In this week's Monday Briefing, contributors Randa Slim, Alex Vatanka, Paul Salem, and Antoun Issa provide analysis on recent and upcoming events including the next round of Syria talks in Geneva, Iranian war games directed at President Trump, the appointment of a new U.S. National Security Advisor to replace Michael Flynn, and Israeli PM Netanyahu's trip to Australia.

Russia, Iran Not Committed to Geneva Talks on Syria
Randa Slim, Director of the Initiative for Track II Dialogues

Intra-Syrian talks are set to begin tomorrow in Geneva. According to the office of the U.N. Special Envoy for Syria, the talks will focus on governance issues (in lieu of political transition), constitutional amendments and elections. No one, including the U.N. convener, holds high hopes for these talks. Russia and Iran, the two countries that have influence over the Syrian regime, are still not committed to the political process. Despite their officials’ statements to the contrary, their actions on the ground in Syria are pushing for a political solution to be concluded on Assad’s terms.

As his negotiators are talking in Geneva, the Syrian regime and its backers are creating faits accomplis on the ground through bombings, sieges, and sectarian re-engineering of regime-controlled areas. Assad still talks of regaining control over every inch of the Syrian territory. However, his manpower shortage and his allies’ lukewarm support for his grandiose plans will eventually force him to live with a ‘useful’ and pliant Syria that can stay under his control for the foreseeable future.

As a result, the Geneva political process is gradually being hollowed out of its substance. Still, the international community will strive to keep the process alive primarily as a place holder. While the political arrangements to shape conflict settlement in Syria can no longer be decided by Syrians alone, a political process will be needed to legitimize any deal to be reached among foreign powers fighting in Syria—primarily Iran, Turkey and Russia. When that time comes, a Syria that is reconciled with itself on the basis of an inclusive political process will not be the end product.

Iranian War Games Directed at Trump
Alex Vatanka, Senior Fellow

Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) conducted its latest war games this week. Named the Great Prophet 11, the military drills included all the usual panoply to be expected. From the I.R.G.C. touting its capacity to wage warfare in urban terrain to testing of drones, missiles and artillery firepower, the two-day war games had it all.

It would be obvious to conclude the United States is the primary audience of this muscular display. After all, the I.R.G.C. has much at stake in any effort to be able to shape American calculations. The drills come at a time when the U.S. Congress is deliberating eight new sanction bills against Iran, including one that would designate the entire I.R.G.C. a terrorist entity. President Donald Trump, unlike Obama, is by some accounts seriously open to such efforts by members of the Congress.

But while the I.R.G.C.’s trepidations about U.S. policy toward Iran are real, its inordinate military showmanship is also a cue to the Iranian people. The message is simple, and it claims that only the I.R.G.C. can defend Iran from external threats. As has been the case in previous years, the I.R.G.C. constantly strives to shore up its credentials as the vanguard of Iran. The trouble for the I.R.G.C. is that many Iranians are openly incredulous about such claims. They see I.R.G.C.’s brinkmanship at home and abroad—including its adventurist military interventions in Iraq and Syria—to be the reason behind resurgent international pressure on Iran.

McMaster Brings Strategic Depth to the White House
Paul Salem, Vice President for Policy and Research

President Donald Trump’s choice of an experienced warrior and deep strategic thinker, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, for National Security Advisor is a great leap forward from the ideological and erratic Michael Flynn and completes a very strong national security team. McMaster has a powerful presence, but whether he will be able to maintain the president’s ear and dominate the national security narrative in the face of reckless right-wing ideologues like Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka is yet to be seen.

And if the White House is to move beyond simplistic passions and executive orders and develop coherent strategy on the three-dimensional chessboard of the Middle East, McMaster will have to grapple with many contradictions: how to square Trump’s predilection for working with Russia while Moscow is allied with American adversaries in Iran and Hezbollah? How to contain and push back on Iran without getting into a shooting war and while working with its allies against ISIS in Iraq? How to push ISIS out of Raqqa while keeping the Turks and Kurds from coming to blows? And beyond the kinetic war against ISIS and al-Qaeda, how to bring back stability to failed states like Syria, Libya and Yemen, where terrorist groups thrive?

It’s been a long time since a man of McMaster’s stature and intellect held this office, but the challenges he faces in wrestling with an ideological White House and mercurial president, as well as a Middle East fraught with conflicts and contradictions, will greatly test his mettle.
 

Netanyahu’s Contentious Trip Down Under
Antoun Issa, Senior Editor

Benjamin Netanyahu became the first Israeli prime minister to visit Australia today, despite decades of steadfast Australian support for the Jewish state. As often with Netanyahu’s international trips, his visit to Australia was contentious before it began, with more than 60 prominent Australians publishing an open letter opposing his visit and protests planned throughout his stay. The Israeli PM hasn’t shied away from controversy either, engaging in a public spat with former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd over the latter’s call for recognition of a Palestinian state.

Despite the hurdles, Netanyahu can expect bipartisan support from Australia’s ruling conservative government and opposition Labor Party. Australia has traditionally been one of Israel’s greatest supporters, generally voting alongside it at the U.N. Strong support among Australia’s leading political parties for the Jewish state—despite vocal public opposition to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians—stems from two key factors: the strength of Australia’s pro-Israel lobby, and Australia’s alliance with the United States.

For Netanyahu, the trip to a loyal friend in Australia helps to combat the perception of his international isolation. Donald Trump’s victory has emboldened Netanyahu to seek to change the narrative of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after years of acrimony with the Obama administration and growing condemnation from Europe. The current diplomatic offensive, which has also taken him to Washington and London, is an attempt to do just that, while demonstrating that he has important friends in the world who will receive him.