From Syria to Sanctions, Flynn-Russia Quid Pro Quo?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The headlines about Trump and his team on the one hand and the Russian Federation on the other are coming fast and furious. The items are often, however, merely isolated data points. Can we draw them together?

First, while the Obama administration was imposing sanctions on Russia over its hacking attempts and other activities aimed at influencing the US presidential election, we now know that incoming National Security adviser Mike Flynn was calling the Russian embassy, on December 25. The current cover story for this call, delivered by Sean Spicer, is that Flynn was wishing the Russians merry Christmas. All the policy people are falling down laughing at this assertion. Flynn doesn’t seem to have called any other embassies to wish them a merry Christmas. And as he surely knew but Sean Spicer apparently does not, Eastern Orthodox Christians in Russia do not celebrate Christmas on December 25 but usually two weeks later. And moreover, New Year’s is the big holiday in Russia, not Christmas. Finally, Flynn called the Russians five times that day, which is a lot of holiday cheer.

So we may conclude that Flynn was actually doing something other than conveying holiday greetings. The most likely hypothesis is that he was reassuring Russia that Trump did not agree with Obama’s sanctions and that they would be lifted.

The second bit of news is that Trump told the Wall Street Journal Friday that he might remove sanctions on Russia entirely if they are helpful in, e.g., fighting terrorism. US sanctions on Russia are reducing Foreign Direct Investment and so harming the Russian economy. They also ruined a $500 billion deal Putin had done with ExxonMobil, whose CEO, Rex Tillerson, has been nominated for the Secretary of State position. You could imagine Putin and Tillerson wanting the sacntions lifted so that they could get back to pumping oil and making money.

The third piece of the puzzle is that the Russians have abruptly invited the United States to join them, the Turks, the Iranians and the Syrians at Astana in Kazakhstan on January 23. Trump will be sworn in on January 20. The Russians had not extended any similar invitation to the US in recent months during Obama’s last months in office. So we may conclude that the Russians hope that the incoming Trump administration will be a more constructive diplomatic partner in Syria than had the Obama administration (at least as Moscow defines constructive). The Russians represent themselves as fighting Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) and the Levantine Conquest Front (i.e. al-Qaeda in Syria) in that country, and so as indeed helping the US versus terrorism. The Obama administration had been dismayed that the Russians mainly focused on al-Qaeda and its battlefield allies. Some of the Salafi groups the CIA had allegedly vetted as moderate are in fact extremist and in recent weeks have been making closer alliances with al-Qaeda. But the Obama administration kept calling them moderates even if they had obviously become Salafi Jihadis. With Obama out and Trump in, the political geography of Syria may well be redefined, so that Washington will see the people the Russians are targeting as bona fide terrorists.

Maybe it is a coincidence that all three stories have broken in the past couple days. Or maybe the stories are threaded together, with Flynn at the center. Flynn perhaps reassures Russia about Obama’s new sanctions. Then Trump hints strongly that he will lift the sanctions on Russia growing out of its unilateral annexation of Crimea and its election hacking efforts. He makes this end of sanctions dependent on Russia helping with terrorism.

And now the US is being suddenly invited again to the diplomatic table regarding Syria at Astana, in what is being advertised as, in part, an anti-terrorism effort.


Related video:

CNN: “Coons: Flynn’s calls with Russia “very suspicious”

36 Responses

  1. Saying he was wishing Putin Merry Christmas is ironic, surely? A twinkle in the eye way of saying, Buzz off, I’m not telling you. Would anyone really expect him to throw details of such exchanges to a bunch of largely antipathetic talking heads.

  2. This meeting smells like it might make the placename “Astana” as much or more of a symbol of a world-historical succession of events and also the controversy/disagreement about those events, as the two placenames “Munich” and “Yalta.”

  3. Great! Do we really want another cold war? If McCain, Obama, Grahm, and the neocons had their way then we would restart the cold war.

    • Or Trump will join Putin in a new cold war against the West’s actual democracies. After all, aren’t Germany and France a greater affront to the values of the Republican Party than Russia? All that damn equality and secularism and national health care and gun control and alternative energy and unions. Don’t worry, Le Pen and the AfD will liberate White Christians from democratic oppression!

      • I think you’re on the right track, super390. Only months ago it would have seemed almost impossible to believe, but the U.S. under Trump will become as prototypically fascistic as he and his fantasist active conspirators can make it while embracing the Putin’s already fascistic Russia. They are already natural allies. I think the next stage in the proliferation and development of allied autocracies will include the smaller European (eastern and western) countries, which will put additional pressure on Germany and France to elect their own homegrown rightist fascists to power. It’s all rather uncharted after that. Unless someone can point in the direction of similar past situations, near to the present or ancient, I’m guessing things are just going to hell sooner rather than later. Save your American greenbacks, because the Union states will rise again!

    • We seem to have gotten a nice peaceful reset with Russia, with a war coming against China. With Hillary, it seems, we would have had the opposite.

  4. Trump has never concealed his intention to form some kind of alliance with Russia to kill jihadis and to dominate the ME. Beyond rubbing out the jihadis, I’m not sure what the end goals of the alliance are, but I imagine they have something to do with oil. Maybe they even have something to do with Iran and with the occupied territories. It strikes me as petulant for Obama to throw a monkey wrench into the works during his last weeks in office. But he seems to be doing a lot of that in a lot of different areas these days. His time would be better spent on the campaign trail with Sanders and Schumer.

    • “………I’m not sure what the end goals of the alliance are, but I imagine they have something to do with oil…..”

      What is material is that ISIS is selling oil on the black market to the Baathist regime in Damascus and Bilal Erdogan – the Turkish president’s son – controls companies that are involved in transporting oil produced by ISIS.

      Some of this crude oil eventually is imported to Israel via Turkey for delivery at the port city of Ashdod.

      Here are the links:

      link to

      link to

    • Billy, stop making sense! You’re killin’ me! While reading your comment I had the thought that since Trump and Putin are white nationalists they might prefer the Iranian people as allies over the Arab peoples. I think they will form an alliance with Iran to include the ‘Shia Crescent’ extending from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon to the Mediterranean. That would be a geopolitical winner backed by the the remaining one and one-half military superpowers, who will also be allied together against China’s rise to further prominence. No one could stand against them if Trump and Putin stay allied. But will their pact go the way of the Hitler-Stalin pact? Stay tuned (on the shortwave from your fallout shelter).

  5. Reuter’s reason for anonymity is bogus; oil/$$$ was talking.
    us needs guns & oil to pay for its future – obtuse peace ahead.
    Keep writing, professor.

    • Reader Adrift, I think you’re right to focus on Flynn’s unaccountability. Looking objectively at what he believes in and stands for, it is frightening to see a mind reeling in and out of ignorant cynical political fantasies. They can only get people killed, innocents mostly of course. I read where someone considers him America’s Rasputin, and I think that might be a little tame compared to the revolving serial damage such delusional thinking can enact. His psychoactivated ideo-religious delusions of infallibility makes him a chronic deadender. He’s very bad news for the world.

  6. Donald Trump, ignorant and uninformed as he is, seems to think that the Russians have been bombing and attacking ISIS.

    They have not, with the exception of a small number of sorties approximately a year ago.

    He is like so many people I encounter on Facebook, who believe the rebels and ISIS are the same.

    They aren’t.

    That is a belief express by those who are confused and completely ignorant of the Syrian conflict, and that includes Donald Trump.

    Trump says he knows more about ISIS than the American generals.

    He know nothing about ISIS and could certainly never pass a freshman level exam on the topic.

    He seems to be unaware of the massive human right violations engendered by the Russian bombing campaign in Syria which have been well documented by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Red Cross, the United Nations and other human right organizations.

    This erroneous belief on the part of Donald Trump, that the Russian have been helpful in so far as they have been attacking ISIS enables Trump to see the US-Russian competition in completely unrealistic terms – terms that are unrealistically benign.

    • Oh, the Russians continue occasionally to hit Daesh (ISIS, ISIL), around Palmyra and north of Aleppo. But your general point is correct.

      • According to this map produced by the Carter Center, link to,
        it does not look like ISIS has much of presence north of Aleppo. Rather they are concentrated more aroun Raqqa and of course in Anbar Province in Iraq.

        I do not know why they would have a presence around Aleppo. I am not aware that they have seriously challenged the Assad government and would need to consolidate their forces in areas in which the allies are making deep inroads – that is around Raqqa and Anbar in Iraq.

        I am distinguishing between ISIS and al Nusra, which though a branch off of ISIS has broken from them and, in fact, has engaged them in several skirmishes.

        It is not clear from the map whether Al Nusra is classified with the rebels, in green, or with ISIS, in black

    • The problem is, EVERYONE says they’re in Syria to fight ISIS, and no one is actually fighting them except those of the native peoples who face extermination at its hands. ISIS is clearly too valuable to too many people to destroy.

    • I cannot imagine Trump thinks the rebels and ISIS are the same. However, their purposes do overlap significantly from the perspective that both are aiming to overthrow the regime by force of arms, albeit for quite different purposes. Trump has expressed himself uninterested in overthrowing the Assad regime, or any others for that matter, and that totally alters the equation since Assad has been consistent all along that his intention is to clear the land of all armed groups opposed to the government, and that made US insistence on regime change an impediment to cooperation which now hopefully disappears. Confirming such a new US position could well require six calls. Once you accept Assad’s position, and like it or not that is what it amounts to, the precise order in which these groups are confronted militarily is likely largely a question of their geographical locations and attendant lines of communication.

      • “I cannot imagine Trump thinks the rebels and ISIS are the same”.

        I think you do not realize how ignorant and uninformed Trump is. I encounter people on Facebook all the time who confuse the two.

        Trump talks off of the top of his head, and what he takes for knowledge are impression gained from immediate social interaction which do not include any serious reading or study. He lacks the attention span and discipline for that.

        Trump is too arrogant to recognize his own ignorance.

        A recognition of one’s own ignorance is the beginning of knowledge.

  7. I’m a fan of Malcolm Nance, an MSNBC contributor who has 35 years of intelligence experience. Last night he said that as an intelligence agent, he doesn’t believe in coincidences. When there are clear cut patterns for which there is a clear cut explanation that makes sense, then that explanation is likely true (my words, not his).Anyway, Nance believes that it is obvious that the Trump campaign officials had been in contact with the Russians (as admitted by the Russian Deputy foreign Minister) AND they were working together. I seriously doubt this is because of the bonhomie between Putin and Trump; there must be a quid pro quo. This is where the $500 billion dollar oil deal fits in. I predicted several weeks ago that when Putin threatened to build more ICBM’s it was a ploy to allow him and Trump to reach a phony deal to stop that and, in exchange the US would lift sanctions on Russia. That is one option. Trump has already signalled that he will be lifting sanctions. I think the only question is if there will be a fig leaf or not. BTW, the UK newspaper The Independent, to add fuel to this burning mystery, has reported that the ex-agent Steele who compiled the dossier on Trump being compromised by the Russians, turned over his information to the FBI because of his concern and continued to work the case, even without pay because of his concern. He also expressed the belief that the FBI deliberately sat on the information, something which is now coming out in other ways. This could end up being the largest scandal in US history. For the Independent report, see : link to

    • Were the three superpowers in Orwell’s 1984 really at war with each other, or were they permanently allied with each other against all their citizens, always providing each other whatever justification was needed for whatever measure they wanted to pass?

      Has Wallstreetica always been at war with Rosneftistan, and always been allies with Beijinginc? Have we been fools for thinking that Russia or China or whoever were going to save us from the Wall Street hegemony when they were simply building their own corporate empires that would have the same relationship with ours that GM, Ford and Chrysler have with each other, cross-owned by a single global elite?

      • It was fluctuating alliances wherin any two might combine to resist the third if it threatend the balance. It was Winston Smith’s job to edit and ‘photoshop’ the past to conform with any changes of alliance.

    • There’s a plausible in the dossier that says Putin was interested in what Trump could tell him about the activities of Russian oligarchs – those outside Putin’s circle – in the United States, in exchange for information on Clinton.

      Would someone out to fabricate against Trump come up with something so relatively obscure as a point?

  8. One thing that is often overlooked in all this is the effect of the $500 billion dollar oil deal which involves billions of barrels of oil. If this deal goes through and that oil is pumped out and burned, climate change will almost certainly be irreversible. So, even if this deal is not mired in scandal, it would be an environmental disaster.

    • But the irony here is, Putin makes more money NOT pumping oil – in coordination with similar production cuts by other major producers – than by pumping more and more oil in a glutted market. The worst thing that can happen to him is for Russia to cut back production while OPEC members cheat on their pledged cutbacks.

      However, if Putin were covering up a looming collapse in Russian reserves, then he’d sure need a replacement, someplace where extraction is too technologically complex for his country to handle. Like it or not, Exxon is the place to go for that.

      So what’s really going on here? There are several possible combinations of factors.

  9. Wow.

    This is all starting to make Nixon’s backroom deal with S. Vietnam look like child’s play…

    • I always suspected America could someday ‘elect’ a president who is even more of a paranoid self-obsessed asshole than Nixon was. I wish I could say it was worth the wait.

    • Exactly, under cutting has been done before – Tricky Dick on Viet Nam “get a better deal with us” and then more died as “Peace with Honor” was rolled out for years only to be the same as plain old peace. Then we also have the Iran Contra deal – undercut Carter’s negotiations and the hostages stayed put for months more.

      Transition is messy.

  10. Give Putinsky credit. The guy played his cards beautifully and he helped his Manchurian Candidate into the WH. Flynn, an Islamophobe incompetent who was fired from his last government job, should be investigated for conducting foreign policy before ever getting sworn into office. Oh, this clustermuck is just getting started. It’s going to get ugly. The authoritarian reactionaries in the Kremlin should toast themselves for a job well done.

  11. Professor Cole, I am puzzled, because you have often seemed to advocate a change of course in U.S. policy in Syria somewhat similar to what seems in the works under the Trump-Flynn gambit. Doesn’t the Russia-Iran-Turkey ceasefire at least seem to have quelled violence? Why should not the US participate in Astana? It’s only a prep for continued Geneva talks.
    Also, is it wrong or illegitimate for an incoming administration to have diplomatic contacts in preparation for its opening weeks and months in power? I have trouble seeing this as sinister and the attempt to paint it as treason seems highly unreasonable and partisan. I am not a Trump voter but I think we need to apply a normal standard of fairness in assessing what the incoming administration is doing. Moreover, U.S. diplomats overseas consider it their normal duty to be in touch with all political parties contesting power in a given country, to hear and learn what areas of cooperation might be in prospect and to weigh options. How would we like it if leaders of those countries tried to say that any party or leader who spoke with the US embassy or attended a reception was a spy and disqualified from holding office?

    • Syria is extremely complicated, and maybe it has been hard for me to convey my position, but just to underline: My understanding of Trump is that he wants to support Bashar al-Assad to the hilt as a strong man and let Syria become a Russian sphere of influence, and the Baathist totalitarian state should be reimposed on everyone. That is nothing like my position!

      As for Flynn calling the Russian embassy 5 times on Dec. 25, this is highly irregular. The rule is that there is only one president at a time. The Trump team was already undermining Obama. It is completely outrageous and also very suspicious.

    • I’d advise you to get your commentary about Syria from Syria Comment/ Joshua Landis or Jadaliya, i.e. from people who know Arabic and Syria and have academic training in social analysis.

      Eva Bartlett did some excellent journalism on Gaza. But in the case of Syria, she is avowedly pro regime and writes a blog for Russia Today, which is owned and directed by Putin’s government. Some of her allegations have been disproven:

      link to

      Of course, with Syria, everyone has a viewpoint. I tend not to depend heavily on people who seem blind to the horrors of the Baath regime and the al-Assad clique.

  12. So the next outrage is the USA becoming one of Assad’s protectors? Assad does seem like Trump’s kind of guy.

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