The drama in Washington DC is getting more complicated, as President Donald Trump becomes more unpredictable in his dealings with America’s allies and enemies. In the latest debacle, Trump allegedly shared sensitive intelligence information with the country’s longtime arch nemesis, the Russians.
An anonymous US official lamented to a reporter that the American president “revealed more information to the Russian ambassador” than it did with key US allies, according to The Washington Post, which on Sunday broke the story of the “gaffe” made by Trump during last week’s visit by top Russian officials.
According to the paper, Trump had revealed highly classified information that had been shared with the US by another country, apparently inadvertently. While his staff initially denied the reports, Trump then took to Twitter in the early hours of Tuesday morning to assert his “absolute right” to share “facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety” with Russia’s foreign minister and ambassador.
Hysteria over Russia
For a super power that has been accused by so many countries around the world of intervening in their internal affairs, the fiery accusations of Russian meddling in US politics can be seen with more than a touch of irony.
By any measure, it is extraordinary for a US president to share top secret information so freely with a country in which it has major competing strategic interests, like Ukraine and Syria. The information allegedly came from Israel, and concerned a plot by Daesh to attack aircraft using laptop computers.
He has immunity to any kind of legal investigation because he has presidential privileges over a number of issues, including disclosure of classified information even to enemies, although as president he has a duty to respect his oath of allegiance.
“For anyone else, if accidental it would be a firing offence. If deliberate, it would be treason,” said Eliot A Cohen, a former State Department official, to The Washington Post. But because he is president, he can apparently get away with his recent breach of “code-word information.”
White House officials denied that Trump has shared sensitive information with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, who has become a source of reference for Moscow’s alleged meddling with the Trump administration.
Trump has already fired James B Comey, the director of the FBI, who was investigating his campaign’s alleged links with Russians during the election process. Comey can't easily be blamed of being biased against Trump as a part of US deep state opposition to his management style. He had also been heavily criticised by the Hillary Clinton campaign for constantly bringing out her unofficial email use during her state department tenure. According to many analysts, indeed, the email issue partly helped Trump win the election.
Following the latest Russian episode, the Trump administration will have a trust issue with the country’s intelligence community and other powerful institutions, like Congress, which is currently dominated by Trump’s Republican Party. But even Republicans appear to be confused by the way Trump is dealing with Russians.
“The White House has got to do something soon to bring itself under control and in order,” Bob Corker, a top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters in Washington, describing the course of the Trump White House as “a downward spiral.”
“To compromise a source is something that you just don’t do. That’s why we keep the information that we get from intelligence sources so close, is to prevent that from happening,” Corker said.
If Trump is losing the trust of even Republican lawmakers, it is more likely that the US intelligence community, which in definition should be beyond party politics, will limit its own information sharing with a president who seems not to care about the location of his own disclosures and the identity of his interlocutors, no matter who they are.
Beyond all the implications for the mechanisms of the American system, Trump’s gaffe could hurt the country’s international stance and relations with its close allies, among whom the Arab states could be the most vulnerable to such disclosures.
Though most Arab states overwhelmingly have strained relationship with Israel, which seems to be the source of the information, many of them have recently been more preoccupied with Shia Iran’s influence across the Sunni-majority region – from Iraq’s Shia-dominated government to Syria’s Assad regime – than with Israel.
But if Israel is the source of the information, it could increase anger within the Middle East against Israel. The laptop ban on aircraft from certain Middle Eastern destinations by US and some European powers has mostly damaged Middle Eastern airlines and affected citizens of Middle Eastern states. Yet Israelis continue to travel without a laptop ban. The Israeli airlines and airports have been left to conduct their business as usual.
Intelligence-sharing by Middle Eastern partners
Middle Eastern intelligence agencies with their own intelligence assets in Daesh’s command structure might now hesitate to share essential intel with the US after Trump's revelation.
The Russians might use the information to their advantage in the bloody Syrian conflict. The proxy war could get even worse. Russia is firmly backing the Assad regime in the country, while the US supports the anti-Assad opposition forces, along with the YPG-led SDF.
The conflict is at an especially sensitive juncture: the US-led anti-Daesh coalition has been preparing a ground operation against Raqqa, Daesh's self-proclaimed capital in northeastern Syria. The US Central Command Center is attempting to balance limiting Russian influence in Syria while seeking to eradicate Daesh from the country.
The Americans and Russians are so far trying to avoid direct confrontation in the country by coordinating the respective moves of their proxies, as well as their own forces. Trump’s clumsy revelation to the Russians, which reportedly shocked the US intelligence establishment, could make the delicate coordination process, dubbed “deconflict” by US senior commanders, even more difficult and contentious.
The incident may also create new risks for the prospects of the long-planned Raqqa operation. Turkey already has major reservations over US policy because of the Americans’ insistence on the YPG playing a central role in the offensive. The YPG is the Syrian affiliate of the PKK, which is recognised as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the EU and the US.
Without being confident of their own president’s motives concerning Russian interests in Syria, the effectiveness of US field commanders could be considerably decreased as Russian field commanders become more assertive in terms of their own objectives. It is also possible that the information could somehow benefit the Assad regime and its main political sponsor Iran, who are the main Russian allies in the region.
If the balance of power in the Syrian conflict and the rest of the region changes in favour of Russia, America’s allies in the region will probably align their policies in accordance with the reality of what is increasingly Russia’s hegemony in the Middle East. This could also change the whole equation in Syria, and the region more broadly.
Overall, under Trump's leadership, America could become insignificant rather than be made great again, as the man in the White House promised repeatedly during his presidential campaign.