Macron confident Trump will commit to a new Syria strategy

Thursday , April 26, 2018 - 10:00 PM

Karen DeYoung, John Hudson and Josh Dawsey

(c) 2018, The Washington Post.

French President Emmanuel Macron left Washington, D.C., late Wednesday confident he had at least one deal with President Donald Trump in hand, if not yet firmly in his pocket. The U.S. president, he said, had agreed “in principle” to a new Syria strategy that would keep the United States committed to a conflict Trump has vowed to exit.

“We have a feeling the U.S. is willing to work along these lines,” Macron told French journalists at a news conference before taking off for Paris. His proposal, he said, would work whether Trump retained or left the Iran nuclear agreement, although Macron still hoped the Americans would stay. It would address chemical weapons and humanitarian aid and, most important, it would jump-start a political process to end the Syrian civil war and keep the Islamic State from reemerging.

Many, even within Macron’s own government, are doubtful his plan - requiring nuanced choreography by the United States, Russia, Europe, regional partners and even Iran, as well as warring Syrian groups - can succeed where many have failed over the years.

But a comprehensive strategy for Syria is precisely what the Trump administration has been lacking, in the view of numerous U.S. officials, lawmakers, regional experts and allies. And there is broad agreement that the plan to stop the Syrian carnage requires what one European official called “real U.S. engagement.”

“If not,” the official said, “it’s a recipe for disaster.” Several U.S. and European officials discussed the sensitive issue on the condition of anonymity.

Macron and Trump displayed warm chemistry during the French leader’s three-day visit, kissing cheeks, rubbing shoulders and holding hands for the cameras, although they did not hide their policy differences. During a closed-door meeting in the Oval Office on Tuesday, Macron “basically told [Trump] he was wrong on most everything. But the president loved him being there,” said a person knowledgeable about the meetings. “It is really something special.”

On the environment, Macron encouraged Trump to consider rejoining the multilateral Paris climate accord, discussing a wide array of issues from global warming to ocean life to biodiversity. The president, notorious for a short attention span, stayed engaged and refrained from airing previous claims that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese - a sign the French viewed positively, the officials said.

Macron later said, with no public input from Trump, that he believed there was a chance the U.S. president would rejoin the Paris climate accord.

The French leader faced stiff resistance when their talks turned to trade, however, where Trump’s long-held views about “unfair” partners have proved difficult to shake. “Macron could make no headway,” said the person in the room. “I’m not sure anyone can.”

The disagreement over economic policy - Macron and the other members of the European Union want Trump to exempt them from steel tariffs - was the most difficult of the issues that divide them. Trump continues to complain that EU and Chinese trade barriers put U.S. businesses and workers at a disadvantage.

Trump “gave no ground,” the person inside the room said. “It was the worst part of the meeting.”

The issue is due to come to a head on May 1, when tariffs of 25 percent on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum are scheduled to take effect. The tariffs are expected to dominate discussions between Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who will make a brief visit to the White House on Friday. Her relationship with Trump is icy, and “he is not looking forward to Merkel coming,” said the person in the room, adding that Trump “said that to several of us” Tuesday.

Nile Gardiner, a Europe scholar at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said there is a wide gulf between Trump’s views of the two European leaders.

“Trump and Merkel just haven’t really clicked on the world stage, where Trump and Macron have,” Gardiner said. “That’s a reflection that Macron is a real risk-taker and forthright, while Merkel is extremely cautious and nervous about being seen as too close to the U.S. president.”

On the Middle East, Macron described an interlocking web of issues - Iran and its nuclear program and other dangers, the Islamic State and other terrorist groups, the Syrian civil war and the millions of migrants it has sent fleeing to regional countries and Europe, and the millions more displaced and starving inside Syria. None of those problems, he told Trump, could be solved without addressing the others.

Trump did not vow to “rip up” the Iran nuclear agreement, as he has in the past, one knowledgeable official said. But before his departure, Macron told reporters he expected the United States to withdraw from the deal. “If you listened to” Trump in the Oval Office, he said at his news conference, “you would reach the same conclusion.”

What’s important, Macron said, is that “we don’t fall into a vacuum if the U.S. was to decide to walk away.” France and the United States, he said, “agreed to work on a comprehensive deal.”

First is dealing with Iran, ideally through the nuclear agreement and side statements the United States, France, Britain and Germany are working on to address Trump’s concerns about its sunset clauses - in which many of the restrictions on Iran’s uranium enrichment expire in 2025 - flaws in the verification rules, and its failure to address Iran’s ballistic missile development.

The Europeans have said they will stay in the agreement no matter what the Americans decide. The key, if Trump walks away from the deal, is that the United States does not reimpose financial sanctions that prevent European companies from doing business in Iran. That “Plan B,” a European official said, “cannot work without U.S. agreement. Iran needs money. There has to be a deal with the [U.S.] Treasury, otherwise our companies won’t do it.

“If the Americans say they will not only leave the agreement, but destroy it, it punishes European companies. Then it’s over,” the official said.

Iran, of course, has a vote in whether the agreement continues. While European officials in contact with their Iranian counterparts cautioned to watch what Tehran does rather than what it says, statements from the Iranian capital have been harsh. “Any agreement that Europe and America reach about the future of the JCPOA [the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the deal’s official name] and the future of Iran’s nuclear program” regarding the sunset clauses “is invalid and worthless,” Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said recently.

If Iran’s nuclear program can continue to be restrained, and concerns about its ballistic missile program addressed, solutions to Syrian chemical weapons, humanitarian aid and a political process to end the civil war can be developed. The mechanism would be a relatively small “contact” group of stakeholders who are willing to compromise on an endgame that might, at least in the short term, leave Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in power.

“We’re past being ideological” about the outcome, one European official said. Whether it’s pushing Syria to write a new constitution or pushing for elections, the official said, “just pick one, and do it.”

All of the international players on Syria’s complex battlefield are weary of the war and fearful it may expand into a wider conflict among regional actors, including Israel, Iran and Turkey. The greater problem may be persuading the Syrian participants in the civil war.

Rebel fighters are distrustful. Assad has reclaimed much of the country’s territory from rebel groups that had occupied it early in the seven-year war. Russia, Assad’s main backer, believes it has proved that it is a powerful player in the region and increasingly believes Assad should capitalize on his victories and wind down the fighting.

So far, Assad has dug in his heels, saying he wants to “take back” the entire country, including areas east of the Euphrates River, once held by the Islamic State and currently occupied by the United States and its local proxy fighters. Trump has said he wants out of Syria, with U.S. forces and financing replaced by “rich” countries in the region.

A physical U.S. departure, the Europeans believe, would send precisely the wrong signal to Russia, as well as to Assad and to Iran, his other backer, and undercut hopes of a comprehensive peace. It was a reality Trump appeared to allude to in his news conference with Macron after their talks Tuesday.

“We want to come home,” he said. “But we want to leave a strong and lasting footprint, and that was a very big part of our discussion. OK?”


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