‘Unpredictable’ Trump could seek a Syria deal with Putin
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.