The summit in Israel between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin opened with the following joint statement: “We agreed on a full range of our common objectives: full implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions and adhering to principles of international law and moral standards, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Syria, the fight against terror and other important matters.” The call for the rapid return of peace processes in the Middle East, which has been a cornerstone of every diplomatic agreement between the two countries dating back to the Cold War, is notable. Both leaders also reaffirmed their commitment to the idea of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and agreed to work together to implement their agreement in Syria, a move that Israelis and Palestinians have been waiting for. The question is whether these are concrete steps toward ending the conflagration that has claimed a large part of the Middle East. “Shrinking the conflict” is the Trump administration’s new mantra. Here’s a closer look at what “shrinking the conflict” means, why it matters, and what is at stake.
Where does “shrinking the conflict” come from?
This from John Brennan, National Security Adviser to President Barack Obama. On Dec. 16, 2016, Brennan called for a “more comprehensive” approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and declared that the campaign must include “dispelling some myths about the conflict, working to limit the anger that fuels terror attacks, and addressing the underlying grievances that breed and prolong the conflict.” One year later, on June 1, 2017, his successor, Michael Flynn, appeared to offer a more explicit definition for the new U.S. administration’s approach to the conflict: “We are very mindful that in order to resolve the conflict, those are very emotionally-charged issues in the ground,” he said in an interview. “They take a lot of water to get into the streams.”
What are those “emotionally-charged issues”?
Traditionally, one of the elements of peacemaking has been encouraging leaders of the two sides to lower the rhetoric, sign a peace agreement, and then bring their parties together to discuss their agreements. It’s a feat that many have found difficult to accomplish. However, a common tactic for reconciliation in recent years has been highlighting the rights of the other side as a counter to the Palestinian narrative of self-determination and Israeli rule.
What do the US and Russia mean when they say they are working on “the other important matters”?
For starters, the U.S. stands out as being more interested in promoting Russian-American cooperation in a range of areas, from Syria to nuclear disarmament. For its part, Russia appears committed to a win-win approach that would include Syria and the Middle East altogether, whether a viable peace process is achieved or not. Russia and Iran have already agreed to set up a so-called security zone in southern Syria and to a four-fold increase in Syrian oil exports. More significantly, Trump signed a treaty with China agreeing to eliminate North Korea’s nuclear weapons program in exchange for the country allowing U.S. companies to build a sea bridge to China. “A peace deal between the United States and North Korea would get things done — quickly, cheaply, and without having to first attack China,” Donald Trump Jr. said this week. That is why Washington’s “anticipatory, preemptive strike” against Syria was also looked upon as being defensive, as a deterrent measure to prevent future nuclear proliferation.
Is this all about Palestine?
No. In addition to its commitment to push for peace in Syria, Trump’s allies, including Erdogan, Putin, Abe, and Xi, are in the process of redrawing international boundaries in East Asia. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, followed by the bombing campaign in Syria, are factors behind its plan to expand its sphere of influence. China’s “solution” to the South China Sea has drawn similar accusations of reclamation and fortification. All of these actions have sparked “severe tension” in the Pacific region. According to the US Department of State, however, it is the “China threat, not the Libya of the Arab Spring” that “has contributed the most to the establishment of regional security and stability in this century.”