The assertion that the foreign policy directions charted by the 45th President of the United States directions are unknowable, as claimed by Donald Trump’s many detractors at home and in Europe, is just an urban legend. Plenty of clues have been thrown out in his tweets and remarks – not always as off-the-cuff as they sound, - and by his choices of cabinet members and advisers.
DEBKA Weekly’s analysts and intelligence sources are able to draw in broad strokes the incoming president’s foreign policy strategies, as they evolved in long discussions with his top nominees: vice-president elect Mike Pence, designated Secretaries of State and Defense Rex Tillerson and Gen. James Mattis, National Security Adviser Mike Flynn and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats – in between their Senate confirmation hearings.
Trump’s global orientation is dominated by the role he assigns Vladimir Putin’s Russia. His rationale is simple. Russia commands the most powerful military tool in the world today, and Putin, moreover, has no qualms about putting it to work to achieve his ends - witness Russian thrusts into Georgia in 2008, Crimea and eastern Ukraine in 2015, and Syria later that year.
At the same time, American needs at least five years to build an army big and powerful enough to make America great again. He can’t even be sure that the massive tasks of renovation, expansion and reconfiguration of its special operations forces, air force and navy, as a tool of global offense, would be done by 2022.
In the meantime, Trump is willing to give the Russian army extensive leeway in the Middle East as well as other parts of the world. He trusts in America’s economic strengths and the well-honed negotiating skills he and his top people command to cut deals with Moscow that delimit the spread of Russia’s world influence and objectives, while satisfying America’s strategic interests.
Overall, the incoming president does not see US-Russian military rivalry as superpowers in the same apocalyptic light as his political, military and intelligence critics in America and Europe. He considers their intelligence leaks and demonic innuendo, which magnify Russian misdeeds as cyber invader of America’s electoral system, as basically an attempt to stymie his plans for collaborating with Putin in certain areas - in so far as the Russian military behaves in a manner that he deems advantageous to America.
On one point, Trump agrees with his predecessor, Barack Obama: He is against sending large-scale American soldiers to fight in major Middle East wars. Obama was prepared to devolve on the Russian military and intelligence the colossal task of battling ISIS in the Middle East and Africa. He talked about this principle for eight years, but very little came of it in the way of collaboration.
Russia, Mid East & China
Where Trump departs sharply from Obama’s line is in his belief that America has no real interest in directly interfering in the conflicts and problems of the Middle East in places like Egypt, Syria, Libya, Iran, or even the never-ending Palestinian-Israeli dispute. The repercussions of the “Arab Spring” project sponsored by Obama in 2010 are still dragging on, with no end in sight.
The incoming president and his team propose instead to limit US ties in the region and focus them on profitable relations with the Gulf emirates and Israel, by virtue of its advanced intelligence and technological power. Both are deemed strategic assets for America. The rest of the Middle East may be left for Moscow to pick up. Putin wants to expand Russian influence in that troublesome region; Trump does not.
Secondly, the new US President is intent on drawing Russia onto America’s side in the military and economic contest he is preparing to wage against China, whom he accuses of currency manipulation at the expense of the American economy and imperial designs as manifested in the South China Sea region.
Above all, he is determined to prevent the two former communist allies ganging up against America. Isolated from Moscow, Beijing could no longer do as it pleases or challenge Washington for preeminence as the world’s No. 1 superpower. Even before taking office, the new US administration is moving on the quiet to drive a large wedge between Vladimir Putin and President Xi Jinping.
Europe and NATO
Donald Trump’s most radical policy departure from the lines followed by the Obama, Clinton and second Bush administrations affects Europe and NATO. His predecessors perceived the European Union as the world’s largest trading bloc and stable enough to stand on its own feet; NATO was the cement binding the US-EU alliance, which enabled America’s phased troop withdrawal from the continent.
The new US president’s perspective is colored partly by his view of Russia’s role in his foreign schemes and his proposition to pin US influence in Europe on two focii – Moscow and London.
This policy stems from four underlying factors:
1. As in the Middle East, Trump prefers to engage with major strategic allies and not bother with the smaller fry. He therefore sees no strategic or economic advantage in investing in relations with the Baltic nations, Ukraine, or East and Central Europe.
He also regards as a fiasco, the stranglehold Obama sought to place on Russia by expanding NATO membership through East Europe up to the Russian border and keeping the missile shield initiated there by George W. Bush.
He therefore proposes to downsize the Northern Alliance and keep it out of Europe’s internal disputes, the reverse of Bill Clinton’s intervention in the three-year war in Bosnia and Herzegovina between 1992 and 1995. Hence Trump’s terse comment this week: NATO is no longer in use.
It is therefore safe to assume that if, in the near term, the Serbian army invades Muslim-ruled Kosovo to capture regions populated by a Serbian Christian majority, the American president would not this time run interference by sending NATO jets to bomb Belgrade.
Indeed he is unlikely to move against any move that curtails a strengthened Muslim presence in Europe.
2. This consideration figures large in the new US president’s disapproval of German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He made no bones about grading her decision to welcome one million migrants into her country as a “catastrophic mistake.”
3. The other factor is Trump’s ambition to weaken the European Union and the German chancellor, as its dominant figure, because he sees them today as an impediment to his plans to work with Putin.
In any case, he and his advisers have concluded that the EU as a trading power and its currency are in steep decline, since most of its members are in poor shape. Greece, Ukraine, Italy, Ireland, France and Spain are either in the throes of extreme economic crises or rocked by political instability. Merkel too faces an election in September amid popular resentment of her open-arms policy for Muslim refugees.
4. Trump assigns Britain a special role in his European policy objectives on two scores:
First, he is a big fan of the UK’s exit from the European Union. Prime Minster Theresa May’s hard-hitting speech to Parliament Tuesday, Jan. 17 fitted in perfectly with the Trump vision of the UK’s place in Europe.
She threatened EU leaders that she will walk away from negotiations with Brussels on future ties if they try and give Britain a “bad deal.” Unveiling her 12-point plan for the “divorce talks,” she stressed that “no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal” and warned leaders in Brussels that any attempt to damage the UK during the negotiations would be an “act of calamitous self-harm” for the EU.
With Donald Trump at her back – he has promised to place post-Brexit Britain at the top of the queue for “very good” American trade deals – May is taking the lead in his contest against Angela Merkel.
Second, the new US president proposes casting Britain and its intelligence services in the roles of counterweight against Russia and its clandestine agencies in Europe.
To throw a spanner in this scheme, Trump believes his foes cooked up the “revelation” that a former agent of Britain’s MI6 secret service planted the “dirty dossier” about him, which US intelligence then leaked to stir up another short-lived scandal around him.
On July 6, 2012, the US Defense Department confirmed that Syrian Brig, Gen. Manaf Tlass had defected and was heading for Turkey, defining his action as “a crack in the inner circle” of President Bashar Assad.
For the next five years of bloody Syrian war, Manaf Tlass dropped out of sight – until Monday, Jan. 16, when he was suddenly catapulted onto the center of the Syrian scene.
It turned out that the Syrian general, at 53, is at the top of Moscow’s list of the Syrian opposition leaders invited to the peace conference opening in Astana, Kazakhstan on Sunday, Jan. 23.
Tlass shares the top spot with Mohammed Alloush, leader of Jaish al-Islam-Army of Islam, the most powerful militia fighting in the Damascus region.
However, according to DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources, President Vladimir Putin’s strategic advisers have tapped the general as their dark horse for succeeding Assad as president of Syrian - in due course.
The Kremlin has not shared this plan with the Damascus incumbent or his Iranian allies. They had forgotten about the existence of the former favorite of the Assad dynasty, who chose exile over a life of privilege.
Manaf was born into the ruling Baath party aristocracy as the scion of Gen. Mustafa Tlass, the powerful defense minister who served Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad.
He grew up as a close buddy of heir apparent Basal Assad. When Basal died in a car accident in 1994, Bashar was anointed heir, recalled from England where he trained as an optometrist. And when Hafez died in 2000, and Bashar succeeded to the presidency, Manaf Tlass was the young ruler’s right hand.
His climb up the ladder of power in Damascus followed naturally. Elected to the Baath central committee that year, he was reelected five years later. During that time, he followed in his father’s footsteps and carved out an army career.
But he was also sensitive to the popular disaffection building up against the Assads and the rule of their minority Alawite sect. In 2005, he urged his friend Bashar to consider reforms, and introduced him to members of the powerful Sunni merchant class to expand his base of support.
By 2011, when the uprising erupted against the Assad regime, Manaf Tlass was a one-star general in the Republican Guards, the unit that led operations for crushing the insurgency. He was then commander of the 104th Brigade, a post previously held by Bashar himself.
But shortly after Tlass was reported to have conducted unsuccessful talks with opposition leaders he decided to go into exile. In the summer of 2012, when the insurgency started gaining traction, he left Damascus for good..
His old friend Bashar regarded him bitterly as no better than a traitor and a renegade. A pro-government website close to Syrian intelligence accused the defector of orchestrating “terror” (Assad’s euphemism for Syrian rebels) operations and contacts with foreign enemies.
On July 4, 2012, Syrian troops raided his home in the upscale neighborhood of Mezzeh, emptied it of all his possessions and confiscated documents, weapons and vehicles.
At the “Friends of Syria” conference in Paris, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that “regime insiders and the military establishment were starting to vote with their feet.”
Prematurely optimistic, she hailed his and other defections as showing that “those with the closest knowledge of Assad’s actions and crimes are moving away. We think that’s a very promising development. It also raises questions for those remaining in Damascus, who are still supporting this regime.”
That miscalculation was just the start of Obama administration’s unrealistic evaluations of the Syrian conflict and Assad’s chances of survival. The policies emanating from those missed turns left a void which the Russians exploited three years later with a massive injection of military firepower. Having determined its outcome, Moscow aims to reap its reward by shaping Syria’s political future.
DEBKA Weekly‘s intelligence sources hold up the unheralded reappearance of Brig. Gen. Manaf Tlass at the center of the Syrian stage as a symbol of the unpredictable changes overtaking the region and the rise of new players who are charting the next chapter of its history.
Islamic State Caliph Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi has just issued a secret directive to the approximately 6,500 foreign adherents fighting in Iraq and Syria, especially in the defense of Mosul.
In this directive, which does not appear on ISIS’ open platforms, their chief gives the foreign jihadis two options:
1. Go home to your countries and continue jihad there - i.e. launch more terror operations. The organization will defray your travel expenses, or -
2. Prepare to die as martyrs in the defense of Mosul and secure your place in Paradise.
Al-Baghdadi’s action was prompted by the deaths of two high-profile Dutch ISIS commanders at key posts in the eastern Mosul district of Muhandiseen.
One of the two was Taes Bill Monti aka Abu Omer Holandi, 41, who led the ISIS Inghimasi force (those who fight to the death) and was killed in clashes with the Iraqi Army. He was head of the organization’s foreign contingent and close to the caliph. It is estimated that 100-130 Dutch terrorists are among ISIS ranks in Iraq and Syria.
In the past three months, ISIS lost another three prominent fighters: Abu Mohammed Adnani from Syria, and two Tunisians, Abu Bakir Hakim Tunsi and Zeyad Kharufa.
Following these losses, Al Baghdadi wielded an axe against his tope command. He fired 62 heads of ISIS units manning the various fronts in the Iraqi city, accusing them of “abandoning the positions and sectors in their charge to enemy forces. They were replaced mainly by Iraqis.
The ISIS leader’s twin purges of his top command are the first signs that the Islamic State may be starting to crack under the pressure of the US-backed Iraqi army’s offensive to liberate Mosul, which is going into its third month.
Al-Baghdadi appears to have counted on the offensive fading after some weeks under the weight of crippling casualties inflicted by droves of suicide bombers, snipers and bomb traps.
However, the US command countered by injecting every few weeks a fresh batch of hundreds of Iraqi fighters trained in urban combat. They were thrown into battle - even before they were sufficiently prepared. This tactic took ISIS’ local commanders by surprise at a time when their rank and file was at its lowest ebb of stamina and badly in need of a respite.
Al Baghdad is also fighting a rearguard battle inside the radical Islamic movement: He sees the ISIS following shrinking whereas the rival Al Qaeda is enjoying rising numbers of supporters.
Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zahahiri is crowing over the Caliph that he warned him against leading ISIS into grabbing large swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq for a Muslim Caliphate, because this would inevitably bring the Americans down on his head to recover the lost territory.
The Al Qaeda leader has been sniping at his ISIS rival in cautious stages:
In September 2015, he sent ISIS an olive branch in two messages, which at the same time did not neglect to denigrate Al-Baghdadi’s caliphate as illegitimate.
In the third week of August 2015, Zawahiri called on the world’s Muslims to reject the Islamic State group and throw their weight behind….the Afghan Taliban.
In a video entitled: “Be Not Divided amongst Yourselves,” he hammered ISIS and its leader as intent only on trying to “split the ranks of the mujahideen.”
On Jan. 6, this year, Zawahiri preached strongly against ISIS’ false message:
“The liars insist upon their falsehood to the extent that they claimed we do not denounce Shiites,” he said in a message released by Al Qaeda’s media arm.
He denied saying that Christians could be partners in the governance of a future Islamic caliphate, or that he had called for Shiite Muslims to be spared. He explained that he had repeatedly urged ISIS to stop explosions in markets and mosques, and focus attacks on Shiite-led Iraqi military, police and security forces and Shiite militiamen, instead of “random atrocities against civilians.”
Zawahiri’s pious sermonizing is unlikely to cut much ice with ISIS, whose “atrocities” in Baghdad and other place will most likely intensify as the ISIS chief loses his territorial momentum.
Russian freight planes Wednesday, Jan. 18 transported hundreds of Syrian troops into battle in northeastern Syria where the key town of Deir ez-Zour is on the point of falling into the hands of the Islamic State.
ISIS is in the middle of a new offensive launched last Saturday to wrest all parts of the strategic town, which commands southeastern Syria, from government forces. Reinforcements poured into the front lines from ISIS strongholds in Iraq, even embattled Mosul.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that Deir ez-Zour’s fall to ISIS would weigh significantly on the next, critical stages of the conflict: It would affect the battle for Mosul, now entering its third month, and affect decisions on launching a parallel offensive to recover the ISIS Syrian bastion of Raqqa.
The fall of Deir ez-Zour might also cause a delay in the joint US-Russian-Jordanian-Syrian operation to drive the Islamic State out of the Syrian town of Palmyra, which was to have represented the first test of US-Russian military teamwork under the Trump administration.
Once back in government hands, Palmyra would have stood as a barrier between northern and eastern Syria and cut off ISIS supply routes between Syria and Iraq. But if the jihadists are allowed to conquer Deir ez-Zour, the impact of the Palmyra operation on the military balance of the war on ISIS would be blunted. In fact, ISIS could relocate its main Syrian stronghold from Raqqa to the newly-conquered town and claim a signal victory.
On the battlefield, ISIS forces had by Monday, Jan. 16, ISIS managed to bisect the last government-held corner of Deir ez-Zour and cut its military complex, including an air base, off from the rest of the town.
That air base had served to supply the approximately 120,000 civilians trapped in the town after the ISIS siege had blocked all other routes of delivery.
The helicopters which were the only means of delivering essential food and medical supplies now have nowhere to land. Iran has also lost the Revolutionary Guards’main air base for maintaining communications and logistics links with its forces in Syria.
The fiercest battles fought at present are focused around the Deir ez-Zour cemetery and a road junction known as the Panorama Roundabout. Our military sources report that Wednesday, Jan. 18, Russian transports flew in to the arena two battalions of the Syrian army’s 15th infantry division. They came to prop up against collapse the government forces defending Deir ez-Zour, which were drawn from the Syrian army’s 137th Brigade, part of the elite Republican Guard.
If this influx of strength fails to turn the tide of the battle, the Russian command is contemplating importing the Lebanese Hizballah’s elilte Radwan Force for a desperate bid to arrest ISIS’ victorious march on Deir ez-Zour.
A life-and-death struggle is taking place for control of the Red Sea coast of southwestern Yemen which controls the Bab-el-Bandeb Strait, through which around 3.8 million barrels of Middle East crude passes day by day on its way to overseas markets.
The coalition of Saudi and United Arab Emirates special forces as well as Colombian mercenaries, is fighting hard to prevent the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels from controlling this piece of coast, because they could then choke off passage through the vital straits as a form of blackmail.
Saudi security sources claimed this week that their coalition had pushed “the last remaining rebels out of the region of Dhubab” on the relevant piece of Red Sea coast, and were advancing on the major port of Mokha.
According to DEBKA Weekly’s military sources, the coalition has in fact gained control of the six large and small towns dotting the 300km of the eastern coast between Mokha and the southern port of Aden that commands the Bab al-Mandeb Straits.
These forces don’t hold every piece of terrain between those towns, but their troops were able to demolish the Iranian artillery and anti-ship missile positions, that were put there to menace shipping.
However, Monday, Jan. 17, Yemeni rebels under the command of Iranian Revolutionary Guards officers, embarked on a surprise offensive on coalition forces, which had reached a point in Taiz province near the strategic waterway. They inflicted heavy casualties, estimated at 40 Saudi-backed fighters, including their commander, Heisam Qassem Taher, as well seizing equipment.