Incoming US administration must draw a red line between al Qaeda and US-backed rebels, say analysts

US President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration must consider the far-reaching consequences of allowing US-backed opposition forces to work with al Qaeda in Syria, Charles Lister, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, said at the Atlantic Council on January 12.

Policy should not be dictated simply by whether or not a particular extremist group poses an immediate threat to the United States, said Lister. Rather, “there is a broader interest-based assessment that needs to be made,” he said. Because al Qaeda was not countered from the outset of the conflict in Syria, its extremist ideology has become normalized within the opposition, and they are now far more dangerous to the United States, Lister added.

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The United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, on January 17 described Russia as a “major threat” facing the United States and the rules-based liberal world order, and cautioned Americans against allowing Moscow to divide them in the face of this threat.

“Our values, our security, our prosperity, and our very way of life are tied to this [rules-based] order and we… the United States and our closest partners, must come together to prevent Russia from succeeding in weakening that order,” Power said at the Atlantic Council in her final public remarks as ambassador.

Power called for a renewed commitment to the rules and institutions that have underpinned the liberal world order for the past seven decades, and the development of new tools to counter Russia’s attempts at undermining it. Russia’s attacks have “exposed” and “exacerbated” vulnerabilities within Western democracies, she said, adding, “we cannot let Russia divide us.” 

Citing George Washington’s warning about the danger of foreign interference, Power said: “More than 220 years later, Washington’s warning feels strikingly relevant.”

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The transatlantic relationship is in for a rough ride over the course of Donald Trump’s presidency simply because there is no “correcting mechanism” among the incoming cabinet to counter the next US president’s rhetoric on the European Union, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

In an interview with the Times of London and Germany’s Bild newspaper published on January 15, Trump bashed NATO as “obsolete,” described the European Union (EU) as “basically a vehicle for Germany,” applauded the United Kingdom’s decision to leave the EU, and predicted that more EU member states would follow. The comments rattled the United States’ European allies.

Trump’s key cabinet picks—secretary of state nominee former ExxonMobil Chief Executive Officer Rex Tillerson and defense secretary nominee retired Gen. James Mattis—broke with the president-elect and spoke favorably of NATO at their confirmation hearings earlier in January. However, the absence of a depth of EU expertise among Trump’s cabinet is striking, said Fran Burwell, a distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“They know about NATO or have had experience in NATO, but not regarding the EU. There is no correcting mechanism at the cabinet level that we see so far that would present a counterview to what Trump has said” about the EU, said Burwell.

“The EU itself is in for a rough ride over the next few years,” she predicted.

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French President François Hollande went to Bamako, Mali, last week for the twenty-seventh Africa-France Summit, his last scheduled visit to Africa before he leaves office in May, having been forced to give up any hope of a second term by the most abysmal approval ratings of any head of state in this history of the Fifth Republic. Running for the presidency five years ago, Hollande included in his election manifesto, 60 Engagements pour la France, a promise to definitively break with “Françafrique,” the neocolonial pact between France and its former colonies, in favor of “a new relationship founded on equality, trust, and solidarity.” Given Africa’s rising geopolitical heft and burgeoning economic dynamism, the legacy the French leader actually leaves in the region—which has been a bright spot amid Hollande’s widespread unpopularity—is of significant import not only for Africans, but also for France, its European neighbors, and, indeed, the wider transatlantic community.

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White House ends policy that allowed Cubans reaching US soil to automatically apply for asylum

US President Barack Obama’s decision to end the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that allowed any Cuban migrant who reached US soil to stay in the country will slow the number of Cuban immigrants rushing to the United States, but is unlikely to deter US President-elect Donald Trump from reversing some of the recent progress in the bilateral relationship, according to two Atlantic Council Latin America analysts.

Trump has said that he will dismantle the progress made in the US-Cuba relationship—a progress marked by a historic diplomatic détente in the summer of 2015 and US President Barack Obama’s visit to Havana in March of 2016—unless he gets a better deal.

A wholesale reversal of the advancement in the bilateral relationship would give China unchallenged access to Cuba, said Jason Marczak, director of the Latin America Economic Growth Initiative at the Atlantic Council's Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center.

“By disengaging from Cuba, what the administration would be doing is giving China a beachhead ninety miles off our shores,” he said.

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The oil production cuts set forth in a deal recently enacted by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) will be upheld by the nations involved, effectively stabilizing the global energy market, Mohammad Sanusi Barkindo, OPEC’s secretary general, said in Abu Dhabi on January 12.

“I remain very confident with what I have seen in the last several months,” Barkindo said at the Atlantic Council’s inaugural Global Energy Forum. “The level of commitment I have seen on both sides, to me I think is unparalleled,” he added. Barkindo expressed confidence that signatories to the deal will meet their commitments, emphasizing the level of cooperation among all stakeholders.

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While there is “quite a bit of concern” about the direction of US President-elect Donald Trump’s energy policy, he is unlikely to take the United States out of the Paris climate change agreement for the simple reason that doing so would cause “huge collateral damage” to the United States, Todd Stern, a former US State Department special envoy for climate change, said in Abu Dhabi on January 13.

On the campaign trail, Trump said that he would pull the United States out of the climate accord reached in the French capital in December of 2015, but after winning the election on November 8 he told the New York Times that he is looking at the agreement “very closely” and has “an open mind to it.”

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In order to end the war on terror and attain a lasting peace in the Middle East, as well as protect US security interests, Donald Trump’s administration must invest in long-term solutions, or face the consequences down the road, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said on January 10.

“To protect what we have here, we have to work toward solving problems abroad,” said Graham. “I’m trying to convince the new administration and my Republican colleagues that we’re going to pay now, or we’re going to pay later.”

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Rex Tillerson’s confirmation hearing on January 11 put a spotlight on an eventual architect of the next US administration’s Russia policy. Although he holds deep international experience, Tillerson is a highly controversial selection for the job of secretary of state. He has a track record of opposing sanctions on Russia and calling for increased cooperation with Moscow despite Russia’s destabilizing activities around the world. His comments at his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee generally reinforced the assumption that US President-elect Donald Trump’s administration is heading toward its own “reset” with Moscow.

Although Tillerson objected to recent Russian actions, he largely demurred to questions on whether it was important to continue sanctions on Russia and stressed the need to work with Russia on areas of mutual interest such as fighting terrorism. His unwillingness to describe Russia as a threat, instead calling it a danger, is unfortunate and showcases a more accommodating position on Russia in the next administration.

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At his confirmation hearing on January 11, Rex Tillerson went a long way toward assuaging skeptics who feared that his past relationships with Russian leaders might translate into a naïve and weak approach toward the Kremlin. This was apparent from the start with his confirmation statement that was released the evening before his testimony. He said that we needed to be “clear-eyed” in our relationship with Moscow and that Russia poses a danger, which our allies rightly fear.  He scored Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. While interested in cooperation with Russia where our interests intersect, he noted that where they do not “we should be steadfast in defending the interests of America and her allies” and “Russia must be held to account for its actions.”

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