Trump to face multiple challenges in Syria
DUBAI - The Islamic State (ISIS), the Syrian civil war and rising tensions between the West and Russia are amongst the most pressing global security challenges US President-elect Donald Trump will need to begin managing on assuming office.
With Trump’s declared priority of defeating ISIS, the Syria quagmire takes centre stage and will require his administration to work out a formula to accommodate Russian and Turkish agendas, which their respective leaderships are pursuing obdurately.
However, with unprecedented NATO-Russia tensions following Russian moves in Ukraine and Syria and a failed coup attempt in Turkey that Ankara says was orchestrated by US-based Fethullah Gulen, US-Russia and US-Turkey relations are important challenges awaiting Trump.
Trump will need to find a way of exploiting the emerging geopolitical landscape to remove the ISIS threat and de-escalating the intensity and risks of the Syrian conflict in part by restoring confidence with Moscow and Ankara. Some expect a hard line from the new White House against its strategic competitors. However, Trump’s publicly declared admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s no-nonsense approaches provide a useful platform for the Trump administration to manage overseas hotspots, in particular Syria.
For regional partners of the United States, President Barack Obama’s administration struggled to enforce its leadership in Syria in the way that is consummate with its superpower status, leaving Russia and Iran to effectively take control. With weak American leadership in the Syria crisis, Turkey was forced to first dangerously confront Russia and then to re-court Russia after which it has effectively realigned its Syria policy around Moscow’s red lines.
Without Turkey, however, US involvement in Syria lacks much-needed depth but Ankara now owes more politically to Moscow for its role in Syria. Without being able to effectively influence developments in Syria, as was the case when Ankara was compliantly following the US lead, intolerable security challenges were taking form for Turkey right on its border.
The Obama administration stuck with an approach of pursuing a series of overlapping efforts in Syria — surveillance and air strikes against ISIS, training and operational support for separatist Kurdish militias and unsuccessfully attempting to put into motion a peace plan — rather than pursuing a clear end goal with purpose and a meaningful application of military power.
The United States lost out to Russia and allowed Iran and Hezbollah to claim what smells like victory in Syria. In the process it alienated Turkish counterparts and dealt a further blow to the confidence of its Arab Gulf partners that the United States can be an effective and reliable regional security guarantor.
So the Syrian crisis is a quagmire that Trump inherits without a clear-cut prevailing policy and with many vital regional relationships under strain.
Despite his Republican membership, Trump does not represent the party’s neo-conservative stream, the tea party movement or even its anti-interventionist libertarians. He does not religiously subscribe to any ideological worldview. As a results-oriented leader Trump is much less inclined to frame his policies around conservative or liberal values than outcomes that can be achieved with swiftness.
Trump, if he had his way, would probably gladly settle for a trade over Syria where he could claim credit for defeating ISIS quickly and decisively and partnering with Russia. Partnering with Russia in Syria could offer Trump a window to reframe US-Russia relations more broadly too — an objective that also appears to be on his foreign policy agenda.
If the Kremlin was willing to reciprocate Trump’s proposed partnerships against ISIS with a peace plan that it forces the Assad regime to work with, the Trump administration could score a massive victory.
Turkey will be able to work with the Trump administration in Syria because the few feasible options available to the next White House all not only work for Turkey but actually need the strategic depth only it can provide. In contrast to 18 months ago, Turkey’s position against ISIS and Kurdish separatists and its wider role in Syria are more secure and firm footed following successful reconciliation with Moscow.
Trump has exhibited Machiavellian traits throughout his election campaign and he is comfortable with making about-turns on policy positions, so while the mainstream media are anticipating positive personal relationships between Trump and his Russian and Turkish counterparts, these expectations are still premature.
Syria, however, represents a peculiar crisis. It is now clear the moderate Syrian rebels cannot win and Assad is not finished but he cannot survive in the long term. However, there is unanimous agreement to finish ISIS. All of the respective red lines for the United States, Russia and Turkey in Syria considered, ISIS provides the only common agenda around which the Trump administration can build its new Syria policy.