BEIRUT // While the specifics of Donald Trump’s foreign policy are largely yet to be revealed, some things are certain. One is that he will seek to build a closer relationship with Russia and end the hostility and antagonism that has characterised Barack Obama’s relationship with Vladimir Putin. Another is that the US will posture itself more aggressively towards Iran and work to undo the diplomatic headway made during the Obama administration.
In the Middle East, however, these two policies represent an inherent contradiction as Russian and Iranian interests largely combine and the two nations work closely together. For Mr Trump, balancing warmer ties with Moscow and hostility toward Tehran could emerge as one of his administration’s biggest challenges in the region.
This contradiction is most clear in Syria, where Russia and Iran have been the driving forces behind the successes of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s war effort.
Mr Trump and Moscow say Russia is killing terrorists in Syria, though the reality – and the assessment of the US-led anti-ISIL coalition – is that Russia has devoted the vast majority of its time and resources in Syria to fighting non-extremist anti-government rebels. Russia’s mission in Syria has been to allow the survival of Mr Al Assad’s regime, propping up a key Iranian ally in the Middle East. As the Syrian government’s forces have been worn down by years of war, it has increasingly turned to Iran-backed fighters, most notably Hizbollah. Russian air strikes in Syria directly benefit these groups on the battlefield, allowing their power – and Iran’s – to swell in Syria.
But Russia’s intervention goes beyond coincidentally helping Iran and its friends and proxies in Syria: there are signs of much closer coordination at work. Iran allowed Russia to use one of its airbases to help its bombing campaign in Syria – although the privilege was later revoked after Moscow bragged about what was apparently meant to be a covert operation.
With Russian troops playing a larger role, coordination and interaction with Iran-backed factions has become essential on the front line. In a video posted to social media in November, three Russian soldiers are seen sitting alongside what appears to be a Hizbollah fighter as they repeat pro-Hizbollah lines in broken Arabic before saying “yes, Hizbollah” in English while flashing a thumbs up.
In government-held areas of Syria, the image of Mr Putin is often seen on posters alongside Mr Al Assad and Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.
Mr Trump has promised a departure from Mr Obama’s policy of backing the Syrian rebels and said the US could work with Russia in Syria under his presidency. But by doing so, the American president-elect could put the US on the same side – or at least tacitly working with – Iran and its local proxies like Hizbollah.
Mr Trump’s cabinet is stacked with Iran hawks who rarely miss an opportunity to condemn the Islamic Republic and bring up Hizbollah’s history of killing American citizens during Lebanon’s civil war.
His nominee for secretary of defence, General James Mattis, said during his time at the head of the US central command that the top three threats facing the US were “Iran, Iran, Iran”. He also said the removal of Mr Al Assad would be “the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years” and that the involvement of Iran and the militias it supports in Syria has been the only thing to keep Mr Al Assad in power.
Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, Mr Trump’s pick for national security adviser, has been obsessed with Iran. As director of the defence intelligence agency, he was convinced Tehran was behind the 2012 attack on a US diplomatic compound in the Libyan city of Benghazi – despite all evidence pointing to the contrary. He has also claimed that Iran is closely linked with Al Qaeda.
Lt Gen Flynn has consistently spoken against the deal between Iran and world powers to cut back its nuclear programme in exchange for an easing of sanctions and advocated a harder, more confrontational approach to Tehran. He also recognises regional concerns that Iran is trying to expand its power in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq and Syria.
However, Lt Gen Flynn is also seemingly an embodiment of the Trump administration’s contradictions between Iran and Russia. Despite his condemnation of Iran, the national security adviser pick has been seen as close to Moscow, contributing to the state-run RT television station and sitting next to Mr Putin at the channel’s tenth anniversary gala. Asked at the event if a 2013 chemical weapons attack by the Iran and Russia-backed Syrian government in the town of Ghouta was a “false flag”, Lt Gen Flynn said: “Who knows.”
Mr Trump’s vice president, Indiana governor Mike Pence, has been aggressive on Iran, promising to “rip up” the nuclear deal and calling Tehran the “leading state-sponsor of terrorism”. He has also been tough on Mr Putin, calling him a “small and bullying” leader and broke with Mr Trump’s anti-intervention rhetoric on the campaign trail by calling for the US to establish safe zones in Syria and carry out punitive strikes against the Syrian government.
So far, Mr Trump’s Syria policy has started to show the strains of different voices within his administration over the need to confront Iranian ambitions while growing closer with Russia.
Despite saying on the campaign trail that the US should not get involved in Syria’s civil war and should work with Russia to combat terrorism in Syria, as president-elect Mr Trump has said Washington will work to establish safe zones for Syrian civilians.
Building any such safe zones would require some sort of military protection from the US or its allies, entrenching Washington further into Syria’s civil war. Any ability to protect an area from Syrian and Russian jets would likely bolster Syria’s opposition, even if the zone was designed for civilians – something that would upset Russia and complicate any potential military coordination between Moscow and Washington in the conflict.