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How Trump and Putin's brutal bromance will reshape the world

Trump is no fool. Amid the bluster he is overseeing the birth of a new world order of force.

Over the past week the world has witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of America’s intelligence agencies sitting the incoming president down to show him, in painstaking detail, how Russia tried to influence the US election. Then on the day that President Obama gave his final presidential speech – a soaring piece of oratory, heart-wrenching in its eloquence and its defence of Enlightenment values —unverified and salacious claims began circulating that Russia has personally compromising material about the president-elect, and that a report incorporating this material was shown to both Donald Trump and Obama during those intelligence briefings.

A summary of the report, which has, apparently, been with American intelligence agencies since the autumn, was first published by CNN. Then an hour later Buzzfeed took the controversial decision to publish the claims in full — including lurid allegations of Trump performing a graphic sex act — despite admitting that the unredacted source material was “unverified and potentially unverifiable”. The document, which was collated by a retired British spy for a client who backed a political opponent of Trump, alleges that the Kremlin was “cultivating, supporting and assisting” Trump for at least five years, and that the collected material could be used to blackmail him.

Trump’s team issued a full denial, denouncing the claims as fake news, and Trump himself released one of his signature Twitter storms against an intelligence community and media that he said was behaving like “Nazi Germany.” The Kremlin also issued a denial of the claims, stating that they were fabricated to damage US-Russia relations. A denial that Trump quoted as further proof of the flawed nature of the claims.

In a bombastic Wednesday morning press conference, on a podium bedecked with ten huge US flags, Trump’s spokesperson, Sean Spicer, attacked Buzzfeed as “a left-wing” media source and CNN as "sad and pathetic" and accused both news outlets of participating in a "political witch hunt.” Mike Pence denounced the attempt “to demean the president-elect.” And Trump himself argued that the report was “released by maybe the intelligence agencies, which would be a tremendous blot on their record if they did that.” At no time in modern American history has such a public fissure between the president and the intelligence services occurred.

Regardless of the veracity of the report’s claims, which the FBI are allegedly now investigating, what is clear is that Trump will assume power as a faux-populist utterly committed to a new Russophile American foreign policy posture – one that largely dispenses with notions of soft power and moral influence, and that curries favour with other strongmen as a way to carve the world up into spheres of control. He has made it abundantly clear that he will seek a close relationship with Putin, the strongman leader of a foreign power that, for the last three quarters of a century, in both its Communist incarnation and its newly minted nationalist one, has been regarded with suspicion and fear by most western policy makers. To minimize the significance of what would, in normal times, be viewed by much of the American electorate as a deeply troubling relationship, Trump will be banking on his ability to whip up the mob against the hostility – nay, the horror – of the country’s traditional power-elites.

If the tycoon’s gamble fails, he will be a toothless buffoon, detested by most members of the Republican-led Senate, tolerated by Congress so long as he delivers on tax cuts, conservative judicial nominations, and other staples of GOP ideology; but vulnerable to non-cooperation on his agenda and perhaps ultimately to threats of impeachment as soon as he attempts to go his own way on foreign policy, on protectionist trade policies, or, perhaps, if his Twitter-based mob politics unleashes serious domestic unrest.

But if Trump’s gamble succeeds – if he really is able, through tweets and victory rallies, to marshal “the people” against all the great structures of the mighty American state, including an intelligence community now at odds with the incoming Commander-in-Chief – then he will usher in his own style of revolution in both domestic and foreign policy. Those clearly are his ambitions: in his press conference he announced that he would be “the greatest jobs producer that God ever created,” and said of his political base that, “it’s a movement like the world has never seen before.” Let no one accuse the next president of understatement.

Trump is no fool. Despite his bluster, he knows the precarious position that the CIA and the publishing of the findings on the Russia-hack has landed him in. After all, if he were a Democrat sullied with an intelligence assessment that Putin’s Russia had attempted to influence his election, senators and commentators would be lining up to attack him – don’t forget, Trump’s supporters frequently called for Clinton to be locked up for her use of an insecure email server.

It’s not in Trump’s nature to back down. When under threat, he goes on the attack. And so, to no one’s surprise, in his press conference on Wednesday he doubled-down. “Look at the things we learned” from the hacks, he declared. “That Hillary Clinton got the questions to the debate and didn’t report it? That’s a horrible thing. That’s a horrible thing.” To the chagrin of those who hoped he would temper his enthusiasm for the Russian leader, he also announced “If Putin likes Donald Trump, guess what, folks? That’s called an asset, not a liability.”

If the intelligence community doesn’t buy that, Trump’s shown a willingness to swing at them as much as at his more traditional scapegoats. All of this makes it likely that in addition to going after left-wing protesters, undocumented immigrants, the media, and intellectuals, his team, banking on the support of this “movement” of angry Americans, could over the coming months also purge the top ranks of the military and the intelligence agencies of those who oppose the pivot to Putin.

Trump’s vision of the world is clear. It is the vision of Cecil Rhodes, who famously said that he would colonize the stars if he had the opportunity – although in fairness to Rhodes it is not delineated in nearly as poetic language. It is the world of Louis Napoleon, who was bedazzled by images of Empire floating in front of his myopic eyes. It is a planet divided into “winners” and “losers,” into those born to wield power, wealth, and influence, and those born to serve. It is colonialism with exclamation marks in place of self-serving philosophical justifications for conquest. It is Empire without literature and void of culture. It is a sort of post-literate bluster without panache.

In Trump’s world, military super-powers have no need to cajole and to seduce – with promises, however illusory, of expanded prosperity, with a culture other countries want to emulate, or with lip service paid to ideals of universal human rights and democracy. In Trump’s world, might is quite simply right. The U.S. has nuclear weapons and a vastly powerful military, and it should be willing to use them anywhere it needs to impose order.

Of course, idealistic language notwithstanding, as Chileans, Cubans, Vietnamese, and so many others know to their cost, America has long acted as an episodic bully and trigger-happy international policeman. To a degree, Trump’s rhetoric and temperament is merely an extension of existing trends. Yet there is also something qualitatively different in the way he sees America’s place in the world. His impatience with nuance, with the subtleties and long time frames of diplomacy, with the idea of an international order at least partly mediated by supranational institutions, with the give-and-take inherent in bodies such as the United Nations, makes him a natural ally of Putin, as well as of Erdogan in Turkey and Modi in India. These men, all so willing to treat opponents as enemies, and racial or religious minorities as fifth columns, are the heralds of a new strongman order.

Trump’s reaching out to Putin isn’t a modern-day example of Ostpolitik, the eminently sensible Cold War-era policy of accommodation that Willie Brandt’s Germany pursued with the Warsaw Pact. It isn’t an acknowledgement that different systems can – and in the nuclear age must – learn to co-exist, to co-operate where necessary and to replace military responses to disagreements with dialogue. Rather it is a clear statement of preference: temperamentally, Trump is most comfortable dealing with autocrats. He praises Putin but barely mentions the leaders of western democracies with whom America has allied for decades. He is at home with populist, sometimes aggresive, leaders of militarily powerful countries, and at ease talking with those strongmen about how to crack down on domestic opposition and how to deal with other, smaller, weaker, nations.

The Trump-Putin axis that is emerging will reshape the world profoundly. The two largest nuclear powers, banded together to stamp out “disorder” globally, will represent a formidably autocratic partnership. To all intents and purposes, if it is allowed to flourish it will represent the collapse of the American republic as we know it. This new incarnation, with founding fathers and mothers such as Trump, Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, and rightwing commentators and talk radio hosts such as Ann Coulter and Rush Limbaugh, shows every sign of being a particularly anti-democratic, uncouth, and brutal entity.

Sasha Abramsky is a freelance journalist and author based in America.

Azaz, on Syria's northern border with Turkey. Photo: Getty
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Syria's broken people: how Assad destroyed a nation

 Whoever leads the country after this conflict comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins, but a ravaged people, too. 

For a moment, the residents of al-Fu’ah and Kafriya dreamed of a better future. After living under siege for more than two years, civilians from these two Shia villages in the rebel-held Idlib province of north-western Syria were finally allowed to leave earlier this month.

Buses arrived to evacuate them to regime-held areas in Aleppo province, snaking through hostile territory. They eventually stopped at an agreed crossover point, between regime- and rebel-held areas in the Rashideen district of western Aleppo.

These journeys are long: it can take hours, sometimes days, to travel just a few miles. Checkpoints, angry negotiations and deep distrust between opposing factions (even when they are apparently on the same side) ensure that such transfers are never as efficient as they should be.

As families waited at the Rashideen checkpoint, with some disembarking to stretch their legs or to let their children play outside, a powerful car bomb exploded. More than 126 civilians were killed in the blast – the deadliest attack of its kind in more than a year.

The fatalities included 60 children. The act was made all the more unconscionable by the way that they were deliberately targeted. A truck ostensibly providing humanitarian relief parked beside the buses and began distributing sweets and ice cream, causing the children to swarm towards it. Then  it exploded.

One of the most striking features of this conflict is its seemingly endless capacity to spiral into greater depravity. Both sides have butchered and brutalised one another in a fashion that would make the Marquis de Sade recoil. At times, it can seem as if each side is competing with the other to adopt more sadistic and cruel methods. When they do, it is ordinary civilians who invariably pay the biggest price.

Even children have not been spared from the privations of this vicious war, as the events in Rashideen demonstrate. Last August, it was the image of Omran Daqneesh, the stunned and bloodied five-year-old boy in the back of an ambulance, which epitomised the suffering of another besieged group: the mainly Sunni residents of eastern Aleppo, encircled by government forces.

To characterise the Syrian conflict as wholly sectarian is reductionist, but factional infighting has become one of its defining elements. The imprimatur of sectarianism is leaving indelible marks across the Levant, tearing the region apart.

Bashar al-Assad, Syria’s embattled president, set the tone for this when the uprising first began in 2011. To undermine the protest movement, he characterised the opposition as Sunni extremists who were driven by sectarian hatred (Assad is from the minority Alawite community; a heterodox Shia sect).

His unaccountable loyalist militia, the shabiha (“ghosts”), brutalised the opposition not just physically but also with sectarian slurs, introducing a caustic and corrosive mood to the uprising. This pathology has continued to metastasise ever since.

The current policy of displacing besieged residents has further enhanced the sectarian aspects of this war. For years, the Syrian regime has used siege warfare to bring rebel areas under control. Once the inhabitants have been worn down, the government moves them to rebel-held areas, away from its sphere of control. In this way, President Assad has consolidated control over important and strategic areas closer to home while edging disloyal elements further away.

Occasionally, new residents are brought in to repopulate evacuated areas, typically from minorities more inclined to support the government. What is taking place is a slow demographic recalibration, in which errant Sunnis are moved to the periphery and loyalist minorities are moved closer to the core.

These transfers are now so common in Syria that a dedicated fleet of green buses is used in the process, and has become an iconic image of this conflict. The buses catch the eye and are used for moving besieged people. Their sanctity is not to be violated. In a conflict that has ignored almost every norm, this one had lasted – albeit with occasional violations – until the assault in Rashideen.

There are moments when important leaders appear to transcend the divide. Moqtada al-Sadr, an Iraqi Shia cleric who rose to prominence after leading a militia against British troops in Basra after the 2003 invasion, recently called for Bashar al-Assad to step aside.

In doing so, Sadr became one of only a few prominent Shia leaders to publicly acknowledge Assad’s bloodshed. His comments came after the chemical weapons attack in Idlib earlier this month, which claimed more than 80 lives.

Statements such as Sadr’s have huge symbolic value, but are easily forgotten in the aftermath of the next atrocity. Speaking to the American broadcaster NBC last October, General David Petraeus summed up the mood of many military planners in Washington when he concluded that Syria may have passed the point of no return. “Syria may not be able to be put back together,” he said. “Humpty Dumpty has fallen and again I’m not sure you can piece it back together.”

His comments came even before the most tumultuous events of the past six months, which have included the fall of Aleppo, the emergence of a more empowered jihadist coalition (composed principally of al-Qaeda members), the use of chemical weapons and now the Rashideen bus bombing.

Petraeus’s remarks were prescient. As a result of the cycle of bitter vengeance and retribution, often fuelled by deep sectarian suspicion, the Syrian Civil War will continue its descent into chaos. When Assad first unleashed the shabiha to quash the protest movement, the militia warned the opposition: “Assad, or we burn the country.”

In this respect, at least, it has kept its word. Whoever leads the country after this conflict finally comes to an end will inherit not just the rubble and ruins but a ravaged people, too. 

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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