Donald Trump is not good news for Syrian revolutionaries
During the race for the White House, Syrian rebels hoped for a change to US President Barack Obama’s inactivity towards their country. But the election of Donald Trump as president could make matters worse for the rebels rather than better.
In his first interview after winning the election, Trump suggested he would oversee a dramatic shift in Washington’s Syria policy once he is in office. Trump told the Wall Street Journal: “Syria is fighting [the Islamic State] ISIS and you have to get rid of ISIS. Now we’re backing rebels against Syria and we have no idea who these people are.”
In this interview and throughout his campaign, Trump made it clear that he was going to align US efforts concerning Syria with those of Russia.
Although Trump has no clear stated ideology or political doctrine and his approach to Syria is yet to be fully determined, he seems to favour Middle Eastern dictatorships. He called toppling Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein mistakes and has stated that he prefers having Syria’s dictator, President Bashar Assad — the man who is responsible of the death of 400,000 Syrians and the displacement of more than 11 million of his own people — remain in power to avoid chaos.
As they bomb Syrian cities and towns, Assad and Russian President Vladimir Putin are the biggest winners from the US election. Given that Trump is aiming to minimise military engagement in the Middle East, he is likely to strengthen Moscow’s position in the region, adding legitimacy to Putin’s murderous campaign in support of Assad.
The incoming Trump administration is expected to cut off arms supplies to vetted Syrian rebel groups and to put the US focus squarely on countering ISIS. With such measures in place, Assad will have achieved his goals of driving the remaining nationalist-oriented rebel forces towards radicalisation, gaining justification to continue waging his deadly campaign against rebel-held areas.
Unless European and other regional powers fill the gap the United States leaves, Syria’s moderate opposition will face hard times. Not only do European democracies and other countries need to aid the opposition in Syria, they also need to counter a Russia that will be directly reinforced by any US withdrawal under Trump.
On the other hand, a Trump presidency is a gift for jihadist groups operating in Syria. Trump’s vocal claim to align his policy with Russia, support Assad and focus solely on fighting ISIS is music to the ears of al-Qaeda leaders in Syria, as this would feed into their conspiracy narrative, helping them to maximise the radicalisation efforts they are undertaking among Syria’s population and rebel forces.
Additionally, Trump’s anti- Muslim rhetoric during the election campaign will be employed by such groups to advance their agendas. Al-Qaeda ideologues have been using Twitter to present new Trump-produced propaganda material.
Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, an al-Qaeda-linked jihadist theorist, tweeted after the US election that electing Trump reveals American “racism towards Muslims and Arabs” and Hamza al-Karibi, a media official of the rebranded al-Qaeda group in Syria, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, posted on Twitter that Trump’s victory “is a slap to those promoting the benefits of democratic mechanism”.
At this stage what seems clear from Trump’s positions is that he has no understanding of the dynamics of the Syrian war nor is he willing to challenge Moscow’s stance. That is another escalating problem that would lead to an unprecedented growth of Russian dominance in Syrian affairs and hinder any work towards a resolution to the conflict.
Even if Trump follows Obama’s footsteps, this would mean the decline of US influence in Syria, as well as efforts to promote a democratic transition. Following the status quo would also facilitate the rise of Russia and eventual full-scale war against the opposition, though perhaps at a slower pace.