Warring rivals struggle to unravel Trump’s Syria policy
BEIRUT - Along with the rest of the world, Syrians are trying to figure out what a Donald Trump presidency will mean for them and their war-torn country.
The anti-regime camp is furious, with good reason, having rooted aggressively for Hillary Clinton, who had promised a no-fly zone and more support for the Syrian opposition.
The supporters of Syrian President Bashar Assad are having a hard time hiding their satisfaction, given Trump’s constant refrain throughout the election campaign that he was not going to get into a confrontation with Russia over Syria because that would ignite a third world war.
By advocating US non-interventionism and isolationism from the complex, labyrinthine worlds of Middle Eastern politics, Trump has surrendered completely to his soon-to-be Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin.
Trump insists that Moscow is part of the solution to the Syria problem and is not the problem itself. This is mainly because the Russians are fighting the Islamic State (ISIS), which is the core of what passes for Trump’s Middle East policy.
“Russia is killing ISIS and Assad is killing ISIS,” Trump said, arguing that it was illogical to fight those who are battling the very same people who want to unleash terrorist attacks on the United States.
In addition to verbally harassing Saudi Arabia, the main backer of the Syrian opposition, Trump also spoke against regime change in the Arab world, preferring the stability of military regimes over democracy and human rights observance.
When his running mate, Mike Pence, said the United States should bomb the Syrian Army in the embattled city of Aleppo and create a no-fly zone to protect civilians, Trump rejected the idea.
When asked what he thought would happen if Aleppo fell to the Syrian Army, he said that the battered city has already “basically fallen” to the Russians.
In September, he said during a CNN interview: “Are we better off with Assad? We have no idea who those people (the rebels) are. We give them weapons, we give them ammunition and we give them everything. I mean maybe it’s worse than Assad. So what are we doing?”
He told the New York Times in March: “Our far greater problem is not Assad, it’s ISIS.”
Yet when Trump’s victory was announced, the Syrian regime and the opposition rushed to mend broken fences with the president-elect.
Defected former prime minister Riad Hijab, who now heads the rebels’ Riyadh-backed High Negotiations Committee, sent him a congratulatory letter, while a top Assad adviser said the Syrian president is “ready” to cooperate with Trump.
Weeks earlier, a Syrian presidential envoy secretly met with Trump’s son in Paris, engaging in a Track II effort with the president-elect.
Online, Syrian opposition activists, seeking to put as positive a spin on things as they could, predicted that, once in the White House, Trump would change his policies on Syria, arguing that incoming US presidents rarely abide by their campaign rhetoric.
Trump surprised them yet again on November 11th, three days after the election, by telling the Wall Street Journal that he was likely to abandon US support for the armed opposition.
He stressed that the United States should find common ground with Russia and the Damascus regime on combating ISIS, adding that he held “an opposite view” towards Syria than that held by “many people”.
Trump’s statement means that the United States could soon withdraw the 300 military advisers working with rebels in northern Syria and abort CIA support for the 35,000-strong Syrian Democratic Forces, a largely Kurdish militia battling to recapture the city of Raqqa, de facto capital of the ISIS caliphate.
Politically, this would mean that the United States could accept Russia’s vision for the Syrian endgame: A national unity cabinet approved by Assad in which the opposition gets to share power with the regime, no matter how ceremonially, rather than replace it altogether.
It would also mean Trump’s silence over Russia’s insistence that Assad gets to run for office for a fourth term. If Putin gets his way, it might even mean a diplomatic rapprochement between Damascus and Trump.
Moscow insists that no political deal can be made before the balance shifts fully in favour of its Syrian allies. That means retaking Aleppo and the countryside around Damascus, while quarantining the armed opposition in north-western Syria.
If that comes to pass, all sides would unite their efforts to combat ISIS rather than toppling Assad. Ultimately this means an international coalition against ISIS headed by the United States, similar to the one that ejected Saddam Hussein from Kuwait in 1991.
Republicans will control both houses of Congress for at least two years under a Trump administration but Trump’s choice of top officials in his administration might be problematic, given initial reports that John Bolton, former US ambassador to the United Nations, is a leading candidate to be secretary of State. Bolton advocated regime change in Damascus after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
Trump has already named a military hard-liner, retired Lieutenant- General Michael Flynn, former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, as his national security adviser. The outspoken Flynn blamed his removal as head of the DIA in 2014 on his militant views on radical Islam.
Trump has not changed on Syria after his election victory but will men like these change to suit his Syria policy?