Trump’s Mid East Policy Hold-up Leaves Region and Russia up in the Air

Moscow made sure to show President Donald Trump that Vladimir Putin was keenly watching and waiting for the new administration’s Middle East policy to be revealed in his first speech to Congress on Tuesday, Feb. 28.
The Kremlin sent out three eloquent signals of its interest.
Hours before the speech, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov warned that relations with the United States were at their lowest ebb since the Cold War, he said he hoped they could improve under US President Donald Trump. Speaking to parliament in Moscow, he said that Trump’s debut address to Congress would be analyzed for signs of any change in the US stance.
“It would be desirable to believe that changes in Washington will create a window of opportunity for an improvement of dialogue between our countries,” he said.
Analysts in Russia’s leading publications were more specific about Moscow’s expectations: Following a recent pledge by the US president to “totally obliterate” Daesh, they noted, new US military strategy may require more boots on the ground in Syria, a substantial change from the non-military tactics elsewhere in the region.”
The third signal was delivered through secret channels. DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources procured the gist of the message: If you cooperate with us in Syria, we can help you in Yemen.
This was translated as relaying an offer by Moscow to reward the US for military participation in support of the Russians in Syria, by talking the Iranians round into pulling their sponsorship from the Yemeni Houthi rebels. This tradeoff would present the Trump administration with its first success in the drive against Iran and impress Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates with a major breakthrough.
But Vladimir Putin, having shot off his signals, was not waiting idly for word from Washington.
On Sunday Feb. 26, two days before Trump’s speech, he demonstrated how lack of US cooperation could harm American interests by shooting the first Russian Kalibr cruise missiles against Syrian rebels who had seized two districts of the southern town of Daraa from the Syrian army.
Russia did not ask leave of Beirut before sending the missiles, some of which were launched from the Tartus naval base through Lebanese air space. And Israel and Jordan were rocked back to find Russian cruise missiles exploding so close to their borders.
In another significant step designed to jolt Washington, Moscow this week opened a weapons supply line to the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, shortly after CIA Director Mike Pompeo was ordered by President Trump to cut off arms to all Syrian rebel groups pending the charting of administration policy for Syria.
The Americans had assigned the YPG a star role in their forthcoming anti-terror offensives against the Islamic State. But in the interim, Moscow had whisked the Kurdish militia into the Russian orbit, leaving US military planners short of boots on the ground.
None of Putin’s signals drew a responsive chord in Washington. In his epic, wide-ranging speech to the two houses of Congress, Trump omitted all reference to the Middle East, Russia, China, North Korea or Syria.
However, our Washington sources disclose that, inside the president’s close circle, there are voices which argue that if Moscow and its new Kurdish allies are determined to undertake the daunting task of capturing Raqqa from ISIS on their own, let them go ahead and break their necks.
A final prod came from Moscow on Wednesday, March 1 when an unnamed Russian official reported that preparations were afoot for a Putin-Trump meeting at the G-20 summit in July, i.e. in five months time. The White House denied knowledge of such preparations.
The ball is now in Putin’s court. He must decide whether to continue waiting for Trump to make up his mind about Syria and Middle East policy in general, or consider himself brushed off and go forward under his own steam.

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