Trump’s Back-Channel Diplomacy Lays the Ground for Strong Debut
Some observers have cited Churchill’s epigram – a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma – to define the dense curtain of secrecy wrapped around President Elect Donald Trump’s first forays into foreign and security policies.
DEBKA Weekly’s sources have found clues to what he is up to.
A team of secret emissaries has been fanning out since last week across key capitals to open up points of contact for the incoming president with foreign heads of state, spy service leaders and high-ranking military officers.
His emissaries have reached Moscow, Jerusalem, Ankara and Irbil, among other places. The first to surface was Lt. Col (ret.) Oliver North. He suddenly turned up on television screens Sunday, Nov. 13, with a report from Irbil, capital of the semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdish Regional Government.
Oliver North, an ace in back-channel covert military and intelligence contacts, was President Ronald Reagan’s deputy director of the National Security Council, best known for his role in the clandestine Iran-Contra affair, for which he was first convicted, then cleared of charges.
After spending sixteen years as a media pundit and writing thrillers, he emerged this week on the front line of the US-Iraqi offensive for wresting the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State, in the service of the incoming US president.
His arrival in Irbil was certainly not lost on Gen. Stephen Townsend, US commander in Iraq and Syria, or Gen. Qassem Soleimani, Tehran’s man on the two fronts.
A second (still unnamed) retired senor intelligence figure landed in Ankara in the first week of November. His mission was to forge common ground with Turkish army and MIT intelligence chiefs in preparation for the Turkish army to undertake proactive roles in Syria and Iraq.
His interviews were set up Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, one of the Trump campaign’s most prominent speakers who may be slated for the role of defense secretary or national security adviser in the White House.
Flynn built up a broad network of high-level Turkish contacts while serving as Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, the DIA until a year ago.
The understandings reached in those talks conflicted sharply with the accords that Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Chiefs of Staff, concluded in Ankara with his Turkish counterpart Gen. Akar Hulusi – as recently as Nov. 11 – and therefore collided with the steps taken by President Barack Obama in his last weeks in office.
Seeing his last efforts being rolled back by Trump’s secret diplomacy, Obama acted to put a spoke in his successor’s wheel: As debkafile reported exclusively Monday, Nov. 14, the US president ordered massive US arms supplies to be shipped from Iraq to the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, putting up backs in Ankara as well as the KRG in Irbil.
The president was not given access to the deals Trump’s emissary struck in Ankara, but he strongly suspected they were intended to put paid to his planned offensives to defeat ISIS in their Raqqa and Mosul strongholds before he left the White House in just over two months – and so deprive Obama of his last legacy.
Obama may have inferred that Vladimir Putin was in the picture of the Trump emissary’s activities from a short statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov on Nov. 10.
“There were contacts” with the Trump team, he said. “Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage… We have just begun to consider ways of building dialogue with the future Donald Trump administration and the channels we will be using for those purposes.”
Trump’s initial forays into foreign military and intelligence terrain ahead of his arrival in the Oval Office strongly recall presidential candidate Ronald Reagan’s tactics in 1981. Shortly before the election, he sent William J. Casey, whom he had tabbed as CIA Director, for secret contacts with Iranian officials – both to cement his victory and to procure Tehran’s pledge to release the 444 US hostages held by Iranian revolutionaries at the embassy in Tehran, directly after the election.
Trump is also laying the ground ahead of his swearing-in for stepping up as a strong, resolute and competent leader.
DEBKA Weekly’s analysts and observers will examine some of the ties he is building up in with Russia, Israel and Turkey in separate articles in this and future issues.