Trump’s Golan Trump Card: Syria, Moscow, State Sovereignty, and International Security

by Gordon M. Hahn

In an article from a few years ago, I noted the likelihood of a “myriad of new consequences induced by the U.S. and Russian interventions in Iraq and Syria. They are very unlikely to be good. One can only hope that they will be limited to a slight escalation of the ‘new cold war’ rather than its transformation into a hot one.” It was feared that great power meddling in these regions’ politics, intended to increase or maximize power, is likely to bring unintended, unmanageable, and potentially catastrophic consequences further down the road (https://gordonhahn.com/2017/11/09/russia-america-and-the-consequences-of-great-power-intervention-in-the-middle-east/). While as yet not catastrophic in terms of its own consequences, U.S. President Donald trump’s recent decision to recognize of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights appears to one of those consequences. Nonetheless, it is a regrettable decision driven by a combination of motives, some emotional, others ideological, others driven by geopolitical interests as understood by the present elite through its ‘lone superpower’ lens. The decision strikes a fifth, even fatal blow (if one has not already been delivered) to one of the post-Cold War — indeed post- Congress of Vienna principles of the international order (ironically laid down Russian Tsar Alexander I in league with Austria and Prussia after the Napoleonic wars): the inviolability of state borders. 

Trump’s emotions often get the better of him. One need only read a biography of him, watch him in debates, or his look at his less than presidential tweets. In this case, however, the emotional impetus, is more likely to have come from the old guardians of the neocon order. Such anti-Russian hawks around him sought revenge Putin’s annexation of Crimea, which somewhat foiled the West’s ‘capture’ of Ukraine in the February 2014 Maidan uprising. Now, Washington has taken revenge for that and for Russia’s supplanting it as the force that will decide the future of Syria. Put simply: Washington takes ‘Russia’s Kiev’ – Moscow takes Crimea (and maybe Donbass?), Moscow takes Syria back from the clutches of Washington, Washington gives Israel the Golan. Take that. Trump likely went along because of some sympathies for Israel and the need to compensate for the decline in his own domestic political resulting from his decision to cut American losses and reverse a failed Obama administration policy, which he inherited.     

The ideological imperative for the West is two-fold: primarily democracy-promotion and, among a small though increasingly vocal segment of the population, evangelical messianic apocalypticism. Regarding, democracy expansion, while Trump may not be enamored with pushing others to live as the West does, many in the US and European establishments do. To accomplish democratization the preservation of America’s premier status as global leader must be maintained, and the loss to Putin in Syria undermined that status. The other ideological or, better put, theo-ideological driver is the the idea all too popular many fundamentalist Christians and Jews (akin to similar apocalypto-messianic beliefs held by Shia ‘Twelvers’ and radical Sunnis of the ISIS type) which holds that the apocalypse will be set off a war beginning with Russia (allegedly Magog in the Bible) and an allied coalition invading Israel.* This, for example, is the view of the very popular talk show host Glenn Beck, who also argues that God made a “covenant” blessing America starting with George Washington (www.stitcher.com/podcast/the-glenn-beck-program/e/59031917?autoplay=true). For such people, much of this messianism is rooted in a special American relationship with, and role in defending Israel.  While I strongly support Israel’s right to exist, its sovereignty and national security, I reject the ‘Russia-Magog’ theory’ of international relations and the apocalypse. The rise of people like Secretary of State Pompeo, who is known to be an avid evangelical Christian, raises fears that he might be letting his religious beliefs trump his policy advice (https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/pompeo-suggests-god-sent-trump-save-israel-n986136). Religion as an ideology should not drive US foreign policy. Moreover, there are material interests attached to this not always altruistic value of democratization and regime change — or what I call revolutionism — in Western, in particular the American political and strategic cultures. Careers in democracy promotion and in expanding NATO and EU bureaucracy, Western access to arms and energy markets and natural resources, etc. also count for quite a lot. 

As alluded to above, geopolitical interest provides support to ideology and expansion just as ideology and its various expansions support America’s geopolitical position. The leverage needed sometimes to nudge, cajole, and intimidate recalcitrant states and societies is based on America’s continuing world leadership. preservation of America’s degrading ‘lone superpower’ status–what might be called residual ’20th century thinking. Under such thinking, Russia had to be made be to pay for its oneupmanship, and the price, paid by Moscow’s ally, was Golan. Without payback to Russia, Moscow’s ally and the emerging global superpower, China, will get the message that the American century’s end has already run its course and may adopt a foreign policy that leans even more forward than the current, one which administration officials are already urging needs to be countered robustly. For Washington, the fact that the Obama administration’s failed policies in Syria and Iraq which created the ISIS and Al Qa`ida predominance within the Syrian opposition is forgotten at the border. At home, Obama is the bungler and Muslim sympathizer who grew the jihadis in Syria and Iraq. Abroad, Washington’s ludicrous talk about a significant ‘moderate’ Syrian opposition, and Putin’s desire to suppress ‘Syrian freedom’ will always remain the leitmotifs.’ Of course, the only substantial moderate opposition force in Syria was and remains the Kurds, and they are a separatist and largely socialist-communist force not a democratic opposition force aiming to bring Jeffersonian democracy to Damascus.

But most important in all this is the precipitous downside for international stability and security. Trump has delivered the fifth post-Cold War blow to international principle of the inviolability of state sovereignty and borders. The first was Germany’s and the EU’s recognition of the independence of Slovenia and Croatia from Yugoslavia in January 1992. While understandable, perhaps, from several perspectives, this decision opened up a Pandora’s box Western-backed secessions, each hitting Russian allies and international interests in turn provoking Russian countermoves. A direct result of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s was the rise of Kosovar nationalism and criminality leading to war with Serbia. The bombing of Moscow-friendly Belgrade was the first blow to what remained after NATO expansion’s first round of any hopes for a post-Cold War Western modus vivendi with Russia. Matters were made worse by the prosecution of mostly Yugoslav war criminals, even though Croatia and Bosnia-Herzogovina’s crimes were as grave, if one takes into account the criminal disproportionality created the Yugoslav’s greater opportunity for crimes of war as the victorious force.

The Yugoslav debacle led to the Serbian-Kosovo war and the West’s violation its own (Western-sponsored) UN Security Council resolution establishing the UN peacekeeping mission in Kosovo and putting an end to the war, which stipulated the inviolability of Serbia’s territorial integrity. The West soon recognized Kosovo’s independence–a second blow to Moscow’s Serbian allies. This was not forgotten in Moscow.

When Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili rose to power on a wave of nationalism, glorifying Zviad Gamsakhurdia’s repressive, would-be genocidal policies vis-a-vis Abkhaziya as well as South Ossetiya (Russia’s long-time Orthodox ally in the Caucasus), and started a war against the latter of these two breakaway republics in August 2008, Russia responded with overpowering force, threw out Georgian forces from South Ossetiya and pre-empted a likely subsequent Georgian invasion of Abkhazia. More importantly, Moscow recognized the independence of both Abkhaziya and South Ossetiya, something it had abstained from doing for nearly decades of de facto independence of both from Tbilisi. Moscow reacted similarly in the wake of the Maidan protests’ illegal removal from power of popularly-elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014. In response to West’s audacious democracy-promotion and EU- and NATO-expanding efforts in Ukraine, the West’s universal acceptance of the new Maidan regime born in violation of an EU-Russian brokered agreement on resolution of the crisis and a terrorist snipers’ bloodbath targeting both police and civilians carried out by the Maidan’s minority but inordinately influential neofascist element, Moscow overreacted, supporting, indeed encouraging Crimea’s secession from Ukraine and annexed the peninsula. Moscow for a second time had responded to a Western gambit by violating the principle of the inviolability of borders on the Slovenia-Croatia-Kosovo model, evening up the score at 2-2.

While Russian military action in Georgia and Ukraine clearly violated the state sovereignty of both states, both the Western, US-led military interventions in Serbia in 1999 and Syria recently, given their lack of a UN mandate, did the same to the sovereignty of both those stated.

With Trump’s support for Israel’s sovereignty over Golan, the West just took back the lead in this fools’ game of geopolitical one-upmanship to the detriment of the international order’s stability. This step undermines the basic principle of global comity and stability fundamentally weakens international security. Even the beleaguered Ukrainian leadership, so dependent on Washington, has refused to endorse Trump’s decision, stating Kiev will stand behind UN resolutions on Syria’s sovereignty over the Golan (https://www.pravda.com.ua/rus/news/2019/03/27/7210304/). Of course, the weakening of the principle of territorial inviolability undermines their own claim to Crimea and Donbass.  However, Ukraine is weak. China is not and, though it will not support Trump’s decision, it will not condemn it robustly. It will serve perhaps a useful purpose for Beijing if or when it decides to take Taiwan, to move more forcefully on islands in the South China Sea, or to do away with Hong Kong’s autonomy. 

All this is most troubling, given that it comes on the background of an international system transitioning from a unipolar to a bipolar or multipolar structure and a world about to go truly life-altering technological changes with potentially revolutionary cultural, social, economic and political consequences. It makes one wonder whether the doomsayers might just be on to something. The question is whether teetering Ukraine, chaotic Syria, American debt, a China crisis, a global economic meltdown or some other crisis point send the system spinning out of control.   

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* See, for example, “GOD warns Iran (Persia), with Russia (Magog), and a coalition of allies (including Turkey, Libya, Sudan) will go to war and will invade Israel.  In Ezekiel 38-39 the Bible warns this coming war between Iran (Persia) and Israel will take place sometime afterIsrael has been re-gathered into Her land as a nation (which was fulfilled on May 14, 1948) … this prophetic war has never yet taken place” (www.alphanewsdaily.com/Warning%206%20Russia%20Iran%20Invasion.html).

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About the Author – Gordon M. Hahn, Ph.D., Expert Analyst at Corr Analytics, www.canalyt.com and a Senior Researcher at the Center for Terrorism and Intelligence Studies (CETIS), Akribis Group, San Jose, California, www.cetisresearch.org. Dr. Hahn is the author of Ukraine Over the Edge: Russia, the West, and the ‘New Cold War (McFarland Publishers, 2017) and three previously and well-received books: Russia’s Revolution From Above: Reform, Transition and Revolution in the Fall of the Soviet Communist Regime, 1985-2000 (Transaction Publishers, 2002);  Russia’s Islamic Threat (Yale University Press, 2007); and The Caucasus Emirate Mujahedin: Global Jihadism in Russia’s North Caucasus and Beyond (McFarland Publishers, 2014). He has published numerous think tank reports, academic articles, analyses, and commentaries in both English and Russian language media and has served as a consultant and provided expert testimony to the U.S. government. Dr. Hahn also has taught at Boston, American, Stanford, San Jose State, and San Francisco State Universities and as a Fulbright Scholar at Saint Petersburg State University, Russia. He has been a senior associate and visiting fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Kennan Institute in Washington DC as well as the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.

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About Gordon M. Hahn