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Trump on the War Path (March 16th)
In the quiet of night last week, while most Americans were hearing reports about the poorly-planned and ill-fated repeal of Obamacare, now affectionately called “Ryancare” or “Trumpcare”, the President of the United States changed the policy officially in Syria in a very substantial manner. A few hundred Marines with artillery support have been deployed to Northern Syria with the intention to put pressure on the ISIS capital of Raqqa while ISIS-held Mosul is still under siege. The hope is that a two-pronged effort will effectively cripple the capabilities of ISIS to defend either city. Reports so far suggest that the effort here is to establish a forward logistical point against Raqqa, similar to how we acted against Mosul, and creating a military position for heavy artillery to setup against the city.
This change in policy should be shocking, especially for anyone who had feared Trump would continue a rollback of American activity in the Middle East, or a turnover of the problem to Russian forces. Rather it seems the Trump administration has committed to giving the Pentagon greater authority over running itself, and determining how it will engage in war. Underneath provisions set by the Obama administration, the amount of forces that can be in Syria is under 500. However, this recent deployment of men is considered “temporary”, so the limitation on ground forces does not apply. For the US forces previously and still remaining in Syria, their role is to keep Turkish and Syrian opposition forces from attacking each other. They are a mediation force. This new deployment however is actually intended to take ground, a turnover of 8 years of cautious action by the Obama administration.
How are the rivals and adversaries on the ground reacting? Well Bashar al-Assad has labelled this new deployment as an “invader” army. While he has expressed optimism at the Trump rhetoric against ISIS, he has accused the President of doing nothing to actually act on that rhetoric. As the battle with ISIS has become extended in Syria and Iraq, no longer is Russia the only friend aiding the Dictator in Syria. Not unexpected, both China and Iran have contributed both arms and forces to the Assad regime to take ground. In regards to the new US efforts, Assad declared that his own forces were making their push to Raqqa.
Bear in mind, Bashar al-Assad is not a good man. Having already committed war crimes against his people before the rise of ISIS in Syria, Assad has continued his use of chemical weapons, targeted civilian bombing, and some humanitarian organizations have accused the Assad regime of being no better than ISIS in terms of extreme brutality in Syria. The potential conflicts that could arise from the two forces, the Syrian government and American, meeting at Raqqa could be disastrous. However, if it is a coordinated effort, it could be a turning point. Should we work with a Dictator who is as similar a monster as the ones who butcher children and women in the Middle East? It’s hard to say, but this is not the first time America has found itself cooperating with a regime, it philosophically disagrees with, against a greater foe; for example, the Soviet Union.
In terms of the operations in Syria and Iraq, the policy to have limited forces cooperating and aiding allied ground forces has seemingly turned the tide against ISIS. On the use of small groups of soldiers, General Joseph Dunford has stated, “We sent those guys into an incredibly complex environment. We told them to go in collect intelligence, develop relationships, vet people and identify people willing to take the fight to the enemy, train those people, equip those people, support those people, and win.” This effort to create a vetted and trusted set of security forces has yielded much in the last year. With the assistance of these American soldiers, Iraqi forces pushed back ISIS from Ramadi and have been able to use the initiative to strike at Mosul.
If the goal of the American forces in Syria is to begin to create a trusted and vetted Syrian opposition force, similar to what we have in Iraq, and then to aid them in taking ground and holding it, then the policy of the Trump administration could potentially become part of his immigration policy, as he could state he has created a “safe beachhead for returning refugees”. What plays out from this will be important, and specifically how and who Raqqa falls to will matter. If the US can take Raqqa, it might be able to make up for the lost time in terms of the humanitarian crisis that has caused the refugees.
The World Still Spins While Congress Idles (March 23rd)
Recently, a fair amount of foreign policy issues have come up. Whether it was the visit of Angela Merkel, the leader of Germany, the results of the Dutch elections, or the upcoming French elections, there are issues that need to be discussed that perhaps have been drowned out by domestic issues. Tied to these individual events is the future of NATO. Will NATO continue to be an alliance, or will the populist wave taking Europe right now tear apart Western unity?
In politics in Europe, the Dutch election results did not lead in a “populist revolt”, but if you look at the results, the two traditional parties of power holding influence, lost seats in the election. While the populists weren’t the only ones to gain; they became the 2nd largest party in the Second Chamber (their equivalent House of Representatives). The largest party to gain in the election was actually a Green-Progressive party, which was formed of Communists and Green parties in the Netherlands. The biggest loser in the election was the center-left party, the Labour Party, which represented the old values of Democratic Socialism, or also known as Social Democrats. This is an important slide in the Netherlands because the more extreme wings of Left and Right won while the moderate parties lost seats. Geert Wilders was seen as using the momentum of Trump. It is also notable that leftist movements, like Bernie Sanders’ movement, are also doing quite well right now. While some experts have said “The Dutch elections have disproven the idea that Trump’s populist wave is continuing”, I think it is more likely to say that the Dutch elections reaffirm the momentum that both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump’s campaigns built and carried.
In France, the elections currently pit three major opponents against each other, and if none of them win a majority of votes, the top two winners will compete in a run-off election. With the recent attack on a French female soldier and the recent scandal of “Penelopegate”, the political campaign of François Fillon has taken a slide. This has led to Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen being in a dead heat by polling. Fillon represents the center-right “Republican” party. Macron is the candidate for “En Marche!”, a political movement that he formed last year and sees itself as a hybrid of both right and left policies. Le Pen represents the “National Front”, a right-wing Nationalist Populist party. If Le Pen should win and lead to a French exit of the European system, the stability of NATO will be the only thing holding unity. The French election begins on April 23rd and ends May 7th and by its end, we will know if European stability is victorious or the populist wave continues. The rise of En Marche! and National Front has shown that France, like the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States, is embracing non-traditional parties, whether the polls match the election results has yet to be seen.
These events are the backdrop for Merkel’s visit with President Trump. In Europe, the growing fear of National Populists winning elections, particularly when there is evidence that Russia is either aiding or funding said efforts, has caused many to wonder about NATO’s future. Pouring fuel on the fire were the comments by President Trump during the campaign about NATO’s obsolescence; the continued lack of support by other members of NATO. While the President reaffirmed support for NATO and Merkel gave a pledge to give NATO 2% of the German GDP, the meeting was tense. German media was optimistic about the meeting, but the interaction between the two leaders was frigid. The two leaders must create Western unity, or NATO will become fragile. With the Baltic Sea members (Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) all having concerns about the Russian aggression in Ukraine, and Russian threats to intervene in Belarus, NATO is not in a position where it can be weak.
The problem now is that if the EU doesn’t hold together, if the British Exit, or Brexit, is followed by a French Exit or Frexit; what holds the fabric of Europe together? The only alliance that would be shared by European states would be NATO. If people of the West are concerned the Russians are interfering in elections and aiding candidates, a weakened Europe will only see that interference continue and increase. Vladimir Putin is on a mission to increase the influence of Russia, and only by dividing and separating the Western alliance, can he gain further influence and power in and over the West.
I hope you enjoy the pieces I have written, and feel free to comment on them or message me questions. I am always willing to follow-up on a piece.
For the Dutch Election Results, check this out.