Here’s what’s likely to happen in the coming year if the security leaders of Russia and the United States remain as expected. There will be a warm telephone or video call between James Mattis, the retired general picked to be Donald Trump’s defense secretary, and Gen. Valery Gerasimov, the head of Russia’s military.
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Both presidents bear the title of commander in chief of their armed forces. The Russian defense minister, Sergey Shoygu, has a civilian background, even though he wears a military uniform, a tradition in his country. Thus Gerasimov is the highest-ranking man among Vladimir Putin’s security advisers.
Mattis, 66, and Gerasimov, 61, share the same birthday, September 8. Both dedicated time and thought to developing a strategic doctrine befitting the time, place and circumstances, including asymmetric warfare.
Mattis knows well his colleagues in the Israeli military from his days developing the Marines’ military doctrine as head of the U.S. Joint Forces Command. He was also head of U.S. Central Command – CENTCOM – during the preparation for operations against Iran and in the first years of the Syrian civil war.
Relations between the Israel Defense Forces and CENTCOM are flourishing. Officers from the General Staff’s planning division met in Tel Aviv with their counterparts from the three American commands operating in Syria – CENTCOM, EUCOM (European Command, to which Israel and Turkey belong) and SOCOM (Special Operations Command).
Gerasimov, naturally, is less friendly with the Israelis, but last year he hosted Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot for a meeting designed to prevent incidents between the two countries’ militaries as the Russians ramped up their presence in Syria.
Nowadays, Israeli-Russian relations are warmer than U.S.-Russian relations, which Putin put in the deep freeze so he could pull them out to thaw after Trump is sworn in. There has been a video conference between Russian and American officers, in a similar hope of preventing run-ins, but the general atmosphere is an intentional chill.
Another blow to the Obama administration came after a meeting in London between outgoing Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and his Turkish counterpart, Fikri Isik. Carter praised Turkey’s contribution to Operation Euphrates Shield in Syria. The next day Turkey joined the Russian-Iranian agreements.
People in the region realize which way the wind is blowing, from Barack Obama to Trump and from him to Putin. It seems that a new geopolitical entity, Amrussia, is being created on the basis of Putin’s assistance to his friend Trump and his friend Rex Tillerson, the secretary-of-state nominee and CEO of the oil – sorry, energy – company Exxon Mobil.
Pence like Nixon
It’s an extreme turnabout, because Obama, Carter and the generals in the Pentagon, of which Mattis was one (as was Trump’s pick for national security adviser, Michael Flynn), view Russia as a rival, a softer term for an enemy.
Russia is a partner in diplomatic efforts against chemical weapons in Syria and Iranian nukes, but it threatens other American interests in Europe and Asia. Russia uses violence in places like Ukraine, Crimea and Syria to achieve its aims, which are consistent with Putin and Gerasimov’s overlapping approaches. For Trump in politics and Putin in strategy, the end justifies the means.
In every lecture and hearing attended by the heads of the U.S. administration that will pass from this world in four weeks, Russia leads the top-five security challenges. It comes before China, Iran, North Korea and “violent extremist organizations,” code for the Islamic State, Al-Qaida and other Islamists.
What will happen starting on January 20? Will the bear change his coat in operational planning and discussions at NATO? After all, the European members of that alliance fear that Trump will neglect them, and they fear Putin, who harshly opposes the anti-missile system around the alliance’s eastern belt.
In one respect, Trump is bringing things back to the days of Dwight Eisenhower in the ‘50s. Eisenhower lacked political experience. His vice president was a politician with connections in Congress, Richard Nixon, and Eisenhower delegated authority. He expected Congress and Nixon to solve their arguments and only bring to him irreconcilable disputes as the final arbiter.
Trump, who patently suffers from (or enjoys) a short temper, a short attention span and little familiarity with the material, will surely put most of the burden on his (former congressman) deputy Mike Pence and the cabinet secretaries. A tug-of-war between two aggressive figures like Mattis and Tillerson will determine the center of gravity of foreign and security policy.
Tillerson isn’t the first Texas oilman in a Republican administration. William Clements, the undersecretary of defense in the Nixon administration during the Yom Kippur War and the OPEC boycott, preceded him. Clements, later governor of Texas, was the anti-Israel pole in the administration.
Luckily for Israel, Nixon didn’t appoint another Texan with close oil ties, Governor John Connally, as his vice president and potential successor. Oil has lost much of its weight, but don’t eulogize it. As long as relations with Saudi Arabia, Iran and Russia are taken into account, the result won’t benefit Israel.
Like Eisenhower and the Sinai?
In another respect, Trump is almost the entire opposite of Eisenhower, who through Secretary of State John Foster Dulles tried to block Soviet expansion and who mistakenly spoke in terms of “the Sino-Soviet bloc.” Nixon and his adviser Henry Kissinger learned to discern the cracks in the Russian camp. Now the triangle has been turned on its side. China is worrying about a Russian-American rapprochement.
Besides Stalin, who ruled for nearly three decades, Putin is the most stable Russian leader. He was head of the Federal Security Service from 1998, prime minister a year later, and president from 2000 (including four years as prime minister for the imaginary President Dmitry Medvedev).
The Lenin-Stalin-Putin chain overshadows all other links. Moreover, leaders like Nikita Khrushchev and Leonid Brezhnev came to the fore out of a troika. From the beginning, Putin bolstered his power as a sole leader; he didn’t have to worry about interference from Politburo comrades.
Because the continuity of American policy threatens to break down, it’s too early to focus on a particular direction. After all, Trump is unpredictable – how he’ll react, which of his picks will survive the Senate swamp, and how much maneuverability the two houses of Congress will give him.
He’s capable of joining with the Russians as Eisenhower did in the 1956 Suez crisis to force Israel out of Sinai and Gaza. He conceivably could push for an evacuation of the Golan in exchange for peace with Syria as part of a grand deal to restore Bashar Assad’s sovereignty over all Syria.
Given the axis developing between Pennsylvanian Avenue and Red Square, the IDF’s operations branch has labored to polish Israel’s military capability to defeat the friends (Hezbollah) of the friends (Iran) of Trump’s Russian friends. The plan is expected to be ready this summer.
Readers of the plan should note the added emphasis on decisiveness, as opposed to deterrence, in operations in Lebanon and Gaza. In other words, the goal is a quick, strong and clear achievement that would cause “serious damage” to the quasi-governmental organizations that confront Israel. Such an achievement would deny the enemy, for some time, the ability to cause significant damage. It would dull the sting of the nitpicking over whether the war ended in victory or a draw that’s equivalent to a loss.
Overall, Israel’s military situation is good, a senior officer in the General Staff said this week, given all the changes concerning Trump and Putin as well as the Iran nuclear deal. We can put into storage the outdated image of a small country surrounded by enemies. More correctly, small enemies are surrounded by a state, more precisely a world power.
The topic will be Syria and how to avoid conflicts in the air, sea or airwaves in and around Syria.