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Michael Jansen: Burning issues should be addressed
November 13, 2017
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin did not hold an expected substantive discussion on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific summit in Vietnam this past week. Instead they shook hands when they met, exchanged greetings, and spoke for a few minutes: the diplomatic quivalent of tweeting, Trump’s favourite form of communication.

Nevertheless, in a joint communique they pledged to continue the fight against Deash and agreed there is no military solution to the conflict in Syria and to search for a political solution. This statement of intentions goes no further than earlier commitments and could have been elaborated if the leaders had had a proper conversation.

Moscow had expected Trump and Putin to discuss Syria at a time their officials have been meeting with the aim of resolving differences on this and other serious international issues.

The White House claimed the lack of a one-to-one formal meeting was due to “scheduling conflicts on both sides” although the leaders could have rearranged their schedules to meet if they had wished. Apparently, while the Kremlin had spoken of a formal meeting, Trump refused. He and his administration are under increasing pressure to explain contacts between senior members of Trump’s presidential campaign team and Russian officials and personalities during the presidential race. As a result Russia stands accused of meddling in the campaign with the objective of putting Trump in office.

There were wry comments in the US media about Trump and Putin, wearing identical blue Vietnamese shirts, standing next to each other for the group photo of conference attendees. Therefore, cozying up to Putin would not be a good idea even though there is no proof that Russian hackers who accessed Democratic Party e-mails improved Trump’s chances of defeating rival Hillary Clinton.

Trump dared not because the US, if not Russia, remains infected by a Cold War mentality which has not diminished although the US Cold War antagonist, the soviet Union, was dissolved in 1991. Even during the administration of Barack Obama, anti-Russian attitudes were intentionally stoked due to the Ukraine crisis. The US media is obsessed with alleged contacts between Trump campaign aides although Trump’s white working class and committed Republican voters were certainly not swayed by Russian hacking.

The US Cold War mindset is currently being applied to Iran as well as Russia, threatening to overturn the 2015 deal with Tehran providing for the limiting of its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of punitive sanctions. This mindset is also delaying a peace agreement for Syria and prolonging conflict in that country.

As far as Russian intervention goes, it never occurs to US pundits to admit that the US frequently interferes in foreign elections and the internal affairs of other countries: for these opinion formers, the US has the right to do just this while no one should dare interfering in US affairs.

Trump’s avoidance of a full-scale meeting with Putin is, unfortunately, dangerous for the entire globe. Ahead of the Asia Pacific summit, Trump said he wanted to discuss North Korea with Putin. The fact that they did not get together means this issue remains outstanding for the time being and relegated to officials with no authority to take decisions.

Trump wants Putin to cooperate in the US-led effort to isolate and punish nuclear weapon-armed North Korea. So far, Russia has been reluctant to join a US effort to pressure North Korea into abandoning its nuclear arsenal and ballistic missile programme.

Russia rightly fears concerted pressure on Pyongyang will only stiffen the resolve of the country’s leader Kim Jong-un to carry on building and testing bombs and missiles.

Having been subjected to US-led Western pressure since the Russian Revolution a century ago, Moscow is well aware that putting a country into a corner can be counterproductive. Furthermore, Putin is loath to pledge Russia to a Trump-led initiative as Trump has repeatedly insulted and challenged Kim, who has replied by calling Trump a dotard.

Furthermore, Trump cannot be trusted to stick with a policy and follow it through. Russia, which shares a border with North Korea and enjoys good relations with Pyongyang, is not prepared to risk its standing by joining Trump’s policy of tweeting insults against Kim and threats to destroy his country.

Trump demonstrated to Russia his unreliability when after taking office, he declared that his administration was no longer focused on removing Syrian President Bashar Al Assad from power. Following the alleged sarin gas attack in April that killed 73 civilians in the town of Khanshaikoun in the north-western Syrian province of Idlib, which is dominated Al Qaeda’s Jabhat Fatah Al Sham, Trump blamed Assad and launched cruise missiles at a Syrian air base. His response was knee-jerk and well before the substance used and perpetrator of the attack were identified. Months later Investigations conducted by organisations with no direct asset to the site are still being disputed by the Syrian and Russian governments.

Since then Russia and the US have attempted to avoid conflict while battling Daesh in Syria but as the cult has been routed from the country’s cities and countryside there is a very serious possibility that the Syrian army, backed by Russian airpower and pro-Iranian ground troops, could clash with the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia patronised by the US. The Syrian government’s determination to reassert its sovereignty over the country’s territory is supported by both Russia and Iran while the US is behind the SDF’s declaration that territory it holds should be autonomous. These contradictory projects for Syria could torpedo UN-brokered negotiations due to resume in

Geneva on November 28th. Seven earlier rounds have been bedevilled by the government’s refusal to agree to Assad’s removal, the main demand of the Saudi-sponsored opposition High Negotiations Committee, which the US and the West have long backed.

If Trump had dared to meet Putin in Vietnam, they might have been able to reach agreements on these and other contentious problems. Revived US Cold War media-driven politics prevented Trump from holding discussions with Putin on two major world problems.

They could, even, have reached a trade-off: Putin pressuring Pyongyang in exchange for Trump halting US intervention in Syria.

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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