Monthly Archives: February 2018

Eastern Ghouta: the guilty parties have a terrible account to settle

The international community should lay the groundwork now for future war crimes prosecutions

The hideous carnage in Eastern Ghouta is the latest instance of unbridled brutality and calculated, intentional war crimes in Syria. This is among the worst humanitarian disasters anywhere since the Second World War. The guilty parties have a terrible account to settle.

At least 400,000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed. When the war began in 2011, Syria’s population was about 22 million. Almost half of them, more than 10 million, have been displaced. Almost five million are refugees in neighboring countries, with 6.3 million more internally displaced, and often hardly better off.

And while there have clearly been atrocities and war crimes on all sides of the conflict, it is indisputable that the overwhelming bulk of the brutality has been inflicted by the Syrian regime, and its confederates, against its own people.

ISIL, Al Qaeda and various rebel factions have certainly played their part, but the driving force of the carnage has always been, and remains, a vicious dictatorship willing to do anything to cling to power. Yet the regime is not the only responsible party. Bashar Al Assad was unconditionally supported from the outset by his regional and international masters.

In the summer of 2015, Iran realised Mr Al Assad was on the brink of defeat. It dispatched a top general, Major General Qassem Suleimani, to Moscow. Russia and Iran then organised a joint intervention, with tens of thousands of fighters from Hezbollah, sectarian militias from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan and Russian mercenaries, descending on Syria.

From the latter months of 2015 until the decisive turning point in the war, the fall of Aleppo in December 2016, this cynical syndicate of death, led by Russia in the air and at the negotiating table and by Iran and Hezbollah on the ground, kept their client in power by unleashing untold mayhem.

Between them and some of the rebel groups, especially ISIL, no crime or abuse has been overlooked in Syria.

The regime runs one of the world’s most extensive programmes of systematic torture and murder of helpless detainees. The appalling photographs revealed by “Caesar”, a regime defector who had been paid to document these horrors like accomplishments, are merely the tip of the iceberg.

Chemical weapons, barrel bombs, Russian fighter jets, artillery barrages and so much more have been unleashed on towns and cities, schools and hospitals, and anything that moves in any part of Syria that has not surrendered to pro-regime forces.

Because of this onslaught, the regime will survive for the meanwhile, but the war will continue, and the ultimate outcome will look very different.

In the meantime, it is essential that the international community and the Arab world pay strict attention to what is happening in Syria, lay the groundwork for future war crimes prosecutions, and hold all the guilty parties to account insofar as and whenever reasonably possible.

Obvious instruments like the International Criminal Court are probably effectively blocked because Syria is not a signatory to its charter and Russia would veto any Security Council effort to introduce justice into the equation. But we should all assume that other mechanisms, such as an ad hoc tribunal or a responsible country invoking universal jurisdiction, to hold the guilty to account will eventually emerge.

While the regime may survive, it will never be considered legitimate by most Syrians, and it must not be treated as a respectable by the international community, especially Arab countries. And the threat of criminal prosecutions of some kind must forever haunt the guilty parties.

They include individuals, serving either the regime or rebel groups, who murder and torture with their own hands, and the commanders on all sides who direct such brutality.

But it must not stop there. Justice must also always await senior regime figures, including Mr Al Assad, who authorise and administer the slaughter.

Foreigners who have played a key role in the tragedy of Syria cannot be immune because they are not Syrians. On the contrary, such outsiders can’t even claim their brutality was driven by unrestrained zeal and excesses in defending their own communities.

Their actions are entirely cynical statecraft. Their culpability for these deliberate, calculated war crimes is therefore greater.

On that basis, Russia is most guilty of all. Its interests in Syria are clear, but so is its responsibility. Untold numbers of Syrians would likely be alive at homes if not for the Russian-coordinated international invasion and brutalisation of their country.

Russia has never faced the consequences nor public anger, especially by Arab societies, for these crimes. That should end, it does not merit such impunity. Yes, Russia has once again risen as a player in the Middle East. It must again be reckoned with. But it has done so by standing on a mountain of Syrian corpses.

The ultimate villain in Syria’s nightmare isn’t Mr Al Assad or Ali Khamenei. It’s Vladimir Putin. The international community, and especially the Arab world, need to recognize and remember that.

Tougher U.S. Policies on Iran Reassure Gulf Arab Allies

The Trump administration emphasizes its differences with its predecessors, particularly the Obama administration, and claims to be pursuing radically different policies across the board. On foreign policy, in many cases the distinctions are primarily rhetorical rather than practical or are limited in scope. However, regarding Iran, new policies are emerging that could herald a new strategic approach, and in several key instances they are being put into practice. For most of the Gulf Arab countries, a willingness to combat Iran’s regional agenda is the most important aspect of U.S. regional policy and a litmus test of each administration. From their perspective, a series of improvements has already been made on a range of crucial issues.


Gulf Arab countries have long believed that the outcome of the struggle in Syria will do much to shape the balance of power with Iran in the Middle East. The Obama administration did not appear to share this perspective, but the Trump administration seems to, which helps explain why the recent trajectory of U.S. policy in Syria appears largely positive to Washington’s Gulf Arab allies.

Several of these countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Qatar, shared a rhetorical commitment with the Obama administration to the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That goal was shaped by a mutual recognition that Iran would be the big winner should the Syrian regime survive the uprising, and that this was neither in the interest of Washington nor its Gulf Arab partners. However, President Barack Obama never fully committed to funding, equipping, and organizing the kind of armed opposition that might have been capable of forcing regime change. In fact, during Obama’s second term doubts and hesitation, in some cases tied to the U.S. experience in Iraq, began to shape U.S. policy in Syria.

This was most dramatically demonstrated when Obama drew a “red line” on chemical weapons in Syria, strongly implying that the regime’s use of chemical weapons would be met with force. Yet he did not follow through when, in August 2013, the regime committed yet another chemical weapons atrocity against civilians. Instead, the Obama administration entered into an agreement with Assad that, while purporting to strip him of his chemical weapons capability, also lent his regime a measure of diplomatic recognition and was predicated on continued regime control of key areas. Moreover, Washington began to significantly reduce its direct support for rebel groups engaged in the uprising against the regime and focus instead on the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, despite entreaties from Gulf countries and others to pursue both aims simultaneously.

The Trump administration does appear to be notably increasing U.S. engagement in Syria. One ofnumerous reported chemical weapons attacks by the Assad regime early in President Donald J. Trump’s first year was met with a dramatic, although largely symbolic, cruise missile strike against a regime airbase. This appears to have been a one-off gesture, however, designed to communicate that chemical weapons use is still unacceptable to Washington rather than significantly impact the strategic equation on the ground. Trump acted where Obama did not. However, it’s still not clear that the Trump administration has substantially changed U.S. policy regarding chemical weapons in Syria.

The battle against ISIL was pursued, and has, in effect, been successfully concluded under Trump but according to a strategy and timetable laid out by the Obama administration. Moreover, following the collapse of the self-declared ISIL caliphate headquartered in Raqqa, the Trump administration announced that it was formally suspending U.S. military support for Kurdish-led Syrian rebels, that were the primary ground forces against ISIL under both Trump and Obama.  Both administrations anticipated transforming them into a broader, stable pro-American armed force in northern and northeastern Syria.

Predictably, as soon as ISIL was effectively defeated, Turkey greatly increased its military interventionin Syria to reverse the accumulation of power by Syrian Kurdish groups and prevent the unification of their three areas of control along Turkey’s southern border. Even though these militias have been armed and funded by Washington and work in close coordination with U.S. special forces, Turkey did not hesitate to attack them and threaten areas in which U.S. forces themselves operate. While the Trump administration has warned Turkey to avoid or limit such attacks, it also announced it would phase out all support for these Kurdish groups. Unless they are replaced by other armed Syrian factions, fully carrying out that policy would virtually complete the U.S. disengagement, begun during the Obama administration, from armed Syrian rebels.

However, U.S. policy in Syria appears to be undergoing expansion and mission creep under Trump. The most dramatic indication has been a powerful U.S. military response to an attack by pro-regime forces reportedly killing numerous Russian mercenaries that were threatening U.S.-supported fighters in northern Syria. The Obama administration claimed the number of U.S. military personnel in Syria during its last two years was around 500. Toward the end of Trump’s first year, the official figure rose to about 2,000, though there are indications the actual number is much larger and growing.

A key U.S. military mission in Syria remains preventing any resurgence of ISIL. However, there is a new emphasis on a second goal, which is containing and eventually rolling back the power of Iran and its proxies, particularly Hizballah, in Syria. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Defense James Mattis have pledged a long-term presence by U.S. forces in northern and northeastern Syria explicitly to contain Iran’s influence there, suggesting that a broader, long-term agenda is taking shape. The expanded deployment of U.S. forces in Syria, even when it means potential confrontations with other major powers like Russia or fellow NATO allies, like Turkey, indicates the stakes and determination involved.


Riyadh, in particular, has made its extreme frustration with Lebanon abundantly clear, most recently and dramatically during the resignation rumpus regarding Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri. Saudi Arabia and some other Gulf countries seem determined to pressure the Lebanese on Hizballah’s role as a vanguard of pro-Iranian militias in Syria and beyond. Riyadh could collapse the value of the lira by withdrawing approximately $1 billion from the Lebanese central bank, and greatly disrupt remittances from the 400,000 Lebanese citizens working in the Gulf. Saudi Arabia is seeking ways to communicate this message while avoiding such drastic actions, which would cause indiscriminate economic devastation throughout the country. Still, having placed Hizballah on all terrorism lists in the Gulf, and secured a similar designation of the group by the Arab League, Riyadh has run out of its own sharply targeted options. The campaign by the Trump administration’s Treasury Department to pressure Hizballah through a range of new or intensified sanctions and other financial and legal tools provides Gulf Arab countries with aspects of the targeted leverage they lack.


The unfolding Saudi diplomatic initiative in Iraq, which buttresses much longer-standing and intensive outreach, particularly in southern Iraq, by Kuwait, seeks to promote Iraqi national identity, and incentivize Iraqis of all types to pursue their own national interests, rather than Iran’s. The goal is not to try to eliminate Iranian influence in Iraq, which is not plausible. Rather, the aim is to foster an Iraq that avoids taking sides between Riyadh and Tehran, and which sees itself as part of the Arab world, rather than an Iranian client state. The U.S.-led campaign to defeat ISIL was an essential prerequisite for this outreach, and much will depend on reconstruction efforts in formerly ISIL-occupied, Sunni-majority areas of the country. At a recent donors’ conference, Saudi Arabia joined Kuwait and others in pledging significant funds for reconstruction. The United States is brokering this effort, but Washington under Trump has signaled it has already spent enough money in Iraq and is insisting other countries, particularly from the Gulf, bankroll Iraqi reconstruction. Cooperation on these efforts will be an important aspect of Washington’s relationship with Gulf Arab countries and an essential means of countering Iranian influence.

Moreover, Saudi and other Gulf outreach to Iraqi Shia politicians like Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, Muqtada al-Sadr, and others will also depend, in part, on an ability to align interests and coordinate efforts with Washington. Gulf countries will seek to avoid any repetition of the scenario in which both Washington and Tehran, for their own reasons, threw support behind former Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who proved to be fully in the grip of Iran as well as damagingly sectarian toward Iraqi Sunnis. Both Saudi Arabia and the United States have made considerable progress of late in Iraq, but Iran remains a decisive player. Tehran is particularly influential among some parts of the Shia power structure, and, above all, the Popular Mobilization Forces, militias that are closely aligned with Iran and operate largely beyond the control of the Iraqi government. Gulf countries and Washington will have to work together to promote a more constructive political atmosphere inside Iraq that can balance other interests, including those of Sunni and Shia Arabs as well as Kurds, with those of Iran and its sectarian clients. Both have a strong interest in working to curb the independent power of PMF militias by integrating them into existing military structures, disbanding them, or in some other way preventing them from emerging as a kind of Hizballah-style state-within-a-state power block beholden to Iran.


The Trump administration has increased the tempo of U.S. military activities in Yemen, including the number of U.S. drone strikes and other counterterrorism operations. Moreover, the administration has expressed fewer reservations about weapons sales to Saudi Arabia than the Obama administration, although Washington has once again begun to openly pressure Riyadh regarding humanitarian concerns arising from its conflict with the Houthi rebels. Meanwhile, there still appears to be strong support in Washington for the Emirati-led counterterrorism operations against Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in the south.

The Gulf countries operating in Yemen may be hoping that Washington can help craft a political solution that would allow them to begin to wrap up their military commitment, which has taken on aspects of a quagmire as well as an unmitigated humanitarian disaster. There are strong indications that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates would welcome a formula to allow them to draw down in Yemen, but that, under current circumstances, the Houthi rebels and their Iranian backers have little incentive to join such an effort. U.S. engagement could be an important factor in finding a way out, especially for Saudi Arabia, in the long run just as continued U.S. support will be crucial to Riyadh’s ability to sustain its military campaign in the short and medium terms.


Pursuit of the international nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, with Iran apparently affected a wider range of U.S. Middle East policies during Obama’s second term than many analysts believed at the time. Striking a bargain with the Assad regime over chemical weapons rather than responding with force to the crossing of the announced red line appears to have been prompted, in part, by a desire not to destabilize the negotiations with Tehran. Similarly, credible reports suggest that the Obama administration overlooked criminal activities by Hizballah in order to avoid disruptive tensions with Iran. Now that the agreement has been concluded – with any hopes that it might lead to a broader opening with Iran thoroughly dispelled, and the new administration frankly hostile to the agreement – the JCPOA no longer functions as a restraint on Washington’s approach to Iran. This was reflected in the cruise missile strike in Syria and new sanctions aimed at Hizballah, neither of which were likely to have been undertaken during the Obama-era nuclear negotiations.

To the contrary, the JCPOA is now a major irritant in the relationship, given the strong condemnation, not only by the Trump administration, but also by hard-liners in Tehran. Administration threats to abandon the agreement have also become a source of tension with the other five signatories to the JCPOA. How this issue unfolds greatly depends on whether the administration is actually determined to abandon the JCPOA in the near future. If Washington does that while Iran is essentially fulfilling its obligations and hasn’t committed any material breach of the JCPOA, it could backfire badly. Most blame, even from close U.S. allies like Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, would surely be attributed to Washington. Such a scenario is unlikely to be welcomed by most Gulf Arab countries, despite their deep-seated concerns about Iran’s ambitions, questions about the long-term efficacy of the JCPOA, and lingering doubts about the reliability of U.S. commitments to their security.

After expressing serious reservations when the nuclear talks with Iran began, and then when the nuclear agreement was signed, the Gulf Cooperation Council unanimously endorsed the pact. In part this is because there was little the GCC states could do about decisions that had already been made, but also because they were satisfied with Washington’s reassurances, and saw some benefit in restraints on Iran’s nuclear agenda. Unlike Israel, however, the nuclear issue was never uppermost in their mind. Rather, they were, and are, more concerned about Iran’s destabilizing regional conduct. But, despite these reservations, and unlike some Israeli leaders, Gulf Arab countries have not been encouraging unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA.

Instead, the Gulf Arab position essentially boils down to urging Washington to use the nuclear issue to put additional pressure on Iran’s regional activities. Gulf Arab interests would not be served should Washington, which they are relying on to lead the pushback against Iran, end up taking the blame for ending the agreement, especially if no alternative strategy is in place. Under such circumstances, Iranian hard-liners would have negotiated an end to the international sanctions that brought Tehran to the table, with no real prospect of their revival, while being effectively released from constraints on their nuclear program. It’s an almost ideal scenario for Iranian hawks, and therefore not helpful to a Gulf Arab agenda.

Insofar as the Trump administration is using threats about abandoning the JCPOA as leverage to strengthen it, or as part of a broader campaign to curb Iran’s regional policies, that will be welcomed by Gulf Arab states. But if it is a quixotic and self-defeating attack on an agreement mainly because it is a signature achievement of Trump’s predecessor, that would not serve their interests.

When Trump was elected president, the Gulf countries were optimistic that his administration would prove more sympathetic and helpful to their interests than the Obama administration. Such hopes were encouraged by many of his early statements, such as Trump’s remarks that while during the Obama administration there had been a strain in relations with Bahrain due to human rights concerns, “there won’t be strain with this administration.” Thus far, there have indeed been no new strains with Bahrain, and few with the other Gulf Arab countries for that matter. Even Trump’s strong criticisms of Qatar in the context of the boycott launched in June 2017 by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, and Egypt do not seem to have negatively impacted the substance of Washington’s relations with Doha, which appear as strong as ever. The same is true, however, of U.S. relations with the boycotting countries.

The centerpiece of concerns about Obama and hopes regarding Trump among Gulf Arab countries has been U.S. policy toward Iran. While there is no comprehensive and integrated new U.S. strategy toward Iran yet, some of the building blocks seem to be in place. However, how far Washington will be willing to go, and what price it might pay, to challenge Iran regionally, and how such a major and sustained commitment will be balanced with an evolving “America First” agenda, are still largely to be determined.

To Help Settle Qatar Feud, U.S. Needs to Understand It

Persian Gulf neighbors are estranged over how to confront Islamic radicalism. Resolution would strike a blow for moderation.

Last June, a quartet of staunch U.S. allies in the Middle East — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Bahrain — launched a boycott of another key U.S. partner, Qatar. President Donald Trump rushed to take the Saudi side with a tweet accusing Qatar of supporting terrorists, before eventually reversing course and positioning himself as a peacemaker.

Meanwhile, the boycott goes on, with the Trump administration caught in the middle of what Washington conventional wisdom has come to regard as a petty spat between rival desert chieftains.

The clumsy diplomatic balancing act is unlikely to succeed because it ignores what’s really going on: nothing less than a struggle to reshape mainstream Arab political culture, especially regarding Islamist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood.

All five countries oppose ultra-terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and Islamic State, which seek the destruction of existing Arab and Islamic states.

But that’s not the case when it comes to a network of less extreme groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. These organizations seek to take over, not immediately obliterate, the governing institutions of existing countries. Their revolutionary strategies are essentially Leninist, operating simultaneously above and below legal ground, and generally preferring mass political mobilization over terrorism that can alienate majorities.

Qatar supports Brotherhood groups throughout the region with money and advocacy by its vast media arsenal, which includes Al Jazeera television. Qataris argue that these are not only legitimate political parties but an indispensable alternative to radicalism, since without supposedly “moderate” Islamist groups like the Brotherhood, religious conservatives are more likely to be drawn into the orbit of violent extremists.

The Saudi-led quartet rejects this. To the contrary, they argue, these so-called “moderates” don’t present an acceptable alternative to radicalism but rather pull politically-oriented fundamentalists down a path toward extremism.

The Muslim Brotherhood, they argue, shares key assumptions and long-term ambitions with overtly terrorist groups, including the goal of re-establishing a caliphate. This view holds that Brotherhood ideology is a crucial source of the logic and substance of terrorist creeds, and thus is a cause of deadly political cancer. The quartet accuses Qatar and Turkey of leading a Sunni Islamist camp that competes with both the Arab mainstream and Iran’s Shiite alliance.

Qatar views the less extreme end of the Islamist ideological spectrum as legitimate and necessary, while the quartet sees the entire spectrum as intolerably dangerous.

There are many ironies at work. Some members of the quartet, particularly Saudi Arabia, have their own history of supporting intolerant versions of Islam. And Qatar couches its support of Islamists in terms of liberal values such as democracy and free speech, which it makes no pretense of practicing at home. Moreover, Qatar’s monarchy doesn’t embrace an Islamist ideology for itself. And its media also promote secular, revolutionary and typically leftist pan-Arab nationalism.

Qatar says it’s merely providing a platform for a range of otherwise suppressed Arab voices. Its critics say it’s pandering to demagogic populism of both the far left and ultra-right.

The quartet is essentially seeking to ensure that Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamism is viewed by the Arab mainstream as part of the same extremist fringe as more violent groups like al-Qaeda, and thus should be subjected to similar social stigmas and legal sanctions. Hence, they accuse Qatar of supporting terrorism and cast their boycott as a counter-terrorism initiative.

The U.S. has military bases in countries on both sides, but there’s more at stake than defense commitments.

While Trump initially sided with the quartet, the Pentagon and State Department have been committed to maintaining, and even strengthening, ties with Qatar. The administration now seems to be trying to shore up cooperation with both Qatar and the quartet, and is urging a resolution of the dispute, but without addressing its underlying causes.

Qatar says it’s sticking up for American-style values. The quartet accuses Qatar of being a megaphone, haven and cash machine for terrorism and extremism and, in part because of its enthusiasm for revolutionary groups, a de facto ally of Iran.

Washington has two basic options.

It could let the standoff drag on until the parties decide on their own to resolve it, and only insist that they cooperate just enough to support U.S. military assets in the Persian Gulf. This seems to be the current policy.

Or it could seek to mediate a resolution that addresses the political and ideological core of the argument. Otherwise, Qatar’s adversaries are likely to continue the boycott, which they can live with much more easily than Qatar.

In 2013 and 2014, Qatar agreed to curb its advocacy of extremist groups and tone down radicalism in its media, but it never followed through. Working toward a formula for enforcing these existing agreements could be an effective and mutually face-saving formula for key American allies to come back together on reasonable terms while strengthening a moderate center in contemporary Arab politics.

For Many Players the Focus in Syria Shifts from ISIL to Iran

One year after a crucial turning point in the war in Syria – the fall of rebel-held parts of Aleppo to pro-regime forces – the once closely linked and relatively coherent struggle inside the country has fragmented into a series of intense, but highly localized, battles that, at first glance, appear only loosely connected: a dramatic flare-up in the south of Syria pitting Israel against Syrian government and Iranian forces; a bitter battle between Turks and Kurds in the north, also involving a tense standoff between fellow NATO members Washington and Ankara; and a horrifying series of attacks by the Assad regime, both in the far-flung north and Damascus’ own suburbs, with hundreds of civilians killed in a few days.

These seemingly disparate battles are being watched warily by regional powers not directly involved, including the Gulf Arab countries, because of the significant impact the outcomes are likely to have on the regional strategic landscape in coming years. While many factors are in play, it is above all Iran’s policies and ambitions that contribute to a kaleidoscopic effect whereby small adjustments in one corner of the map can alter, if not reshape, the bigger picture.

Another major factor in this simultaneous fragmentation and intensification of the conflict in Syria is linked to the recent collapse of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant’s “caliphate,” which had been based in eastern Syria and headquartered in the city of Raqqa. For much of 2017, virtually all other actors in Syria were committed to its elimination. But ISIL’s defeat has intensified other battles in Syria that were contained or postponed while that was a shared priority.

Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in northern Syria, where Turkey has launched a major offensive designed to curb the power of Kurdish militias that had been the primary ground forces against ISIL. Turkey views them as offshoots of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has fought a bloody conflict for Kurdish independence from Turkey for decades. Washington has also formally designated the PKK a terrorist organization. However, these Syrian Kurdish militias have developed close ties with U.S. forces, over 2,000 of which have been operating in northern Syria to coordinate the battle against ISIL. As a consequence, Washington is deeply uneasy about Ankara’s attack on militias closely aligned with the United States. While the fighting has been concentrated around the city of Afrin, there are indications that it could turn in the direction of Manbij, where Kurdish fighters and U.S. special forces operate in close coordination. Hence a highly unusual confrontation between NATO members could deteriorate into a completely unprecedented open clash. Back-to-back visits to Turkey by National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson appear designed to prevent any combat between the two NATO allies from occurring.

Gulf Arab countries will be concerned about the evident close coordination between Ankara and Moscow before and during Turkey’s offensive. Russia withdrew its troops from the area before the Turkish assault, and Russian-supported pro-regime forces swung into action simultaneously in other areas, most notably Aleppo. It seems clear that Russia and Turkey agreed to new and unpublicized de facto deconfliction lines before Ankara’s offensive. Turkey had once been closely aligned with Gulf Arab countries, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, in promoting the overthrow of President Bashar al-Assad and supporting armed opposition groups. However, for more than two years now, Turkey has narrowed its focus in Syria on preventing the creation of a unified Kurdish-ruled area along most of its southern border with Syria and curtailing the power of Kurdish militias. Ankara appears reconciled to Assad remaining in power, at least for now, and Turkey’s practical withdrawal from the campaign for regime change in Syria was a major factor in Assad’s victory in Aleppo in 2017. The current close coordination between Turkey and Russia underscores that Ankara’s role in Syria has shifted to the point where it is aligned not only with Russia but, in effect, with the Assad regime and its Iranian backers, and its interests are now incompatible with those of both Washington and the Gulf Arab countries.

The U.S. focus in Syria has also been shifting from destroying ISIL to a more long-term and multifaceted campaign to prevent Iran from emerging as the main beneficiary of the Syrian war. In January, Tillerson was the first senior U.S. official to confirm that, despite the defeat of ISIL, thousands of U.S. troops would remain in Syria indefinitely in order to combat Iranian influence and encourage the replacement of the Assad regime by denying it a comprehensive victory. Along with preventing any major resurgence by ISIL, the U.S. role in Syria will focus, among other things, on denying Iran the ability to create a consolidated “land bridge” through Iraq and Syria linking Iran with Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast. For Gulf Arab countries, preventing this development is essential, since it would leave Iran in control of a vast and relatively contiguous swath of territory across the northern Middle East.

Therefore, Gulf Arab countries will be working with, and relying on, Washington to ensure that such a land bridge isn’t developed and that Iranian influence in Syria and Iraq is attenuated, if not eliminated. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis in early February denied that Iran has succeeded in establishing this land bridge. Shortly after his comments the U.S. military attacked, for the first time, pro-Assad regime fighters in northern Syria that were advancing toward Kurdish militias and U.S. special forces. The strike underscored that Washington is prepared to act militarily to protect its allies and deny pro-regime forces a comprehensive victory in northeastern Syria. But the clash was more broadly significant, including for Gulf Arab countries, given its proximity to the border crossing areabetween Qaim in Iraq and Bukamal in Syria, control of which would be essential for Tehran and its proxies, above all Hizballah, to create a secure and consolidated link between Iran and Lebanon.

As the dramatic events over the weekend demonstrated, Israel also has become increasingly alarmed by Iran’s expanding role, and Hizballah’s buildup, in Syria, including near the Israeli-occupied (and annexed) Golan Heights. Israel has periodically used airpower to disrupt the transfer of major weapons from Syria to Hizballah in Lebanon, and Israeli and Hizballah leaders have been exchanging dire threats for at least a year. Israel appears to be responsible for the recent bombing of a reportedly Iranian-controlled arms facility in Syria. Either in retaliation, or to test the ever-shifting “rules of the game,” Israel claims an Iranian-manufactured drone was launched into its territory from Syria before being shot down by Israeli helicopters. Israel then launched a series of retaliatory airstrikes against Syrian regime and Iranian targets (allegedly including the “Iranian trailer” from which the drone was launched), during which an Israeli F-16 was apparently shot down or crashed under heavy anti-aircraft fire. This appears to be the first time that the Israeli and Iranian militaries have confronted each other directly.

In addition to the transfer of sophisticated weapons to Hizballah, Israel has expanded its red lines, including the establishment of an Iranian military base or the construction of Iranian weapons factories and facilities in Syria. Israel has become alarmed at the buildup of an estimated 10,000 pro-Iranian militiamen, drawn from Afghanistan, Iraq, and even Pakistan, in southern Syria. And while Israel’s attention is focused on southern Syria, not least because of concerns about security in the Golan Heights, like Washington and the Gulf Arab countries, Israel is committed to ensuring that Iran does not emerge from the Syrian conflict as a regional hegemon, with reinforced unfettered access to Hizballah in Lebanon.

Concern about Iran’s growing influence in the region is the thread that most clearly ties together the patchwork of seemingly disparate, but actually interconnected, localized conflicts in Syria, particularly from a Gulf Arab perspective. The continued, and arguably expanded, U.S. role in northern and northeastern Syria is increasingly focused on curbing Iran’s power and influence in key areas, including along the Syrian border with Iraq. Israel’s airstrikes against Iranian and Syrian regime targets similarly underscore the urgent imperative shared by many regional powers to limit, and eventually rollback, the outsized gains made by Iran and Hizballah during the course of the Syrian war. The United States, Israel, and the Gulf Arab countries will also have to try to convince Russia, arguably the most powerful player in Syria today, that Iranian dominance in Syria is not in Moscow’s interests.

Israel’s airstrikes in the south and Washington’s intensified military presence in the north both send a strong signal to Russia about how much Moscow stands to lose if it allows Iran’s regional agenda to spark larger, more damaging and destabilizing conflicts engulfing Syria. In the longer term, a similar message will be aimed at Turkey as well. The Gulf Arab countries will be closely watching, and trying their best to influence, these developments as they continue to feel that the regional balance of power will be shaped by the long-term outcomes in Iraq and Syria. The intensification of relatively localized conflicts throughout Syria, all of them directly involving significant outside powers, is the clearest barometer of how crucial the stakes at play in that country have become.

Trump’s attacks on US institutions lay the groundwork for creeping authoritarianism

Concerns over the US president’s attitude towards some trusted establishments should not be dismissed as ‘Trump panic’

Donald Trump is planning a massive military parade in Washington. There’s no political support or good reason for such a bellicose spectacle; it is purely his whim and would only be celebrating his presidency. The last one held was after the first Gulf War in 1991.

But the thought of tanks and missile launchers lumbering down Constitution Avenue inexorably conjures, yet again, the specter of creeping authoritarianism.

In these pages a year ago, I speculated about what an authoritarian turn by Mr Trump might look like. Because American institutions are strong and he hasn’t faced a major crisis, it remains largely hypothetical.

However, Mr. Trump is systematically laying the groundwork for the first phase of such a process, the institutionalization of the American system, by undermining the legitimacy of core social and government institutions.

His rhetorical broadsides are aimed at many targets but crucially, they include the main institutions that could threaten or check his power.

Most dramatic and unprecedented is his vendetta against the FBI and his own Justice Department.

He claims that by probing the last election they have “politicized the sacred investigative process”. The FBI’s reputation, he declares, is “in Tatters – the worst in History” [sic]. He says he is only condemning senior law enforcement officials, all of whom serve at his pleasure, not the rank and file. But he has shown all levels of FBI personnel can be accused of corruption or even “treason” and ousted.

Congressional Republicans are now hawking a preposterous imaginary conspiracy that claims the Hillary Clinton campaign “colluded with the Russians to get dirt on Mr Trump to feed to the FBI to open up an investigation”.

Obviously, Mr Trump and his minions declared war on the FBI because they are afraid of what it might uncover. But now 73 per cent of Republicans believe the FBI is plotting to “delegitimize” Mr Trump and imagining a non-existent, malevolent “deep state“.

This follows similar condemnations of intelligence agencies like the CIA, which he compared to Nazis.

Mr Trump has denigrated courts as “disgraceful,” a “joke” and a “laughing stock” and threatened to “break up” the ninth circuit court after it ruled against him.

He has lambasted many of his own appointees and expressed deep hostility towards government employees in general, especially through his paranoid “deep state” rhetoric.

Mr Trump calls for the jailing of his political rivals like Mrs Clinton and her aides. He condemned Congressional Democrats who didn’t applaud him as “traitors” and therefore, implicitly, deserving of death. He also routinely reviles Republicans who challenge him.

He dismisses reporting he dislikes, no matter how accurate, as “fake news” and labels the reputable press “the enemy of the American people”, which is fueling a violent hatred of journalists among his supporters.

So, Mr Trump is systematically delegitimising every institution that could meaningfully check or threaten him. But is that really so dangerous?

He remains popular with Republican voters so most Republican politicians kowtow to him.

But many conservative commentators are not so much pro-Trump as opposed to strong anti-trump rhetoric, finding vehement criticism of him more objectionable than his conduct.

They dismiss concerns about incipient authoritarianism as “Trump derangement syndrome” or “Trump panic” and note that he hasn’t yet acted in an overtly autocratic manner.

True. But that assessment elides the processes through which authoritarian degradation can most readily infect democratic systems. It ignores the profound and inherent dangers of undermining public confidence in core national institutions such as the police and courts.

Anyone who believes Mr Trump’s conspiracy theories is thereby primed to dismiss any official charges of wrongdoing against him or his associates. They can also no longer trust the courts or Congress. It would all merely confirm the treasonous conspiracy.

That is the essence of the de-institutionalisation fatal to democracy. And it’s happening now.

Moreover, anti-anti-Trump arguments miss how slippery the de-institutionalisation slope is and how quickly and imperceptibly it can morph from the rhetorical and manageable to the applied and uncontainable.

They hold his broadsides are excusably defensive since Mr Trump is just retaliating, however clumsily, against those attacking him. The FBI, Justice Department, other officials and agencies and even the courts, whenever they challenge him for whatever reason, are therefore legitimate political targets. They say Mr Trump, like all elected leaders, has “a duty to fight for his political existence”.

This formula legitimises virtually anything he might do to stay in office. Worse, it fails to recognise that while Mr Trump’s campaigns against key American institutions might, for the moment, be mostly defensive and countering direct, specific and limited threats to his interests, that can change almost instantly and imperceptibly.

By the time anyone realises that he has gone beyond protecting himself and is effectively dismantling, neutralising or co-opting cornerstone democratic institutions, the process will already be well underway. But, even once everyone knows it’s started, can that process be readily stopped? Turkey, Russia, Venezuela and other contemporary examples suggest not.

Why would the public ever mourn corrupt cops, crooked judges, conspiratorial deep state spies and bureaucrats, treasonous politicians and lying reporters? Wouldn’t anyone who really believes their country faces such evils be grateful to be saved by a strongman charging to the rescue at the head of a glorious military parade?

Memo controversy shows how the Republican Party is bending to Donald Trump

Over the past year the Republican establishment has come to terms with Donald Trump, who essentially conducted a hostile takeover of their party during the presidential primaries. As in any marriage, this couple has changed each other considerably during their cohabitation.

It’s hard to overstate how fused they have become, as demonstrated by many Republican lawmakers joining the president in a vicious and bizarre war against his own FBI and Department of Justice.

This week House Republicans breached all tradition and propriety regarding handling classified information by releasing a memo from Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes. It accuses the FBI of deliberate wrongdoing in seeking a surveillance court order for one of Mr Trump’s former foreign policy advisers, Carter Page.

This comically inept, self-refuting, document is clearly intended to confuse public opinion by throwing grave-sounding, but spurious, charges at the investigators themselves, “policing the police”. They probably also hope to give the president an excuse to sack Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a fraught imperative I explained on these pages in July, and replace him with a subservient successor willing to fire special counsel Robert Mueller and terminate the Russia-Trump campaign investigation.

However, the memo deeply undermines many of Mr Trump’s supporters’ most important claims.

It confirms, for the first time, that the investigation of the Trump campaign originated neither with a controversial “dossier” of unverified opposition research financed by Democrats, nor anything to do with Mr Page, but with credible allegations about statements by another Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos. And Mr Page, who US law enforcement had long considered a potential Russian agent, had already left the Trump campaign by the time the court order was sought.

Thus, two key conspiratorial claims – that the supposedly left-wing FBI sought to harm the Trump campaign and misrepresented biased information to gain a court order to spy on one of its operatives (Mr Page) – collapse. And this is without anyone having seen either the actual court order application or a rebuttal by House Democrats that the Republican majority would not allow to be publicized.

All this starkly demonstrates how much credibility congressional Republicans are willing to sacrifice for Mr Trump.

While he does not care much about most policy issues, on several fronts Mr Trump has shifted to conform with traditional Republican positions. The economic populism of his campaign has totally evaporated now that he’s in office. The recent tax bill, the benefits of which will, at first largely and eventually almost exclusively, be enjoyed by only the wealthiest Americans, reflected zero concern for the middle or working classes.

These Americans might have benefited from a $1 trillion infrastructure spending program Mr Trump advocated during the campaign, and still mentions. But it’s hard to imagine the Republicans in Congress approving such massive spending, particularly since their aforementioned tax bill will raise the budget deficit by about $1.5 trillion in the next 10 years.

Still, Mr Trump has succeeded in shifting most Republican leaders on several of his core issues. Most Republicans have traditionally been sympathetic to immigration and free trade. No longer.

Hostility to immigration was the hallmark of Mr Trump’s presidential campaign, and was combined with chauvinism, nativism and the unmistakable taint of white nationalism. Now most Republican lawmakers seem to have abandoned their traditional pro-immigrant stance and, without adopting Mr Trump’s ethnic and racial hostilities, embraced his policy agenda of restricting legal immigration and cracking down on undocumented migrants. They have even cooperated with his seizure of 700,000 undocumented migrants brought to the United States as children as de facto hostages in the immigration and budget battles with the Democrats.

Mr Trump hasn’t won them over completely on trade, but Republicans are adopting a much more sceptical attitude. For now, the understanding between them appears to be that those agreements that have not yet been implemented, such as the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership can and should be abandoned. Nonetheless, most congressional Republicans remain supportive of existing trade agreements Mr Trump has threatened to scrap, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement and the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement.

We are only a year into the complex and tense pas de deux ballet between the insurgent populist and establishment conservatives. Which prevails on trade, particularly regarding well-established agreements, will strongly indicate the long-term balance of power and influence.

The widest gap between them, though, cuts to the very heart of the Nunes memo and the Mueller investigation: Russia.

Unlike the president, most Republicans remain deeply sceptical of Moscow, as does almost all of Mr Trump’s own cabinet.

That many key Republicans are nonetheless willing to engage in open warfare, with the once-hallowed FBI no less and over an investigation into Russian covert operations of all things, to defend Mr Trump, without even knowing what he may be hiding, demonstrates how joined at the hip these unlikely Siamese twins have become.

If the Republican Party can survive the Trump era intact, hardly a certainty, another three, let alone seven, years will surely leave it unrecognizable from the party of traditional American conservatism. In many ways, it already is.