When taken together, Donald Trump’s groundbreaking phone conversation with Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen and his outreach to Russian President Vladimir Putin add up to a calculated international policy gambit developed by the incoming administration team. It consists essentially of moves to drive a wedge between the two global giants, Russia and China and so ease the Trump administration’s path for dealing with Beijing with which it has a long list of issues.
Trump’s office said he had spoken with the Taiwanese president, “who offered her congratulations,” adding pointedly that the two leaders had noted “the close economic, political, and security ties” between Taiwan and the United States. Mr. Trump, it said, “also congratulated President Tsai on becoming President of Taiwan earlier this year.”
It has begun to dawn on Washington, Beijing, Moscow and Taipei that there was nothing unrehearsed or spontaneous about this conversation. By speaking directly to the “president of Taiwan,” Trump was fully aware that he had broken with protocol and conferred recognition on the island-state’s sovereignty, thus reversing the “One China” policy the US held since 1979.
It took two days for the penny to drop in Beijing with a thump.
After an initially low-key response, China hardened its tone and warned Trump in a front-page editorial in the overseas edition of People’s Daily, “Creating troubles for the China-US relationship is creating troubles for the US itself,” and pushing China on Taiwan “would greatly reduce the chance to achieve the goal of making America great again.”
Trump had meanwhile followed up on the provocative conversation. He used his Twitter account to repeat his campaign criticism of China’s “monetary policy and territorial ambitions in disputed Asia waters,” and took issue with the notion that he needed China’s consent to speak with the President of Taiwan.
“Did China ask us if it was O.K. to devalue their currency (making it hard for our companies to compete), heavily tax our products going into their country (the U.S. doesn’t tax them), or to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!”
The 10-minute conversation with the South Korean president was therefore calculated to signal the demise of the 44-year old China policy instituted in the wake of President Richard Nixon’s epic visit to Communist China After the US severed diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the People’s Republic of China evolved as a senior partner in US global and economic policy-making.
Secretary of State John Kerry spoke for the incumbent administration this week by chiding the president-elect: “I think it’s valuable to… ask people who work the desk, and have worked it for a long period of time, their input on what’s the current state, and if there is some particular issue at the moment.”
Brushing the reproof aside, the president elect is taking his time before naming Kerry’s successor (ten candidates at the last count), because he has no intention of heeding the orthodox voices he sees as representing the old order which he plans to supersede.
The new secretary of state will be charged with two monumental tasks: One is to follow the president’s guidelines for a comprehensive rewrite of America’s traditional ties, in which “decades of diplomatic effort” were invested; and two, to restock the department with a body of diplomats willing and able to manage Trump’s steps for upending many traditions. It is hard to see a single individual grappling with both tasks.
Amid the crashing rituals, some diplomatic veterans are firing their last shots, accusing the incoming president, of “reckless remarks” and “running the country by Twitter.”
One consigned to the scrap heap is the “globalism” doctrine cherished by the Clinton and Obama administrations and adopted by Europe. The EU is anyway cracking at the seams under a tsunami of anti-establishment populism which is throwing up new faces. Two leading nations voted to break away - the United Kingdom which supported Brexit last June and dumped Prime Minister David Cameron, and Italy, where a referendum on Sunday, Dec. 4, forced the resignation of Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
In France, too, President Francois Hollande announced this week that he would not lead the Socialists in next year’s presidential election.
Another victim of the changes tearing through the world order is President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” which he designed as an escape from the unending pandemonium of the Middle East. Trump instituted a pivot or his own, well before his swearing in on Jan. 20, when he made Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe the first foreign leader he met after his election. The two men spent 90 minutes talking at Trump Tower, but released few details of what they discussed.
His reward came on Tuesday, Dec. 6, with the announcement outside Trump Tower, Manhattan, that the head of the Japanese telecoms and internet firm SoftBank Group Corp had agreed to invest $50 billion in the United States toward businesses and create 50,000 new jobs.
China’s Xi Jinping must have grasped by now that Trump was moving step by step towards resetting future US relations with Beijing and a seismic shift in the regional and global balance of power and world trade. These matters are too serious to wave away by verbal jabs in a newspaper.
As a possible gesture to sweeten the pill and allay Beijing’s fears of an imminent trade war with the US, the president elect Wednesday introduced Terry Branstad, the long-serving Republican governor of Iowa, and a longstanding friend of Xi, as ambassador to China – even before he selected a secretary of state.
Less than a week after Trump’s victory, Branstad paid his seventh visit to China, including a trip to Iowa’s sister-state Hebei. His friendship with the Chinese president dates back to 1983, when Xi made his first trip to the US as a young agriculture officer from that Chinese state. In 2012, the Iowan governor hosted an elaborate dinner in his capital for his friend, who was then vice president of China.
Russian and leading Syrian rebel groups’ intelligence officers covertly launched their first ever direct negotiations Monday, Dec. 5, at the western Turkish city of Gaziantep in southeastern Anatolia, some 97 km north of Aleppo. Reporting this exclusively, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources say the parley was a direct consequence of the Syrian rebels’ failure to hold that Syrian city.
Represented there were the Ahrar ash-Sham, the Jayshul Fateh, the Free Syrian Army, the Nusra Front and the Turcoman Islamist Current – all radical groups which Moscow hitherto boycotted. Only moderate opposition groups were recognized in past political get-togethers in Moscow and Geneva.
Inside Syria, at a secret venue, Bashar Assad’s representatives sat down with the heads of the Kurdish Sheikh Maqsoud District of Aleppo for a hatchet-burying session. They discussed staging a large-scale Kurdish assembly in the city as a mark of support for the Syrian president.
However, at Moscow’s insistence, no Syrian government or Turkish officials were allowed to join the Russian rendezvous with Syrian rebel officers at Gaziantep. Although the Russian-backed Syrian army, Iran and Hizballah accomplished the fall of Aleppo, Russia has made it clear that it now holds the reins for the next stages of the Syrian war. Assad is cut out of the decision-making loop and so is Ankara, although a substantial Turkish military invasion remained in northern Syria.
So, after Aleppo, President Vladimir Putin and his commanders in the field will be solely responsible for decisions about future battles, including the rebel-controlled governorate of Idlib which is next in line.
(See a separate article in this issue.)
According to our sources, the Gaziantep encounter focused mainly on the rebel groups’ request for Russian guarantees to spare rebel concentrations in Idlib from Russian air and sea strikes following their final defeat and exit from Aleppo.
This request may not be realistic, depending on whether the Russians decide to go forward with a large-scale operation to drive the rebels out of Idlib – an extensive region of 6,100 sq. km - any more than their hope of gaining a virtually autonomous enclave in northern Syria.
The Russian officers agreed only to a military mechanism of undetermined composition to oversee the disarming of rebel forces. Only then, would their future be discussed, but Moscow had yet to decide which extremist rebel groups would be allowed to survive in their frameworks, and which would have to dissolve.
To give its negotiators muscle, Moscow is revealed by our sources, to have begun this week to transfer to Syria thousands of special operations troops from the autonomous Republic of Chechnya’s Interior Ministry. They are the first ground troops the Russians have so far deployed in the Syrian war.
They are being flown in for a double purpose:
1. To relieve the military coalition fighting with Assad’s army of the task of holding the territory so far captured, especially Aleppo.
2. To provide a tough, special operations spearhead for the Russian-Iranian-Syrian-Hizballah force in future battles like Idlib.
In view of this spate of events, the talks US Secretary of State John Kerry held with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov this week on Syria appear to be irrelevant.
Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Supreme Commander of Iran’s military forces in the Middle East, is engaged in one of the biggest projects of his career: He is fashioning a new Muslim Shiite mega-army made up of four national military forces put up by Iran, Syria, Iraq and the Lebanese Hizballah. This four-pronged force, to serve under Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) central command, is designed to dominate the heartland of the Fertile Crescent, namely Iraq, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and cover a region ranging from the Caspian Sea, through northern Iran and Iraq up to the Mediterranean shores of Syria and Lebanon.
Tehran will gain the coveted land bridge for linking its domains.
DEBKA Weekly’s military and intelligence sources add another primary aim of the new military machine, which is to confront the foes of the Islamic Republic when they get in the way of Iran’s expansionist schemes.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani injected an instructive comment into his warning to Donald Trump on Tuesday, Dec. 6, not to “rip up the nuclear accord: "There is no doubt that the United States is our enemy,” he said.
Israel has been named as such too often to count.
In the first stage of the merger, the four Shiite armies’ infantry and armored units will be amalgamated, followed later by the union of their naval and air forces.
Soleimani is working to the guidelines handed down by Iran’s supreme leader. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei instructed the general to reorganize the chain of command for the quarter-of-a-million-strong Iranian army with new appointments and structural changes.
The key sentence: All branches of the Iranian military command structure to be reshaped to enhance its ability to deploy and use conventional military power throughout the Middle East. They are being rebalanced to shift the army from its defensive posture to a more active role in supporting Iran’s expeditionary operations outside Iran.
Translation: Iran has shifted its main military focus and resources from the nuclear to the conventional – without, however, sacrificing its aggressive imperial designs, which the supreme leader has decided can be best achieved by a melting-pot of marching Shiite soldiers.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that modeling the new military outfit on the lines of the Revolutionary Guards will produce an elite force of commando and special operations units, armed with top-notch equipment, including armor. It will be trained as a rapid intervention force, ready to respond at speed to calls for assistance from the new armies taking shape in Iraq and Syria as components of Iran’s new Shiite project.
On Nov. 27, the Iraqi parliament passed a law approving the Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces militia as a government entity operating alongside the Iraqi army.
The details of that measure are illuminating:
1. The Popular Mobilization Force of 120,000 men will be merged with the Iraqi army.
2. The Baghdad government will pay the wages of its officers and men starting this month.
And so, after Washington coughed up hundreds of millions of dollars per year to strengthen the Iraqi army, it suddenly turns out that the US has funded the core military infrastructure for Iran’s new Shiite army.
This month too, the Syrian army established a “Fifth Corps” which our sources revealed was nothing but a front for the fusion of the Bashar Assad’s military with its allies, Hizballah, and the Shiite militias imported to Syria from Afghanistan and Pakistan by the Revolutionary Guards. This hybrid, to number between 50,000 and 70,000 men in the first stage, is coming together under the eye of IRGC officers.
Its command structure will eventually be absorbed into the overall command of the new Shiite force, as the process of building a united Shiite army out of the conjoined military forces of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hizballah, goes forward.
Russia and Iran appear to be replicating their strategic alliance in Syria for backing Bashar Assad with another shared scheme – this one for promoting none other than the fundamentalist Islamic Taliban in Afghanistan.
A warning of what was going on came from Army Gen. John Nicholson, the head of US forces in Afghanistan in a briefing to the Pentagon on Dec. 2.
The US general shed light on the flattering comments that cast the Taliban in a favorable light that were made by Vladimir Kabulov, President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to that country, on Nov. 15 - just three days after Donald Trump won the US presidential election.
Those comments had not resonated in Washington until the Nicholson briefing.
What Kabulov said to the Anadolu Agency in Moscow was this:
“The Taliban did not accept the idea of global jihad. Their number one goal is to save the country from occupation and establish an independent Afghan government,” he explained. “The Taliban are fighting ISIS because they do not accept its ideology of jihad and see it as a rival in their own land.”
He stressed that under UN Security Council resolutions, Taliban is entitled to exist as a political force, and went on to say: “I agree with the view that America has no Afghanistan strategy beyond maintaining a military existence in the country.”
Those comments reflected Putin’s game in Afghanistan, as Gen. Nicholson revealed, point by point:
DEBKA Weekly’s sources add that the Obama administration hopes to expose Moscow’s tactics and put it on the defensive, in the belief that the Russians are exploiting the White House transition to intensify their covert support of the Taliban. Pakistan, where the Taliban is allowed to maintain two sanctuaries, is almost certainly aware of the Russian and Iranian dealings with the former Islamist rulers of Afghanistan.
Russia’s intelligence chief Alexander Bortnikov, visited Pakistan recently, the first such visit in twenty years. He may have enlisted Pakistan’s powerful Inter-Services Intelligence agency as a go-between for Putin’s pro-Taliban policy.
In this ironic turn of the Afghan wheel, the Russians, who were thrown out of Afghanistan in 1987, appear to be making a comeback on the back of a past enemy, Al Qaeda’s old partner, the Taliban, aided by their former adversary Pakistan. Now they are all on the same side as Iran in their efforts to raise a roadblock against Western influence.
This exposé may prompt some hard thinking in Trump Tower for the President-elect and his top security nominees, Gen. James Mattis in Defense and Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser, as to how far they are willing to go hand in hand with Moscow as a potential senior partner in America’s war on terrorism.
High on the agenda of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s coming visit to Baku is a pitch to convince Azerbaijan President Ilham Alyev that Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile systems are capable of intercepting Russia’s 9K720 Iskander (NATO-named SS-26 Stone) mobile short-range ballistic missile systems.
Negotiations between Rafael, the system’s Israeli designers and manufacturers, and Azerbaijani defense officials over several months were close to finalization in October. On the table are at least five Iron Dome batteries and several hundred missiles under a contract worth app. $400 million.
Azerbaijan needs to strengthen its defenses against Iran and Armenia, the latter over the disputed region of Nagorno Karabakh. Baku also lays claim to territorial waters in a part of the Caspian Sea.
But those negotiations slowed after September, when Russia started supplying Iskander missiles to Armenia, which immediately paraded the impressive new hardware on the streets of Yerevan.
Designed to penetrate enemy missile defense systems and strike enemy targets, The Russian Iskander has two solid-propellant, single-stage guided missiles with a range of 400-480 km. Each is controlled throughout its flight path, fitted with a non-separable warhead and can be independently targeted within seconds.
The Iskander cruises at hypersonic speed of Mach 6-7 at a height of 50km, weighs 4,615 kg and carries a 710-800 kg warhead.
The platform’s mobility makes it hard for targeting to prevent a launch.
Moscow has gone to great lengths to disrupt Israel’s Iron Dome sale to Azerbaijan, first by arming its opponent Armenia with Iskanders and next by a campaign waged by Russian armaments industry circles to demonstrate that the Israel anti-missile system is no match for this advanced Russian missile.
Israel held back from refuting this claim in consideration of the delicate relations ongoing between Netanyahu and President Vladimir Putin, and the IDF and Russian forces in Syria. At the same time, the prime minister’s plan to bring missile experts to Baku to demonstrate that the Iron Dome is a fully effective answer for the Russian Iskanders, was indicated in messages the Americans posted this week to Jerusalem and Baku.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report that, since their outstanding performance in beating the Hamas rocket blitz two years ago, the Domes have been substantially upgraded with novel devices and fully equipped to take on bigger and longer-range missiles.
A successful Israeli counter-measure for the Russian Iskander would be a sensational event with strong strategic overtones, especially since it has been secretly supplied to the Syrian army.
The Israeli prime minister also plans to seal a contract for command, control, communications, and computers (C4) and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) technologies that President Aliyev is keen on acquiring. Azerbaijan’s arsenal is already packed with Israeli military hardware, including drones and patrol vessels.
The battle for Aleppo was all but over this week when the rebels who captured the eastern half of Syria’s largest city in 2012 were beaten out of the Old City by the Syrian army and its allies. The rebels fought alone – and lost - when no Western (US) power or Arab or Muslim backer (Saudi Arabia, Turkey) was willing to come to their aid.
Since gaining 75 percent of the shattered city on Wednesday, Dec. 7, Bashar Assad and his backers are set to go after Idlib. This governorate stretches along 130 kilometers of the Turkey border, including the main Bab al Hawa crossing. Its capital is 60km from Aleppo. Idlib is also next door to the coastal region of Latakia, where most of the Russian forces in Syria are based, and abuts the Hama Governorate.
The region and its main town are the heartland of “Syria’s Waziristan,” which has been ruled for the last two years by Al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, the Nusra Front, and its chief Abu Mohammed al-Julani.
Hard-core jihadist fighters have made it a power base.
Before the war, Idlib had a population of 1.5 million. Its population today is unknown, since it became an asylum for refugees fleeing from the embattled towns and fronts across the country and a haven for foreign and Syrian troops in flight from retribution, for committing exceptionally savage and brutal acts.
To cut down the menace posed by this terrorist power center, the Russians have staged repeated intelligence-directed air strikes on the armed elements holding sway in Idlib - some of whom hail from Russia and other former Soviet countries.
The US has also bombed their lairs.
China’s interest was drawn to Idlib by the presence there of an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 fighters from its Muslim Uyghur minority, who have brought with them around five thousand family members.
Rear Adm. Guan Youfei, head of China’s international military cooperation office, was in Damascus in mid-August. At a meeting with Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Frejj, he offered military training and humanitarian aid. He also saw Lt. Gen. Sergei Chvarkov, a senior Russian commander in Syria.
The Chinese Uyghurs share villages abandoned by pro-Assad Alawite denizens with two radical groups, the Nusra Front and the Turcoman Islamist Current.
Ahrar ash-Sham, another jihadi group, maintains a strong military presence in Idlib, as part of the Jayshul Fateh, which also includes units of the rebel Free Syrian Army.
Assad’s military coalition took two years to overwhelm the rebels fighting in Aleppo. Far less time will be needed to clear Idlib of this ragtag assortment of Syrian rebels, jihadists and salafis, because they will be fighting with their backs to the wall, pushed hard against the Turkish border, with no path of escape
That border will be shut firmly against them, since the last thing Ankara wants is a large influx of armed jihadists and allies of Al Qaeda. Neither is Turkey too keen on messing with Moscow and Beijing.