‘Unpredictable’ Trump could seek a Syria deal with Putin

Sunday 13/11/2016
Relishing the tough man image

BEIRUT - Donald Trump’s shock vic­tory in the US presiden­tial election has thrown into confusion Washing­ton’s future policies to­wards the conflict in Syria, let alone broader engagement with the Mid­dle East and Iran.
While Hillary Clinton, the Demo­cratic Party nominee and former secretary of State, had ordered an internal review of Syria policy and had talked of establishing no-fly zones in Syria, the controversial Re­publican president-elect has offered few concrete policy proposals on how to help bring an end to the war that has dragged on for nearly six years and left an estimated 400,000 people dead.
Most of Trump’s comments dur­ing the election campaign were gen­eralities, calling for Gulf states and other countries to provide funds and “take a big swathe of land in Syria and… do a safe zone for peo­ple”.
He has said that the United States should “hit hard to knock out ISIS” — the extremist Islamic State — and hinted at striking a deal with Russia over Syria.
He praised Russian President Vladimir Putin, relishing the Rus­sian leader’s “strongman” im­age, even after 17 US intelligence agencies declared that Moscow was responsible for providing the WikiLeaks whistle-blowing site with thousands of hacked e-mail messages from an account held by Clinton’s campaign manager.
Additionally, in an interview in October 2015, Trump declared that toppling Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Qaddafi of Libya were mistakes since they resulted “in a mess” and suggested that Syr­ian President Bashar Assad would be better for Syria than the likely alternatives.
While much of the world reacted to Trump’s win with dismay and nervous markets tumbled, Putin was quick to offer congratulations.
In a statement Putin expressed “hope for joint work to restore Rus­sian-American relations from their state of crisis and to address press­ing international issues and search for effective responses to challenges concerning global security”.
An initial take might suggest that Putin and Assad could view Trump’s election with some satis­faction given his isolationist views and past comments on Russia and Syria but analysts say that crowd-pleasing public comments during a bitterly fought election campaign are often far removed from the cold formulation of policy by a White House incumbent and his staff.
“If I were Messrs Putin and As­sad, I would think it prudent to postpone the victory celebration. It may prove to be premature and in­appropriate,” said Frederic Hof, di­rector of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a US State De­partment point man on Syria during Clinton’s time as secretary.
Analysts said a Clinton presiden­cy could have resulted in several options that fall short of a US-led in­vasion and occupation of Syria.
They include providing more and better weapons to vetted rebel groups, possibly including anti-air­craft missiles, and inflicting strikes against the Syrian regime’s scarce military assets, such as air bases from where jets and helicopters car­ry out air strikes against civilian and rebel-held areas alike.
Additionally, a Clinton presiden­cy might have made a push to estab­lish some form of Syrian opposition government in eastern Syria if, or when, ISIS had been defeated and driven out.
However, assessing Trump’s ap­proach to Syria — if there is one — is much harder to determine.
Trump is “very unpredictable” and the situation is “very fluid”, said Andrew Tabler, a Syrian spe­cialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Trump has spoken at length about his ability to strike deals and he could seek to forge a compromise agreement with Putin over Syria. “He [Trump] might engage him [Pu­tin] and then when he doesn’t get results change tack,” Tabler said.
But Trump has balked at the use of US military force overseas, ar­guing that countries closer to the problem should take the lead, rath­er than relying on American power. Much will depend on the composi­tion of Trump’s cabinet and how willing he is to listen and accept advice from foreign policy experts.
US President Barack Obama is not expected to fundamentally alter his hands-off policy towards Syria in his waning days in office. That offers Putin and Assad, along with Iran, a two-month window to estab­lish new facts on the ground before the unknown quantity of a Trump presidency materialises.
A Russian navy task force, led by the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft car­rier and including a guided missile cruiser and two destroyers, is in the eastern Mediterranean and poised to launch strikes against rebel areas in eastern Aleppo and its surround­ings.
Russia’s Gazeta.ru news site re­ported that the attacks would in­volve Kalibr cruise missiles, possi­bly fired from Russian naval vessels in the Caspian Sea, as has been done before.
If the Assad regime, with the backing of its Iranian and Russian allies, retakes Aleppo, Syria’s sec­ond city and once the country’s economic hub, before Trump takes office, it could limit the new presi­dent’s options — assuming in the first place that Syria will be high on his list of priorities.