A good friend just reminded me of an old geopolitical adage: the Russians play chess, we play poker. In Vladimir Putin, the Russians have both a great chess player but also a great poker player.
Oh, and he’s a Judo master as well.
Trump wrote “The Art of the Deal”, Putin “Judo: History, Theory and Practice.” Both are skilled negotiators and both understand a tremendous amount about leverage. I take nothing away from Trump when I say the following…
Putin is better at using it than Trump.
Fighting White Belts at Geopolitics
For the past eight years Putin has been up against white-belts like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Both petulant children who thought wielding immense power was leverage enough. They blundered around the Middle East and North Africa thinking they were sly until Putin would step in and reverse them, Judo-style, and put us, metaphorically speaking, flat on our backs.
Putin’s timing is impeccable. And his moves in Syria have all been perfectly timed to not only reverse U.S. goals of taking out Bashar al-Assad’s regime but also exposing the depths of depravity the Obama administration was willing to go to achieve this.
Make no mistake, Russia’s military intervention into Syria helped Donald Trump get elected. How? By blowing open the narrative that ISIS just appeared one day and took over half the Middle East without any warning.
Putin waited until the U.S. thought it was assured of victory and called for international help in defeating ISIS to accept Assad’s invitation for help. The immediate Russian success on the ground called into question what the U.S. had been doing for 18 months to that point.
And, from there, Putin’s diplomatic corps, led by Sergei Lavrov, went to work exposing lie after lie about how the Syrian Civil War began. And with the help of Wikileaks last summer, the entire story of ISIS could be laid at the feet of Clinton and Obama. Enough people understood this and Trump used it against her to win him the election.
If there is truth to the “Russian Hacked Muh Election” story it is here. Everything else is simply fiction.
Now Putin has real opposition in Trump. Of that I have no doubt. So, their interactions will be interesting to watch, far more so than watching Putin body-slam Obama, no matter how satisfying.
And I get it when I see Americans cheering his actions in Syria last week. They want a President to be proud of. A lot of people invested a lot of themselves into Donald Trump’s candidacy including myself and his election was a great victory.
So, yes, I get it.
I get why I keep hearing how this move to bomb the Syrian airfield was brilliant. It was 4-d chess and all that. Trump’s campaign moves were excellent, but, like Putin, he was fighting against a better funded, more-powerful, but lazy
opponent. So, victory came easy.
Now in their first clash I can safely say that Putin wins this round handily while also exposing Trump for the erratic actor his critics on the Left said he was.
The Gas Attack Bluff
The attack on the al-Shairat airbase invoked an immediate response from Russia, namely to tear up the ‘Deconfliction Agreement’ where U.S. and Russian militaries agreed to stay out of each other’s way.
As Alexander Mercouris at The Duran points out this morning Russia has always told the U.S. that it would shoot down any planes that threaten their troops in Syria.
Period. End. No buts. No equivocations. Threaten our guys, lose airplanes.
And the Pentagon has always respected that position. Because 1) they know the Russians have the means to do so, and 2) every time the U.S. has made a ‘mistake’ on this front, Russia has responded with stronger defensive moves, ensuring another mistake does not happen.
Hence the need for an agreement to share information to keep everyone out of each other’s way.
So, how do I know that the missile attack was a bluff? Two reasons.
The first is that the U.S. air forces in Syria haven’t flown a sortie anywhere close to a position that the Russians or Syrians could possibly hit.
And second, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at the press conference with Lavrov yesterday that the U.S. and Russia “agreed on the territorial integrity of Syria.” And this is the important point.
The U.S., even under Trump, has been preparing eastern Syria for partitioning in any political settlement of the Civil War. This was Plan B if Assad couldn’t be removed from power. We are working with the Kurds to attack the ISIS stronghold at Raqqa and are looking to break off Northern Iraq, eastern Syria and eastern Turkey to form Greater Kurdistan.
This is where most of Syria’s oil is. This would leave Assad with the destroyed western half of the country, depleted, while the U.S. would establish new bases there to directly threaten Iran.
Tillerson would not have agreed to Syria’s ‘territorial integrity’ if he hadn’t been privately dressed down by Putin. He was supposed to go to Moscow with the stick of more economic sanctions and further isolation from Europe. That didn’t happen. Trump’s rebuke of Angela Merkel set the stage for that.
So, Tillerson went, empty-handed, to meet with Lavrov. If he showed any reasonable posture then he’d be able to meet with Putin. Wherein that meeting Putin informed Tillerson that a prerequisite for reinstating the ‘deconfliction’ hotline is a total ban on attacking Syrian Government positions.
Gilbert Doctorow at Russia Insider made this point and I agree with him. Putin gave Tillerson the 411 on this. There will not be another ‘mistake.’
And that means the U.S. can and will be slowly pushed out of Syria. Assad will stay in power and Plan B is likely off the table. This morning Trump tweets:
Exactly, Donald. Putin told Tillerson the cost of peace and it is Syria. There may be areas of significant disagreement but on how much of Syria but no one should be unclear. Trump will have to back down here and get the Russians back on the phone or risk a confrontation he doesn’t want nor can win.
Because politically, this would be suicide.
Since his election, Trump has used the carrot and stick with Russia and China. Initially Russia was offered the carrot while China got the stick. On April 7th, Trump reversed course, thinking he would keep Putin off-balance by using the stick and offering Chinese Premier Xi Jinping the carrot.
It was a ballsy bluff and one that Putin respected while he fumed over its stupidity inside the Kremlin.
But, it didn’t work. What he did, in the end, was offer up his Secretary of State as a cow to be slaughtered like Putin was Captain Kurtz at the end of Apocalypse Now. Tillerson comported himself well, but Lavrov was calm and assured. Diplomacy, Russian-style would win out.
Now, to return to the state of play circa last week, the U.S. can no longer press any attack the Russians don’t want them to. And Israel can no longer bomb Hezbollah weapons convoys. Since the Russians now trust us even less than they did last week, we will have to trust them even more than before.
That, my friends, is what losing a bluff looks like.
To believe this was the plan all along ascribes god-like powers to Donald Trump that the facts simply do not support. He tested Putin and got thrown to the mat. Bigly.
But, don’t worry, Putin is very adept at this. He will help Trump up and leave him his dignity and save face. He allowed Obama to do so even though he despised the man. Because he knows that is the price he has to pay to continue fighting for his country.