Foreign Relations & International Law

Sisi Gets Warm Welcome at White House, Tillerson Visits Turkey, and a Trump Tie to Russia Runs Through the Emirates

J. Dana Stuster
Tuesday, April 4, 2017, 12:30 PM

Human Rights Off the Agenda as Sisi Comes to Washington

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Human Rights Off the Agenda as Sisi Comes to Washington

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi visited the White House on Monday to meet with President Donald Trump. While many of Trump’s meetings with foreign leaders have been noteworthy for the President’s awkward or even offensive behavior, the meeting on Monday was a cordial reunion for the two men, who had previously met in New York last September and praised one another’s leadership.

The Obama administration defied the English language to avoid calling the removal of Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi a “coup” but never warmed to his successor. Sisi’s brazenly authoritarian tendencies quickly strained ties and he never visited the White House—a fact Sisi reminded the press of during brief remarks. U.S. officials promised the meeting would “reboot” U.S.-Egypt ties, and the shift in tone was on full display. Trump described Sisi as someone “very close to me,” and Sisi reflected on their meeting in November, saying, “I bet on you”—a comment that was not translated into English, but flagged by the Associated Press’ Vivian Salama. Trump and Sisi focused squarely on fighting terrorism, which Sisi often frames as an existential threat to Egypt.

Human rights will be less of an impediment than with Trump’s predecessor. During the campaign last year, when Trump was asked about Turkey’s post-coup purge of public officials, he told the New York Times, “I think right now when it comes to civil liberties, our country has a lot of problems, and I think it’s very hard for us to get involved in other countries when we don’t know what we are doing and we can’t see straight in our own country...When the world looks at how bad the United States is, and then we go and talk about civil liberties, I don’t think we’re a very good messenger.” His administration is now following through on that more lenient stance on human rights it signaled last year.

Sisi’s reception among Middle East experts has been considerably colder than the one he received at the White House.

Last week, the State Department announced it would lift a hold on the sale of 19 F-16 fighter jets to Bahrain; the sale was halted by the Obama administration in response to Bahrain’s violent crackdown on Shia protesters. His Defense Department is also deepening their involvement in the Saudi intervention in Yemen, which the Obama administration drew back from as Saudi airstrikes racked up a dire civilian toll. The Trump administration is reportedly increasing targeting and logistical support, planning to resume arms sales, and discussing a role in the Emirati-backed offensive to recapture the port of Hodeida, but the Saudi-led coalition does not show signs of a more cautious approach. Last month, what appear to have been Saudi forces attacked a boat loaded with more than 150 Somali refugees as it tried to transit the Red Sea from Hodeida to Sudan; 43 civilians were killed as a warship and helicopter gunship repeatedly strafed the boat with gunfire. (The Saudi military denies responsibility for the attack.)

Sisi’s reception among Middle East experts has been considerably colder than the one he received at the White House. Egypt may not be the cultural and political power in the Middle East it once was, but it still receives more than a $1 billion annually in U.S. aid and its large population and extensively documented political upheaval over the past several years has made it a high-stakes arena for competition among Gulf states. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has invested heavily in Egypt, but has been frustrated by Egyptian intransigence on issues ranging from Sisi’s lean toward the Assad regime to delays transferring two Red Sea islands to the kingdom. Saudi Arabia even went so far as to cut off oil aid for four months to try to gain some more leverage over Sisi, only resuming deliveries last month. Writing in the Washington Post ahead of the Monday meeting, Robert Kagan and Michelle Dunne suggested the United States should also take a more transactional approach. “Trump isn’t shy about asking even our closest allies what they have done for us lately. He might during this visit ask that question of Sissi,” they write. Mokhtar Awad, Daniel Benaim, and Brian Katulis agree in Politico: “In pursuing an Egypt reset, Trump should do what he has done with partners and allies in Europe and East Asia: Ask for more in return.”

That doesn’t appear to have happened, but U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley delivered a very different message at a U.N. Security Council press conference on peacekeeping and human rights in New York yesterday. “I don’t think the administration is backing away from human rights because they fully support me speaking about human rights in the Security Council,” she said. While the United States would prioritize counterterrorism, Haley said that the administration “wants to stay true to our values” and “human rights have always been an important part of what America believes.” She even went so far as to comment on Trump and Sisi’s meeting directly. “When the president says that somebody’s fantastic—fantastic at what? You know, he wasn’t talking about human rights...But those are conversations that we have as well, as you do with friends.” Haley is already being floated as a successor to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, whose aversion to the press and apparent lack of preparation has rankled many. Haley has been more accessible and her politics are more acceptable to mainstream Republicans, but publicly complicating the president’s meeting with one of his biggest boosters abroad does not seem like a sure route to Foggy Bottom.

Tillerson Visits Turkey to Plan Raqqa Offensive

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visited Turkey last Thursday to meet with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan as planning continues for the upcoming offensive to retake Raqqa from the Islamic State. Tillerson did not publicly discuss the contents of his meetings, but said that “difficult choices” will have to be made. Turkish officials remain deeply concerned about the role of Kurdish forces in the U.S.-led coalition.

...another Kurdish official recently said he anticipates Raqqa will vote to join the Kurdish canton under a “democratic federal” system. That is exactly what Turkey would like to avoid.

The United States has emphasized that the majority of the forces participating in operations to retake the Tabqa Dam and surrounding area west of Raqqa are Sunni Arabs, but much of the Syrian Democratic Forces coalition depends on its large Kurdish contingent. One of those Kurdish SDF commanders, interviewed by Reuters while fighting near Tabqa, said she anticipates to Raqqa offensive to begin within the next couple weeks. What happens after the Islamic State is pushed from the city remains unclear: While she said the SDF plans to hand control of Raqqa over to a local Arab council, another Kurdish official recently said he anticipates Raqqa will vote to join the Kurdish canton under a “democratic federal” system. That is exactly what Turkey would like to avoid.

During his trip, Tillerson suggested that the United States would consider a resolution to the Syrian Civil War in which President Bashar al-Assad would remain in power. U.S. policy began opening to the possibility late in the Obama administration, but recent comments from Tillerson and Nikki Haley make pretty clear that the United States is coming around to accepting Assad’s continued rule (though Haley notably tempered her stance on Monday, saying she considers Assad to be a “war criminal”). Turkey realigned its rhetoric to this possible outcome last summer.

One possible resolution, discussed by Colin Kahl, Ilan Goldenberg, and Nicholas Heras on Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog, is a de facto partition of Syria. “Six years of grinding war has left Syria a deeply fractured land. Yet this very fragmentation provides an opportunity for the Trump administration to work with Russia and key regional states to de-escalate the conflict and reach an enduring political settlement,” they write. Foreign countries invested in the conflict could guarantee security for cantons with localized governance while a more lasting settlement is discussed, but, they warn, achieving tis would involve diplomacy with Iran and Russia that the Trump administration would rather avoid. It would also involve some tricky negotiations with Ankara and, as Alex Vatanka and Michael Rubin wrote for Lawfare last week, Turkey is too volatile an ally right now to be counted on. Erdogan “wavers and hedges his bets—from turning to Russia and now looking to rekindle Turkey’s ties with Israel to counter Iran in Syria—but his inclination to play the anti-American card when expedient should not be lost on the Trump national security team,” they write. “At best, his erratic behavior has made him an unreliable partner within the NATO alliance. Turkey can be a part of any new Trump strategy, but it should never be its lynchpin.”

The Emirati Connection

One of the links between the Trump administration and Russia being investigated by the FBI runs through the United Arab Emirates and the most notorious military contractor of the U.S. war in Iraq. The Washington Post reported last night that Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater and a major financial contributor to Trump’s presidential campaign, met with a Russian figure with close ties to President Vladimir Putin in the Seychelles in early January. The meeting was arranged by senior members of the royal family of Abu Dhabi soon after Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince, met with Trump transition officials in New York. The meeting is reportedly being investigated by the FBI in connection to the Trump administration’s ties to Russia, though, at least as of this time last year, Prince was reportedly the subject of a separate investigation for laundering money through shell companies to run a private military and intelligence organization. Prince has deep business connections in the Emirates, where he has lived since 2010, and worked to develop paramilitary groups in the Middle East, including a force of foreign mercenaries for the Emirates and an alleged private military in Africa under contract with China.

People with knowledge of the January meeting contend that the discussion was focused on curtailing Russia’s relationship with Iran. That would make sense: The Emirates, like their Saudi neighbors, are deeply concerned about Iran’s influence in Yemen and across the arc of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and would love to see a wedge driven between Iran and Russia’s partnership. The idea has been seriously proposed by analysts in Washington and Syrian rebels. And Prince would make a natural intermediary with his connections to both the Emirates and the Trump transition team (his sister, Betsy DeVos, also made considerable financial contributions to the campaign and is now the secretary of education).

The Emirates, like their Saudi neighbors, are deeply concerned about Iran’s influence in Yemen and across the arc of Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, and would love to see a wedge driven between Iran and Russia’s partnership.

What the reports from the Post and NBC News do not explain is the need for such cloak-and-dagger secrecy after Trump was already elected president, from Crown Prince Nahyan breaking protocol and not notifying the Obama administration of his trip to New York to the clandestine rendezvous in the Seychelles. The Emirati ambassador to the United States has declined to comment, and White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer vigorously denied any connection between Prince and the Trump transition team. As the Post notes, “The level of discretion surrounding the Seychelles meeting seems extraordinary given the frequency with which senior Trump advisers, including Flynn and Kushner, had interacted with Russian officials in the United States, including at the high-profile Trump Tower in New York.”

Who Attacked the St. Petersburg Subway?

Russia has other concerns today as the country reels from the bombing of a subway in St. Petersburg that killed 11 people and wounded at least 45 others. Details about the suspect are still vague, but Russian authorities believe the attacker to be a man from Central Asia in his early 20s. No terrorist group has claimed credit for the attack yet.

The suspicion falling on a young man from Central Asia comes as little surprise, though. While Russia has a diverse array of political dissidents, there have been a series of attacks in recent years perpetrated by Sunni militants from the Caucasus. Thousands of Russians have gone abroad to Libya and Syria, and al-Qaeda and Islamic State propaganda have emphasized Russia’s support for the Assad regime in Syria and its partnership with Iran and Hezbollah. “In the lead-up to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian authorities actually encouraged Sunni militants on its soil to depart for Syria to wage jihad. The thinking behind that move: The militants would leave for Syria and stout Russian border controls—or the Russian Air Force—would prevent them from returning,” RAND’s Colin P. Clarke wrote yesterday for Politico. “But that strategy is hardly foolproof, as it takes only a few militants to slip through the system and wreak havoc.” That only becomes more true as the Islamic State’s territory in Syria collapses and many of those militants begin trying to return home.

J. Dana Stuster is the deputy foreign policy editor for Lawfare and an instructor at the Naval War College. He holds a Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. He worked previously as a policy analyst at the National Security Network and an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine. All opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily represent the Naval War College, U.S. Navy, or Department of Defense.

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