Much of Trump’s Syria policy likely to be coordinated with Russia
US President-elect Donald Trump is likely to end US support for moderate Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime and instead work with pro-Russian Syrian oppositionists to seek a political solution to the crisis. Trump will likely continue US President Barack Obama’s policies against the Islamic State (ISIS).
Notwithstanding his bombastic rhetoric on the campaign trail, Trump tried to portray himself as the non-interventionist candidate, charging that his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, had a “happy trigger” finger and would be quick to intervene overseas.
Trump has consistently argued that the 2003 Iraq war and military intervention in the Middle East in general were grave mistakes. During his recent thank you tour to supporters in Ohio after the election, Trump claimed that the United States has spent $6 trillion on the Iraq war and its aftermath and in the process further destabilised the Middle East.
Trump not only said the United States should avoid Middle East quagmires, he also opposes nation-building. He has been very critical of US support for Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime, suggesting that they contain elements that are worse than Syrian President Bashar Assad. His only interventionist desire is to “destroy” the Islamic State (ISIS) because of its threat to the US homeland.
In October, Trump distanced himself from his running mate, Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who suggested that the US forces should strike Syrian government military targets. In one of his debates with Clinton, Trump said he and Pence had not discussed the issue and that he disagreed with Pence’s views.
On that occasion, Trump added: “I believe we have to get ISIS. We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much involved in Syria.” He went on to claim that Assad and Russia are “killing ISIS”, a statement that belied the truth, as both have concentrated on striking non-ISIS targets.
In a post-election interview with the New York Times, Trump did seem to acknowledge the humanitarian crisis in Syria. He said what was taking place there “is a horrible, horrible thing” and he referenced the mounting death toll and the destruction to Syrian cities. He suggested he could help solve the situation by working with Russia.
Trump’s eldest son, Donald Junior, travelled to Paris in October to meet with representatives of a supposed Syrian opposition group that is backed by Russia. One of these representatives, Randa Kassis, is on record saying that Russia has “saved” Syria. Her group seeks a political transition in Syria through cooperation with Assad.
In essence, this means that Assad would remain president but would share power with moderate pro-Russian political elements. Kassis said, after meeting with Trump’s son, that she found him to be “very pragmatic” and “flexible” and that she hoped the new Trump administration and Russia would cooperate on a political solution.
This, indeed, seems to be where Trump is headed: Working with Russia to broaden the Syrian government but leaving Assad in power. Such a policy would be consistent with Trump’s opposition to nation-building and willingness to deal with authoritarian governments in power.
The problem for Trump is that the rebels are not going away. Although they are taking a pounding in Aleppo, they still control large areas of the country. Partly in response to Trump’s election victory, moderate rebels are giving up hope of continued US assistance and have recently formed a coalition that includes extremists. If this coalition were to come to power one day, Washington would have no leverage with it because of the moderates’ belief that they have been abandoned.
As for the ISIS component of the Syrian crisis, Trump is likely to follow Obama’s strategy of bombing ISIS targets and working with allies on the ground in both Iraq and Syria that are fighting the jihadist group, including the Syrian Kurds. Although Trump said on the campaign trail that he would target family members of ISIS leaders, which would constitute a war crime, and “bomb the shit” out of ISIS, implying a disregard for civilian casualties, many of his military advisers — particularly his nominee for secretary of Defense, retired Marine Corps general James Mattis — would likely oppose such a move.
Although an argument can be made that Obama was not sufficiently aggressive in confronting ISIS earlier, at this point it is losing ground in both Iraq and Syria, and the US military believes the current strategy is working. So, despite Trump’s claim during the campaign that he “knows more than the generals”, he is likely to defer to them in fighting ISIS and, because he remains opposed to US boots on the ground, the current policy is the only realistic option.