there is a history of contentious disagreement. The Soviet Union did align themselves with Arab nationalist governments and Israel and the Soviet Union were estranged for many years. But they exchanged ambassadors again in 1991 and continue to have a certain amount of trade. Israel occasionally sends fighter-bombers over Syria to hit Hezbollah targets and Netanyahu and Putin have agreed to inform each other about flight plans. Think about this a moment. Russia has accepted Israel’s right to bomb in Syria when Russia has troops and equipment on the ground. That requires a fair amount of trust and cooperation.
According to Michael Katz in the Middle East Quarterly Putin has worked to upgrade Russia’s relations with Israel. There are numerous flights each day from Tel Aviv to Moscow and a large Russian population in Israel. Still, we can’t be too sanguine about this because serious differences remain. Moscow supports Iran’s nuclear development and provides many of the construction contractors. This support for Iran is certainly puzzling because Russia may be a practical political system, but it clearly opposes and objects to ISIS and all the efforts to establish an Islamic state be it Sunni or Shia. Stopping the Islamic state, a goal he shares with Israel, is one of its stated justifications for its Syrian support.
Russia has had its own problems with the Chechnyans and can sympathize with Israel’s struggle with Palestinians and Jihadist Islam. In fact, the declaration of “no negotiations with terrorists” is probably the most characteristic statement that binds Israel and Russia. Putin has pointed out the similarities between the Israeli conflict with the Palestinians and Russia’s with the Chechnyans and this has translated into mutual sympathy. But is sharing terrorism experiences sufficient to move the Russians more toward Israel? I think not. Katz in the article referenced above believes a more recent Russian pro-Israel attitude is the result of Putin’s personal preference. Putin has a deep dislike for the Chechnyans and believes they have no justification for complaints against Russia. He refuses to recognize their complaints or negotiate with them. Couple this with Israel’s general agreement and sympathy for Russia’s stance toward the Chechnyans, and you have the makings of a common enemy resulting in Israel-Russian alignment.
In the end, the relationship between Russia and Israel will remain as complex and multifaceted as the situation in Syria. Israel is certainly gratified that Russia is bombing ISIS targets and considers them a threat. But, on the other hand, Israel has no sympathy for maintaining the Assad regime and will never align with Russia on this matter. Then again, to make matters even more confusing, Russia is attacking militias some of which are supported by the United States – a great friend of Israel.
Before you know it the United States will be siding with its enemy Iran (Shia Muslims) against ISIS (Sunni Muslims) and asking the Russians to stop supporting Alawite Muslims (the Assad regime) and join with the United States and Iran to fight ISIS, while Israel sits safely on the sidelines. Wait a minute! That’s what’s happening now.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article Puddington and Kramer reported that there has been a decline around the world in political rights and civil liberties as measured by Freedom House. True enough, the measurement of these things is not an exact science but Freedom House does a decent job of identifying key variables and definitions correlated with cultures that privilege democracy and civil liberties. After some years of improvement because of democratization around the world the general trends have been in decline. The authors report that 54 countries had registered declines in political rights and only 40 registered gains.
The reasons for these declines are interesting and the current conflict in Syria poses a particularly fitting example. The case of Syria is a typical model of authoritarianism that holds its power for a period of time through force and intimidation and then loses that power to violence and revolution (think Egypt, Tunisia, Libya). But even more interestingly the earliest mistakes are confusing violence with politics; that is, organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood or any other anti-government faction resorts to violence because there are no legitimate outlets of political expression and change. There’s a rather simple video you can watch which lays out the structure of the conflict in Syria and is actually a model for many other places. The video is brief and simple but is a template for any number of political situations. It is called “Syria explained in five minutes.” The decline in political freedoms is correlated with the political processes on display in the video.
Many of the losses of political freedom are associated with efforts to sabotage the Arab Spring. Religion and illiberal factions are reinforced for damaging democratic gains. And there is the very damaging influence of outside powers that imagine democratic gains as contrary to their own interests. Hence, countries like Russia, Iran, and Venezuela have conspired to keep Assad in power. Moreover, the Middle East is no longer the worst scoring region of the world when it comes to measurements of freedom. Russia has increased the intensity with which it silences groups, denies rights to nontraditional groups such as gays and lesbians, and uses its oil clout to interfere with any political process that is contrary to its interests. Russia cracks down on NGOs, civil rights activists, journalists, and any political opponent who poses a real challenge.
Russia, China, and Venezuela light the way for authoritarian governments that dominate media, security, as well as legislative and judicial branches of government. They do this mostly by blindly supporting centralized authoritarian governments such as the military government in Egypt or of course Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Syrian opposition to Assad is highly fractionated and is composed of the Free Syrian Army (deserters from Assad’s army), numerous Islamic groups from more extreme (e.g., “Battalion of Truth”,), to less extreme (Liwa al-Tawhid “Battalion of Monotheism”). There are Kurdish groups and independent groups not to mention attempts to form organizations that are more inclusive such as the “National Coalition.”
Clearly, the aggressiveness of extremist Islamic groups keep democratic pressures at bay and their presence in places like Syria will prevent democratization for a generation to come. And, finally, perhaps even more disturbing is the paralysis of places like the United States. We have said little and played an insignificant role in Syria because there’s no group to identify with and support. Secretary of State Kerry has worked to broker discussion at the macro level but the US is less engaged then countries like Russia and Iran. This can’t be good.
I suppose it was inevitable that the union of war and new media would spawn some strange offspring that looked like a combination of hip media and varieties of war. Terrorists, revolutionaries, and disenfranchised citizens are carrying laptops, hand-held cameras, and phones into battle and posting real-time and unedited messages on Twitter and Facebook.
In 2003 we saw the early effects of new media when telephones were able to capture images such as Abu Ghraib and turn the site into an international symbol of torture. You can watch YouTube videos of Syrian rebels fighting government forces in real-time. The video takers are now part of the battle and have specific assignments and training. You can hear the video takers cry “Allahu akbar” when he successfully captures a photographic moment. We could call this the “YouTube war” because of the union of cell phones and social media that make it possible to furnish the world with real-time war. And YouTube does not delete very many videos; thus, there are some graphic pictures and raw scenes that even amount to crimes. You can see an example here but be forewarned .
The rebel videos in Syria are accompanied by English translations and commentary which touts the successes of the Syrian rebels. According to one article in the Wall Street Journal in September 2013 the rebels have hired accomplished graphic designers with stylized script to enhance the effects. It is not uncommon to leave cell phones and cameras on dead bodies so their content will be picked up. Some videos are designed for religious audiences and contain religious messages. A good reading on the use of social media in revolutionary movements appears in the online publication Small Wars Journal. It is free and easily available.
Some Ways New Media Has Changed Revolutionary Movements
Authoritarian regimes have always tried to control traditional media (radio and television) and have usually had the upper hand. But now the rebels have increased information and can gather intelligence more skillfully. Sophisticated American intelligence tries to understand the battlefield but revolutionaries now do it with amateur videos uploaded from handheld devices. Moreover amateur video legitimizes the narrative of partisans and insurgents. It is the first real countermove in the effort to weaponize information against authoritarian regimes. Propaganda is now a tool everyone has access to.
Secondly, the public sphere aspect of new media allows for mobilization. In Egypt in 2011 the phrase “We are all Khaled Said” on Facebook was a significant aid to youth mobilization during the 18 days in Tahrir Square. In one interesting development rebel fighters have Twitter and Facebook accounts in which they reveal their identity and answer questions “on the field.” They do not divulge locations but other than that the fighters use these social media to disseminate information and establish an online identity. They are completely comfortable with exposing themselves probably because they are simply used to sharing one’s identity online.
But third, social media cannot put weapons on the battlefield so it has its limitations. And state regimes have their resources and instruments of oppression that can easily overwhelm social media. Moreover, social media are particularly good at forming weak ties that are not accompanied by energized activism. Those who are members of Facebook networks make few real sacrifices and are “weakly tied” to the cause.
Finally, it is a little frightening to imagine the worst of all possible outcomes. Although new media in the form of videos uploaded on YouTube were instrumental in prompting debate about Western intervention in Syria and use of chemical weapons, there were also thousands of recorded atrocities before that and nobody paid attention. We might end up being increasingly entertained and narcoticized by images of war, and at the same time feeling just fine about doing nothing.
It’s possible that the matter of Syria and chemical weapons is a distraction and not really the main issue, although it may have ended up serving the interests of Russia. Let me explain.
The Syrian rebels want to overthrow Assad and some may have high aspirations about democracy and regime change, but a large geopolitical energy issue is being played out here. It’s the kind of story that does not interest most people, nor get much attention in the press. God only knows that religious conflict, evil dictators, chemical weapons, and Muslim sects killing each other is far more interesting, not to mention the grandiose abstractions about democracy development.
In 2016 what is called the Islamic pipeline is set to open. This will be the largest gas pipeline in the Middle East and is being constructed by Iran, Iraq, and Syria. It is designed to run from the south of Iran to Europe and it will weave its way through Iraq, Syria, South Lebanon and the Mediterranean. As you might imagine, the pipeline has been politicized with some Muslims calling it a Shiite pipeline that will serve Shiite interests. There are more than a few journalists and commentators who have suggested that the current conflict in Syria is highly related to the pipeline politics. There are claims that Sunnis will be disadvantaged; Al Qaeda will be resurgent; Saudi Arabia wants to eliminate Assad; and Middle Eastern countries want to deny Russia. You can read more about the pipeline here.
Russia is such a big player and so prominent in the news about the Syrian conflict because they currently supply a very large portion of Europe’s energy. The new pipeline poses a threat to Russian capabilities and supply orders. Qatar would like to see Assad relieved of his duties because they proposed a gas pipeline that would traverse Syria and ship energy to Europe. Assad nixed the deal and instead signed a deal with the Russians.
A few people, mostly the alternative media, have thoroughly dismissed the issue of Assad and chemical weapons and suggested that the entire matter is about the natural gas pipeline. The charge goes that Saudi Arabia wants to remove Assad and install a favorable government which will allow the Saudis to control the flow of energy. Russia, on the other hand, supports Assad partially because he helped block the flow of natural gas to Europe which is helpful for the profits of Gazprom.
You want to hear the left-wing conspiracy theorist on this issue? Check out the site called Who Is Really behind the Syrian War? The reasoning on this site is quite poor because the commentator selectively chooses some information and interviews and uses these as authoritative when they are clearly ideologically motivated. Not only that, the assumption is that the United States and Israel are intentionally trying to destabilize the Middle East and there is a sort of conspiracy going on to topple various governments for energy reason. Again, the person who controls the site makes connections between people and countries that are unjustified in the service of some sort of conspiracy theory about Israel being concerned with the greater Israel, and the United States doing Israel’s bidding.
The news stories are full of claims about how Obama has been outmaneuvered by Putin. Putin has been close with Assad for a long time and even helped him acquire chemical weapons. The Russians have a real stake in the relationship with Syria and have probably made promises to the Syrian regime that they would help them manage the United States. It is rare that the Russians would become so involved in directly challenging the US with respect to military activity. But Putin has done just that. He has blamed chemical attacks on the rebels rather than the government, sent his representatives out to lobby the U.S. Congress, and promised to play a more supportive role in the United Nations.
Say what you will about Putin and his political and diplomatic maneuvers, it remains the case that Obama did what American citizens wanted him to do which was to avoid military intervention in Syria. Obama is to be applauded for accepting the possibility of a diplomatic solution, avoiding military action, satisfying the interests of most Americans, and “keeping the peace.”
Maybe Saddam Hussein did not have chemical weapons but Bashar Assad does. Assad has always planned a murderous response to any sort of protest or revolt. Reports are that there are 100,000 dead Syrians, and that’s a number that is difficult to even think about. I would recommend the article below on Syria “to bomb or not to bomb.” It is a re-blog from the CNN publication called “This Just in.” The article lays out the issue pretty well with respect to a subject that does not pose any simple answers.
Like all political decisions in a democracy the answer is the result of debate and the particularly difficult problems are not easily solved. There is simply no way to know “for sure” that a military response to Syria will be successful or not. There is no way to know whether the result will be something better or worse. But that does not absolve us from the responsibility of making a decision and so it is incumbent on all of us to acquire the best information and make the best arguments. That’s why the reply below is useful. But here is the essence of my thinking.
One of the main arguments to strike Syria is that we cannot stand on the sidelines and allow such an odious act as the use of chemical weapons go unchallenged. People remind us of the 1930s and how Hitler went unchallenged until it was too late. I have grown tired of Holocaust and Hitler references over the years; it is usually a sign that the discussion is degenerating. But still, the argument does resonate. When you just stand by and do nothing than evil, as the saying goes, will prevail. Even though some people will hide their heads in the sand for a long time, you can’t do it forever.
A second argument is that nuclear and chemical weapons are considered particularly heinous and we have not seen use of them to any significant degree since World War I. And the reason for that is international condemnation and the surety of a punishment that will make their use counterproductive. I think we have to honor this historical convention. We just can’t let the use of the weapons go unnoticed; there must be a price to pay.
Third, is a moral argument. Such arguments usually fall on deaf ears and do not carry the weight of realistic foreign policy but there is a moral position to be taken based on the indiscriminate death that result from chemical weapons, and their violations of just war principles. A weapon in a just war should be a last resort and designed only to immobilize an enemy combatant – not used for psychological purposes or with a blind eye toward collateral damage, which is unavoidable in the case of an uncontrollable gaseous substance.
The leadership of the Syrian government is intertwined with some of the most anti-Semitic and violent terrorist groups and political regimes, namely, Hezbollah and Iran. Moreover, according to the New York Times the world looked away while Russia helped the Syrians acquire chemical weapons. Between Hezbollah, Iran, and Russian support Syria is on its way to being a combustible proxy state that could cause future damage to the Middle East and Israel in particular. If the Syrian regime cannot be taken down then it must be stabilized.
Assad is just a slicker version of Saddam Hussein. He’s essentially a replica of the Iraqi model where anyone who stood in the way was eliminated, and the platform of the major political party was designed to perpetuate a sectarian dictatorship. The Syrian government has been killing rebellious citizens for a number of years. And is one more example of the inconsistent application of force and foreign-policy pressure because it defies imagination how the left could call for intervention and control of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but seem to lose their integrity when it comes to intervening in Syria. Some sort of limited military intervention in Syria will not solve many problems or do much to change the situation. And, of course, the idea that the United States could get “sucked in” to additional military responses is a defensible enough point. But it is not inevitable. It is possible to maintain strong relations and diplomatic pressure and still find certain activities unacceptable and deserving of a military response. I think the use of chemical weapons satisfies anyone’s definition of “unacceptable”.