THE BLOG
04/13/2017 04:29 pm ET

Weekend Roundup: Cold War And Quagmire All Over Again

Russia and the U.S. return to a “normal” state of icy hostility, a top analyst writes. Ousting Assad would lead to “brutal civil conflict,” a former CIA operative says.
Trump’s strike on Assad’s Syria threatens to escalate existing tensions.
GETTY/WORLDPOST ILLUSTRATION
Trump’s strike on Assad’s Syria threatens to escalate existing tensions.

This week, the White House accused Russia of trying to cover up its knowledge of the Syrian chemical attack even as the Senate Intelligence Committee continued its investigation into whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia during the recent U.S. presidential election. Now Russia, which allegedly sought to favorably influence the election in Trump’s direction, is also denying knowledge about the chemical attack in Syria.

This is why the ploy and counterploy of “alternative facts” is so corrosive. It engenders paralyzing partisanship at home and provokes cold wars, if not something worse, abroad.

Writing from Moscow, Fyodor Lukyanov warns that Russia and the United States are not only back to their old and “normal” ways of confrontation, but could also clash militarily in Syria if the U.S. intervenes further. He is cynical about the impetus of the missile strike on a Syrian air base that boosted Trump’s presidential stature. “Having encountered challenges in implementing his domestic political agenda,” Lukyanov writes, “Trump decided to use foreign policy as an instrument for improving the political atmosphere around his administration.” Lukyanov further cautions against any perception that U.S. actions will force Russian President Vladimir Putin to rein in Syria’s President Bashar Assad: “For Trump, an agreement can only be reached from a position of strength. But for Putin, there can be no agreement under pressure. ... If pressure keeps growing, Russia will respond in its own manner ― asymmetrically and sharply.”

Graham Fuller, a former CIA operative with long experience in the Middle East, sees only a quagmire if the U.S. succeeds in removing Assad from power. “A harsh peace under Assad would at least bring the war to an end,” he writes. But if there is regime change, he fears that “warring [extremist] factions would probably promote long-term sectarian cleansing and perpetuate a brutal civil conflict among themselves for years to come.”

The National Iranian American Council’s Trita Parsi argues that the U.S. missile strike last week will only lead the Assad regime and its Russian allies “to intensify their assault on the rebel strongholds and the civilians living in those areas. The end result will be a more intensified civil war with more civilian casualties and even greater difficulty for diplomatic efforts to bear fruit.”

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former member of Iran’s National Security Council, also warns that Trump’s Syria strike portends even greater chaos and violence by returning to the U.S. penchant for unilateral military action. “America now stands at the precipice of another Middle Eastern war,” he writes, “one that promises to be even more of a quagmire than Iraq and will only serve to elongate the suffering of the Syrian people. The reality is that for Syria, there is no military solution ― only a political one. And Trump has sadly decided to pursue military action before giving diplomacy a chance.”

Tensions are growing in East Asia as well. Writing from South Korea, veteran diplomat David Straub fears the Trump administration’s “all options are on the table” threat against North Korea will only make matters worse. “Where the American threat is having a big impact is on its South Korean ally,” he writes. “The South Korean media now is full of concern that the Trump administration might actually launch a surprise attack on North Korea, as it just did against Syria.” He notes that South Korean progressives who are leading in the polls in upcoming elections “strongly favor unconditional negotiations and engagement with North Korea rather than, as the Trump administration wants, increasing pressure on Pyongyang.”

Writing from Hong Kong, Ankit Panda says that the summit between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping last week at Mar-a-Lago showed the U.S. and China to be only “near-peers” because the U.S. has a scope for military intervention well beyond China’s. “If this wasn’t a moment of humiliation for Xi with nationalistic audiences back home looking for signs of strength against a U.S. leader who had been vocal about pushing back against China,” Panda notes, “it was at least a moment of forced weakness.” 

Greg Treverton, who recently stepped down as chairman of the National Intelligence Council, which integrates information from America’s intelligence agencies, takes the long view of our evolving world order. He sees a “reemergence of geopolitics, especially as China and Russia turn to external adventures to shore up internal legitimacy; economic growth slowing or stagnating; individuals and small groups becoming more and more empowered; technology progressing at a dizzying and unequal pace across the globe; conflicts over values; and people becoming more and more disconnected from their governments.” One scenario he and others at NIC imagine emerging out of this constellation is a nuclear attack in South Asia, during which “artificial intelligence systems supporting the military decision makers [make] the crisis worse by misinterpreting signals meant to deter instead as signs of aggressive intent.” A “full nuclear exchange” is averted at the last moment by joint U.S. and Chinese intervention.

Writing from Manila, Richard Heydarian ponders the common characteristics between strongman leaders like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, Narendra Modi in India and Vladimir Putin in Russia. Populists “have managed to firmly supplant the cold, calculating, rational-technocratic politicians across emerging market democracies,” he writes.

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