Up until Thursday night Jan 26, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was considered to have been reinstated as the Trump administration’s point man for developing policies on Syria and Iran. For weeks, he had been working on new formulae. Key European powers, led by French President Emmanuel Macron, were cooperating and positive feedback was coming in from the Kremlin. Tillerson was on the way to gaining a three-way consensus for correcting the flaws in the 2015 Iran nuclear accord, counting on the Russians to come aboard after the Europeans. This step was to have a possible added value of driving a wedge through the Moscow-Tehran alliance. Regarding Syria, the Secretary had roped in Saudi Arabia and Egypt for persuading Moscow to meet the US halfway.
And so, when President Donald Trump set out for Davos last week, Tillerson was sure he was on track for the launch of a fresh American strategy for breaking out of the two most inflammable Middle East logjams.
Last autumn, Tillerson was rumored to have lost the president’s confidence and widely perceived as on his way out as secretary of state. Two potential successors were even mentioned: Ambassador Nikki Haley and CIA Director Mike Pompeo. An apparent White House shakeup appeared to be in the making. National Security adviser H.R. McMaster, the leading White House voice on North Korea, Russia, China and Iran, recently revealed about that period: “Trump moved a lot of us out of our comfort zones, me included.” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, never a member of the Trump inner circle, disappeared from the policymaking hub in the White House, as did the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, once a frequent visitor.
Conversely, Pompeo moved closer to the crux of decision-making. Since then, he has taken the lead in publicly defending President Trump against his many critics, commenting on Jan. 22: “Nearly every day, I get up, get ready, read the material that’s been presented early in the morning and then trundle down from Langley to the White House.” Speaking to the American Enterprise Institute, he said: “Critics say the president sometimes seems less than fully informed on international matters, tweeting first and asking questions later.” According to Pompeo, “The president asks hard questions; he’s deeply engaged; we have rambunctious back and forth.” Regularly present at their 30-40-minute meetings, the CIA chief reported, were McMaster and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats. “Each day, we try to talk about something that’s of the moment, something that happened overnight.”
During January, meanwhile, Tillerson beavered away at his plan for lining Europe and Russia up with America and its Arab allies for new policy initiatives on Iran and Syria. Little was he prepared for the rude shock that awaited him.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources report that, shortly after Trump landed in Davos, the White House informed Tillerson’s team that the president had had a sudden change of mind and had decided to countermand all the deals Tillerson had entered into on the two issues.This included the understandings with President Vladimir Putin and President Emmanuel Macron.
Up until now, no one can say for sure what prompted the president’s sudden reversal. Our sources report that, shortly after he landed in Switzerland, Trump requested a second viewing of the working papers submitted by the Tillerson team relating to Russia, Iran, Turkey and Syria. He decided on the spot that the diplomacy called for by the new policy prescriptions was too complicated and beset with too many landmines, such as Bashar Assad’s future, the Turkish war on the Kurds, and the areas to remain under US military control. In his view, the papers focused on side issues, in which America had no business getting involved and over which the bargaining could drag on for months, if not years. Trump declared in the middle of his perusal that he was not interested in piecemeal solutions. Washington must lay out a simple and clear policy and above all look out for American interests.
According to some US sources, Trump was advised to strike down the Tillerson effort by Pompeo, who vetoed almost every point raised in the working papers presented to the president. He took issue, for instance, with the Russian plan not to scrap the existing Syrian constitution, but to keep it with improvements, because, he argued, this would leave Assad in power. But what raised the CIA chief’s ire most of all was Moscow’s refusal to acknowledge the legality of a US military presence in Syria in any future settlement, claiming that, unlike the Russians and Iranians, the Americans were not invited by the ruling government in Damascus and must therefore leave. Outraged by this claim, Washington maintained that its military’s stay in Syria had full international authorization, whereas the regime which invited Russia and Iran is ruled by an illegitimate dictator.
The CIA chief settled his score with the Kremlin by putting spokes in Vladimir Putin’s Syrian National Dialogue Congress, which opened in Sochi on Jan. 29. His agents urged various opposition groups who were invited to stay away. This intervention by the CIA was partly to blame for the event’s failure.
Once again, US-Russian cooperation in Syria is floundering. But meanwhile, Pompeo is pursuing without pause America’s covert military operations in Syria, more about which in a separate article.