Shortly before next week’s summit between Presidents Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in Hamburg was announced on Thursday, June 29, the National Security Adviser at the White House, H.R. McMaster, spoke of the need to “confront Russia’s destabilizing behavior in places like the Balkans; to deter conflict; and to foster areas of cooperation.” This remark sounds like a contradiction in terms.
When he announced that the summit would take place on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Germany, McMaster was asked about the agenda. He replied: “There’s no specific agenda, It’s really going to be whatever the president wants to talk about.”
This could not be further from the truth.
The agenda was at that moment being carefully negotiated in a quiet conversation in the Kremlin between the veteran American diplomat, former secretary of state and national security adviser Henry Kissinger and Putin.
The 94-year old Kissinger, who owes his legendary reputation to his wizardry in crafting impossible bridges to overcome irreconcilable international rifts, is emerging as the man the inexperienced President Trump secretly turns to for advice on tricky foreign affairs.
Amid the run-up to the first Trump-Putin encounter, a jarring note was sounded by the White House warning to Syria’s Bashar Assad of serious consequences should he again use chemical weapons against his people. Intelligence was claimed to have shown Syrian regime preparations for an attack of this kind.
It took Secretary of Defense James Mattis no more than 24 hours to put the lid on this crisis. “The didn’t do it,” he declared, suggesting that the Syrian ruler had been deterred by the American warning from going forward with his planned chemical attack.
Mattis found it vital to nip this crisis in the bud, because had the US launched its second direct attack on Syria in three months (The first was a Tomahawk cruise missile strike on the Syrian Shayrat air base on April 7), the Hamburg summit would have been off.
The warning to Assad may have originated in a White House quarter which disapproved of the Kissinger-Mattis line of diplomacy on complex issues, viewing it as too close to the way Barack Obama addressed difficult issues.
This week, the defense secretary and military chiefs were very clear about American priorities in Syria, contending that US military action should be confined to the war on the Islamic State terrorists. The only part of the country of interest therefore should be the Euphrates River Valley in eastern Syria.
This focus ties in with President Trump’s vow to “eradicate ISIS.”
In his comments this week to reporters, Mattis said: “To avoid the seemingly inevitable collisions between US-backed fighters and pro-Syrian government forces, including their respective [Russian] air support… the Euphrates River Valley would be carved up into 'deconfliction' areas."
The defense secretary showed no interest in US troops engaging in battle to curtail the Russian-Iranian military presence in Syria, or hit back at the creeping takeover by Iranian, Syrian and Hizballah forces of the strategic Syrian-Iraqi border. Mattis was totally focused on the Euphrates Valley and the ISIS concentrations there.
It is hard to avoid the assumption that the defense secretary laid out these military cards for Kissinger to play in his interview with Putin when when he set the diplomatic stage for his coming meeting with Trump.
In the few days remaining to the Hamburg encounter, Trump’s hyperactive political foes at home, not to mention his opponents in the Middle East and Europe, may be expected to do what they can to sabotage the US President’s first face to face with the Russian leader. The White House and the Kremlin may be confronted with disturbing facts in an effort to upend any inter-power equilibrium that this summit may offer