Trump feels his way through Syria’s labyrinth
The next round of Syria talks in Geneva has been postponed until February 20th because the stakeholders in the conflict want to get a better picture of what US President Donald Trump’s Syria policy will be now that Rex Tillerson has been sworn in as US Secretary of State.
Trump has been fairly consistent on Syria, both during the presidential campaign and in interviews since he was elected in November. He wants “this craziness” in Syria to end, has oodles of respect for Russian President Vladimir Putin and would not mind working with the Syrian regime in fighting the Islamic State (ISIS).
In March, Trump should receive a Pentagon study with recommendations on how to defeat ISIS, a major component of his inaugural address on January 20th.
Advisers close to the US president confirm that he would gladly outsource the entire Syria file to Putin if the Russian leader agreed to do three things: Help Trump crush ISIS, empower Syria’s Kurds and eject Iran and Hezbollah from the Syrian battlefield.
Trump is willing to engage with Damascus at a counter-intelligence level and to surrender to Putin’s version of how the war, now nearly 6 years old, should end.
Trump is seemingly very serious about liberating Raqqa, a normally sleepy town in north-eastern Syria on the Euphrates that ISIS has occupied since 2014 and that it considers the capital of its caliphate.
But Trump wants this done through the Syrian Democratic Forces, a mostly Kurdish militia set up two years ago by the Obama administration, not through the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army, Russia or the Syrian Army.
Trump is impressed by the Kurds’ resistance to ISIS’s occupation of Kobane, a Kurdish town on the border with Turkey, and sees Syrian Kurds as strategic partners in the war on terror.
If the price for their cooperation is achieving statehood in eastern Syria, then so be it: This is a reward that Trump would be willing to give.
His team sees no problem in keeping on the Syrian regime, so long as it distances itself from Iran. That will be easier said than done as the Islamic Republic is a key ally of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
For three years now, the international community and Arab states have been pressuring Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, a Shia, to distance himself from Tehran. This has triggered a series of terror attacks that have caused a massive death toll and made life in major cities such as Baghdad quite unbearable.
Iran has copious militias, so-called advisers and mercenaries in Syria. If it feels threatened, it can easily do the same, spreading havoc in regime-controlled places such as Damascus. At present, the US administration has no vision how it can reduce Iranian influence or eject Hezbollah from cities and towns it has controlled since 2012.
The Trump administration is also unclear about what kind of relationship it wants with Damascus. Will it actively engage, as George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton did when they were in the White House, or will it only tap dance with the Syrians — coordinating closely but with no touching, as Barack Obama did in 2009-11?
No-fly zones are certainly an option for Trump, but only in agreement with Moscow, and this will clearly muddle any cooperation with Damascus.
Finally, Trump is not enthusiastic about joining the Geneva process, launched in early 2016 based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254. This, of course, is music to the ears of Damascus and Moscow.
That process was the brainchild of then US Secretary of State John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov, the Russian Foreign minister. It collapsed in April 2016 and has been replaced by a process launched in Astana, capital of Kazakhstan, in early February. This endeavour initiated by Russia, Turkey and Iran is aimed at implementing a nationwide ceasefire in Syria, bringing rebel groups into the political process and uniting efforts in the war on ISIS — but with no mention of what will happen to Assad.
This, it is believed, would ultimately lead to the creation of a national unity cabinet embracing the regime and its opponents, which would supervise early parliamentary and presidential elections and draw up a new Syrian constitution. A draft of that plan was reportedly handed over to Syrian negotiators by Russia on January 25th. Trump is said to believe that this is fine for now and can be carried forward by the three regional powers, with the United States in the backseat as an observer.
If the United States wants to remove itself from the Middle East’s byzantine politics and concentrate on ISIS, the first move would be to step away from Syria. Astana, where the Americans were also sidelined, provides Trump with a perfect way to achieve that.