Donald Trump will be the President of the United States in just a few weeks, and it’s anyone’s guess what plans he has for the military—as of this writing, the president-elect’s transition team has yet to contact the Pentagon. But it’s not so much how many troops you have, or what equipment they’re carrying, that makes the difference. It is, very often, what they’re dealing with. Here are a whole bunch of trouble spots that President Trump will have to reckon with come January.
At least one thing like a safe bet, a week and change after Donald Trump’s election to the planet’s most appallingly powerful office: The international scene is not going to be any simpler come January 20th. In fact, the opposite is more likely to be true.
In time, the spectacle of Rudy Giuliani’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee grilling will seem trivial, even darkly amusing, compared to the first Giuliani-Lavrov summit in Moscow, where one can imagine the new Secretary of State and his Russian counterpart weighing, say, a United Nations proposal that the Assad regime recognize rebel authority in a small corner eastern Aleppo in exchange for a new nation-wide ceasefire and US recognition of Russian equities in the country. And that’s if we’re lucky, and Giuliani and Lavrov don’t just jovially agree to join forces in preserving Assad’s government.
Either way, in a few month’s time a historically unprepared administration that’s already been shunned, alienated, or actively boycotted by much of its own party’s foreign policy professionals will face a world more violent and complicated than the one in which we currently live, a planet whose various crisis don’t magically stop when America goes through one of its own. Here are some places where it’s probably going to get worse between now and inauguration day.
On the night of November 8th, with the rest of the world even more distracted than usual, the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reportedly took a strategic residential area in Aleppo, representing the government’s biggest gain in the divided city in months. Earlier escalations also barely registered, even without election night as an excuse.
In October, Russia moved the Admiral Kuznetsov, the country’s single, lethally dysfunctional aircraft carrier to the eastern Mediterranean to support its over year-long military operation aimed at preserving Assad’s regime. The carrier is over 30 years old and accident-prone, but moving it is no small undertaking –the Kuznetsov battle group includes eight other ships, while a request to refuel the flotilla in a Spanish enclave along the Moroccan coast sparked a brief flare-up between Spain and its NATO partners.
Russia isn’t simply flexing or repositioning strategic assets for the hell of it. Moscow’s air power has been critical to Syrian government gains in Aleppo, while Russia began what the AP describes as a “blitz” on the city just a few hours after Trump’s phone conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this week.
Russia is in Syria to prove its commitment to its allies, project hard power into an unstable Middle East, undermine US and western policy in the region, and guarantee its military’s access to the regime-controlled Syrian coast. A friendlier White House gives them an even freer hand to pursue these goals, and ruin the country in the process.
If the Assad regime and it allies succeed in collapsing the rebel position in eastern Aleppo, the setback would deprive the country’s non-Islamist rebels of their most symbolically and strategically important territory, perhaps convincing the region’s anti-Assad and anti-Iran states, like Saudi Arabia, to deepen their involvement in the war. The incoming president’s pro-Putin proclivities would also remove any remaining perception that the US could act as an honest broker in discussions over Syria’s future—enterprises that have violently backfired just about every time they’ve been tried.
And Assad may feel even less of an incentive to negotiate, or to hold back, once Trump enters the White House. On November 15th, the Syrian president, who is responsible for some 93 percent of the conflict’s civilian deaths, said that Trump could be a natural ally, so long as he fights “terror.”
And the news from Syria has kept getting worse since the election. Just to take the past couple days as an example, Syrian regime shelling destroyed a kindergarten on November 16th while a UN report released the day before outlined the almost total breakdown of the country’s economy and agricultural production. Fair to say the most dire geopolitical crisis in the world will be even less solvable by the time the 45th president takes office.
Decision-makers itching for a reason to scrap the Iran nuclear deal got one of their most convincing excuses to date last week, when the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that the country’s heavy water stockpiles exceeded the agreement’s limitations.
Now, Iran isn’t really in violation of the deal until an eight-country joint commission established under the deal votes that they’ve actually violated it. But the deal grants both sides remarkable flexibility in interpretation and enforcement, and long before the election Iran had begun hinting that the allegedly slow pace of sanctions relief could jeopardize the agreement’s long-term prospects.
Throw a President Trump into this already uncertain mix, and it’s entirely possible that Iran’s leaders, like the US’s incoming presidential administration, will begin hatching contingency plans for a post-deal future, or at least a future in which the agreement’s survival is far from assured.
Perhaps that’s already happening. Iran and Russia are reportedly discussing a $10 billion weapons deal which could include sales of armored vehicles, artillery, and aircraft to a government that’s long been prohibited from purchasing foreign weaponry.
If the nuclear deal can’t survive the twin shocks of a Trump administration and alleged Iranian cheating, Tehran will at least have an arms supplier and a modernized military as a strategic fallback. And these kinds of weapons transactions make a military resolution to the nuclear issue an even dicier proposition, if it ever comes to that. Back in August, Iran deployed the Russian-made S-300 surface-to-air missile system at Fordow, giving a hardened former nuclear facility the protection of a system that can assess aerial targets from up to 185 miles away.
North Korea is going to be a problem for any incoming president, but one of the weirdest scandals in the democratic world is unfolding just to the south, where Park Guen-hye’s presidency has been almost totally sunk by her relationship with a shady secret advisor. Over 28,000 US troops are currently in South Korea, which is also the planned future site of the US’s super-sophisticated yet diplomatically thorny THAAD missile system. It’s also one of the countries that candidate Trump singled out as potentially having to compensate the US for the cost of American military deployments.
The chaos in Seoul, and the downfall of its pro-American leader won’t make the state of the post-January 20th world any easier to predict.
Trump’s election represents a potential crisis for NATO, which in spite of uneven military spending across member states is still perhaps the most successful alliance in modern history. During the election, Trump horrified observers when he suggested that his White House would not automatically come to the defense of NATO states if Russia attacked them, and his equivocation on just how seriously he’ll take America’s treaty commitments could jeopardize a planned deployment of 4,000 NATO soldiers to the Baltics and Poland next year.
Not all is well in the non-military realm either, as America’s closest ally is mired in a worsening identity crisis. On December 5th, lawyers from the government of British Prime Minister Theresa May will go before the country’s High Court to argue against the court’s November 3rd ruling that her government can’t begin the process of leaving the European Union without an act of Parliament.
So the whole Brexit thing could get even more complicated before now and the start of the Trump administration too.
India and Pakistan
You’re forgiven for not knowing that two nuclear-armed countries were in an honest-to-God shooting war as recently as six weeks ago The allegedly Pakistani-supported terror attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir on September 19th, and Indian reprisal attacks a couple weeks later, have yet to escalate into something worse. But the region is still on a hair-trigger.
Pakistan held a provocative military drill along its northern border with India on November 16th, while Pakistani officials are claiming that Indian shelling has displaced 8,000 Kashmiri villagers in recent days. The crisis escalated in part because of this summer’s especially nasty round of protests and violent crackdowns in Indian-controlled Kashmir, site of a more than 60-year-old territorial and sectarian dispute between the countries that remains one of the most dangerous flashpoints in international politics.
Surely our President-elect will know what to do.
Armin Rosen is a New York-based writer and editor who has reported from throughout Africa and the Middle East.