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Joint Syria strikes build US-EU trust ahead of critical Iran deadline

With the UK and France joining the United States in strikes over Syria’s chemical weapons use, trust is growing between the Trump and European national security teams ahead of a key May deadline on the Iran nuclear deal.
A U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer, deployed to Al Udeid Air Base, launches a strike as part of the multinational response to Syria's use of chemical weapons is seen in this image from Al Udeid Air Base, Doha, Qatar released on April 14, 2018. U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY - RC1E73E5B3E0

WASHINGTON — With the United States joined by the United Kingdom and France in strikes targeting Syrian chemical weapons-related facilities last weekend, trust and coordination have been growing between US President Donald Trump’s national security team and those of once-wary European allies, according to US and European officials.

“One thing that has been quietly happening is a very close relationship amongst the different national security teams so that everyone knows everyone else, everyone understands everyone else’s intent … and the places in which we can pursue opportunities to accomplish shared goals,” a senior Trump administration official, speaking not for attribution, said on a White House call April 14 after the joint US-UK-French strikes on Syrian chemical weapons-related facilities.

While the relationship between Trump and key European leaders has been bumpy, growing experience working closely together on critical Middle East and international counterproliferation issues may be good news for prospects for striking an eventual accord on preserving the Iran nuclear deal. Trump is due to host French President Emmanuel Macron for his first state visit on April 24. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is scheduled to meet with Trump at the White House on April 27.

Trump has said he won’t renew Iran sanctions waivers at the next deadline of May 12 if the United States and three European powers (E3) — Britain, France and Germany — can’t strike an accord on toughening their joint stance on Iran.

But a European official said there has been considerable progress at talks between the United States and the E3 on drafting a text to address Trump’s Iran concerns.

“We came out feeling like we are making good progress toward addressing the president’s concerns,” the European official, speaking not for attribution, said after the latest round of US-E3 working group talks on Iran, which were held in Washington on April 11.

The European official expressed confidence that the United States and E3 political directors would be able to reach agreement on a set of documents that credibly responds to Trump’s Iran concerns. But the official acknowledged that even if they are able to finalize such a draft political understanding, as expected, it was entirely unclear if Trump will be willing to accept it.

A second European diplomat involved in the US-E3 talks also expressed uncertainty that technical progress on a joint text would matter if Trump has made a political decision to withdraw from the deal.

“I would say that the technical discussions are making progress, but I am afraid it will not be the only/main decision benchmark inside the beltway,” the second European diplomat told Al-Monitor.

He hoped that working together against Syria chemical weapons would bolster transatlantic efforts on the Iran deal, but was uncertain it would. “Nobody knows,” he said. “It would make sense: Fighting together WMD [weapons of mass destruction] makes a lot of sense instead of breaking apart.”

Trump, who often complains that other nations are taking advantage of the United States, notably thanked France and the United Kingdom in announcing that a joint military operation was underway against Syrian chemical weapons-related facilities on April 13. Trump’s advisers later said that close coordination over the past week between the three nations’ leadership and national security teams reflected growing confidence and familiarity with each other.

“A combined operation with the armed forces of France and the United Kingdom is now underway,” Trump said in a televised statement from the White House when announcing the Syria strikes. “We thank them both.”

“Today, the nations of Britain, France and the United States of America have marshaled their righteous power against barbarism and brutality,” Trump said.

Trump’s national security aides said Trump had had almost daily calls with Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May in the week between a suspected chlorine-sarin attack on Douma, eastern Ghouta, on April 7 and the announcement of the joint strikes.

“Over time, among President Trump, President Macron and Prime Minister May in particular, they’ve developed a very close strategic coordination relationship, and also one in which there’s an increasing level of trust over time,” the senior Trump administration official said on the White House call Saturday.

“But so have their teams, the national security teams below them,” the senior administration official continued.

“This was three permanent members of the United Nations Security Council banding together to take a very resolute action in a pretty much seamless joint exercise,” a second senior administration official said. “It’s a real tribute to [the president’s] ability to form this coalition, have the firm support of both France and Great Britain for this action.”

Whether the joint US-UK-French military operation in Syria to try to re-establish deterrence against the use of chemical weapons would carry over into Trump’s Iran deliberations was unclear. Several former US officials who worked on the Iran nuclear issue said there was a deal to be had if Trump would be willing to take it. But they noted that recent personnel additions of hawkish Iran deal skeptics in Trump’s national security team, including the arrival of John Bolton as national security adviser and the nomination of CIA director Mike Pompeo to be secretary of state, would seem ominous for those who believe it is in the United States’ interest to preserve and build on the 2015 Iran nuclear accord.

“There is definitely a compromise to be struck,” Ilan Goldenberg, a former Pentagon and State Department official who worked on Middle East issues, told Al-Monitor.

“But I have been hearing from some administration officials that the chances of a deal have gone down,” Goldenberg, now with the Center for a New American Security, said. “My sense is they were doing [the US-E3] negotiations and things were going pretty well, and then they got more guidance from the president that they were supposed to take a harder line, and that made the negotiations more difficult. On top of that, [the arrival of] Pompeo and Bolton … also lends additional concern and skepticism about what may be possible.”

Whether working together to counter Syria’s use of chemical weapons builds goodwill among the allies to reach a compromise on Iran, Goldenberg said it was hard to say because it was so dependent on Trump’s moods.

“It can’t hurt, but I have no idea if it will be determinative,” Goldenberg said. “[Trump] is so fickle, you just don’t know.”

Goldenberg speculated that the Trump administration may punt a decision on the Iran sanctions waivers on May 12 to try to increase leverage over the Europeans then aim to reach a toughened accord at a later point.

Former US Iran nuclear deal negotiator and sanctions expert Richard Nephew said he was also pessimistic that any Trump warming to European allies over joint Syria strikes would make him more amenable to them on his other agenda items, such as trade and Iran.

“On Syria cooperation, we are over-reading this,” Nephew, now with Columbia University, told Al-Monitor.

The United States and the E3 “have made real progress, and there are words that will satisfy a softer Trump view and a more hard-line European view,” Nephew said. “But it requires some movement on both sides. I am skeptical. We have seen this play before.”

“France, Germany and UK have made substantial proposals that respond to our shared concerns about Iranian activities while preserving the #irandeal,” French Ambassador to the United States Gerard Araud wrote on Twitter April 12.

Daryl Kimball, the executive director of the Arms Control Association, said Trump needed to learn to take yes for an answer from European allies who have invested considerable efforts to try to address his concerns on the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

“The recent US-UK-French cooperation in responding to the Syrian use of [chemical weapons] should help bolster the Trump administration’s confidence in the commitment of our European allies to deal with other security challenges in the Middle East,” Kimball said. “That requires that Washington work with our European allies to uphold the JCPOA.”

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