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There is not yet any clarity with regard what Donald Trump would do about Syria once he becomes President. Virtually everything about the incoming administration is in the “wait and see” phase. Still, on the current evidence, Trump’s Syria policy would appear to be a continuation of President Barack Obama’s policy of prioritizing the threat of the Islamic State (IS) and other non-state Sunni jihadist groups, while effectively aligning with the pro-regime coalition, made up of Russian air power and a ground force led by the Islamic Republic of Iran, stitched together out of the battered remnants of Bashar al-Assad’s army and his sectarian militias, Iranian paramilitary and regular forces, and foreign Shi’a jihadist groups under Iran’s control. The only potential difference is that Trump may formally repudiate the anti-Assad forces. The effect of this would be to destroy the mainstream Syrian opposition and empower al-Qaeda, but it would not bring stability to Syria. There are hints, however, that Trump is recruiting senior officials who will alter this policy.
Trump’s Stated Views of Syria
In an interview on CNN with Erin Burnett in September 2015, Trump said:
Now we have ISIS. And ISIS wants to go after Assad. … You have Russia that’s now there. Russia’s on the side of Assad. And Russia wants to get rid of ISIS as much as we do, if not more. Because they don’t want them coming into Russia. And I’m saying why are we knocking ISIS, and yet at the same time we’re against Assad? Let them fight. Take over the remnants. But more importantly, let Russia fight ISIS if they want to fight them. … The problem is, the [opposition to] Assad, we have no idea who they are. … I mean, maybe it’s worse than Assad. So what are we doing? … We have to get rid of ISIS, very importantly. But I look at Assad, and Assad, to me, looks better than the other side.
In October 2015, Trump spoke to The Guardian:
Trump said despite his hesitations about military intervention, “there are certain cases where you see things going on, atrocities going on, that are horrible … ISIS is one of them”. … [But] he continued to question most US interventions, including what he described as an ill-considered Obama administration policy in Syria. …
“[Vladimir Putin is] going to want to bomb ISIS because he doesn’t want ISIS going into Russia and so he’s going to want to bomb ISIS,” Trump said … However, Trump did note … that Putin “is an Assad person” …
[Trump] went on to condemn the Obama administration for “backing people who they don’t know who they are,” and to warn that rebels backed by the United States “could be ISIS”.
“Assad is bad,” Trump said. “Maybe these people could be worse.”
Trump said to a Tennessee rally at the end of November 2015:
We have a President that wants to take hundreds of thousands, hundreds of thousands, of people and move them into our country. … In Syria, you take a big swatch of land … and you don’t destroy all of Europe [by importing large numbers of refugees]. What I like is [to] build a safe zone, it’s here, build a big beautiful safe zone and you have whatever it is so people can live, and they’ll be happier.
In March 2016, Trump discussed his foreign policy views with The New York Times:
I thought the approach of fighting Assad and ISIS simultaneously was madness, and idiocy. They’re fighting each other and yet we’re fighting both of them. … I think that our far bigger problem than Assad is ISIS, I’ve always felt that. Assad is, you know I’m not saying Assad is a good man, ’cause he’s not, but our far greater problem is not Assad, it’s ISIS. … [Y]ou can’t be fighting two people that are fighting each other … You have to pick one or the other. …
The one thing I’d do … is build safe zones in Syria … but I would get the Gulf states and others to put up the money. I mean Germany should put up money. … I do believe in building a safe zone, a number of safe zones, in sections of Syria and that when this war, this horrible war, is over people can go back and rebuild if they want to and I would have the Gulf states finance it because they have the money and they should finance it.
A month later Trump gave a foreign policy speech that did not mention Assad or Syria’s war at all per se. Trump said:
Our actions in Iraq, Libya and Syria have helped unleash ISIS. … I have a simple message for them. Their days are numbered. I won’t tell them where and I won’t tell them how. We must as a nation be more unpredictable. … But … ISIS will be gone if I’m elected president. And they’ll be gone quickly.
In July, Trump had another sit-down with The New York Times and told them:
I’m a fan of the Kurds … it would be ideal if we could get [Turkey and the Kurds, in this context the Syrian branch of the PKK] all together. And that would be a possibility. … At the same time, I think we … could have a potentially very successful relationship with Turkey. And it would be really wonderful if we could put them somehow both together. …
I don’t want to be specific because I don’t want ISIS to know what I’m planning. I do have ideas, very strong ideas on ISIS. … It would be wonderful if we had good relationships with Russia … I have a very specific view on Assad, but I think we have to get rid of ISIS before we get rid of Assad. … Assad hates ISIS; ISIS hates Assad. They are fighting each other. We are supposed to go and fight them both? … I think that ISIS is a threat that’s much more important for us right now than Assad.
The other thing you have is, Assad is backed by a country that we made a power, O.K.? Iran. And Russia, O.K.? So why didn’t we do something about that before we made Iran rich, and before we gave them this tremendous power that they now have, that they didn’t have and shouldn’t have had? … So Assad is a bad man. Done horrible things. We have to get ISIS first, and you don’t want to fight them both at the same time when they are fighting each other.
During the second debate with Hillary Clinton on 10 October, Trump said:
You know, every time we take [the side of] rebels … you know what happens? They end up being worse than the people [in power]. Look at what she did in Libya with Qaddafi. Qaddafi is out. It’s a mess. … So she wants to fight. She wants to fight for rebels. There’s one problem. You don’t even know who the rebels are. … I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS and Iran is killing ISIS and they have lined up because of weak foreign policy. … I disagree [with his running mate Mike Pence, who suggested protecting the population and the rebels in Aleppo from pro-regime airstrikes]. Right now, Syria [i.e. the pro-Assad coalition] is fighting ISIS. We have people that want to fight both at the same time. But Syria is no longer Syria. Syria is Russia and it’s Iran … I believe we have to get ISIS. We have to worry about ISIS before we can get too much more involved.
Ten days later during the third debate, Trump said:
[Assad] has aligned with Russia and with Iran. They don’t want ISIS … [W]e’re backing rebels. We don’t know who the rebels are … and … if—and it’s not going to happen because you have Russia and you have Iran now—but if they ever did overthrow Assad, you might end up with, as bad as Assad is, and he’s a bad guy, but you may very well end up with worse than Assad. If she did nothing, we would be in much better shape.
From an interview with The Wall Street Journal last week:
“I’ve had an opposite view of many people regarding Syria,” [Trump] said.
He suggested a sharper focus on fighting Islamic State … in Syria, rather than on ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is becoming powerful, because of us, is aligned with Syria. … Now we’re backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who these people are.”
If the U.S. attacks Mr. Assad, Mr. Trump said, “we end up fighting Russia, fighting Syria.”
And an interview with The New York Times two days ago:
Syria, we have to solve that problem … I have a different view on Syria than … a lot of people. I had to listen to [Senator] Lindsey Graham … about, you know, attacking Syria and … it’s like you’re now attacking Russia [if your strike at Assad], you’re attacking Iran … And what are we getting? … I have some very strong ideas on Syria. I think what’s happened is a horrible, horrible thing. To look at the deaths … I think it’s a shame. And ideally we can get—do something with Syria. I spoke to Putin, as you know, he called me, essentially … I would love to be able to get along with Russia and I think they’d like to be able to get along with us. … [W]ouldn’t it be nice if we went after ISIS together.
Though this is ambiguous, the reference to Putin and “do[ing] something with Syria” seems to mean coming to some kind of deal with the Russians. Trump then goes off-the-record with the Times discussing his ideas for how to bring the war to a close, based on information “told to [him]”. By whom he does not say.
The Trump-Obama Policy
The themes of Trump’s analysis of Syria’s war are rather consistent:
The salient thing about these points is how similar they are to current White House messaging, and indeed policy. The most recent diplomatic effort in Syria, for example, was to bring about a ceasefire, which very heavily favoured the pro-Assad coalition, including a provision for direct U.S.-Russian cooperation against insurgents.
The reaction among Syrian oppositionists to the prospect of Trump openly siding with the pro-Assad coalition has been telling.
The New York Times reported:
Some rebels and civilian supporters say such a move might not make much practical difference, and would at least put the American position out in the open, instead of hiding it behind condemnations of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.
Seeking a silver lining, some rebels express hope that American allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey would then go it alone and defy United States orders not to provide more sophisticated weapons to rebels …
“At least today we can get rid of the burden of this so-called harmful friend,” said Hisham Skeif, a member of a local council of rebels and civilians in an insurgent-held part of Aleppo, where, the United Nations says, 250,000 people are trapped.
Referring to the United States, he added, “Today, we know that they are really and practically not backing us, whereas before, we considered them our friend while they were implementing our opponents’ agenda.”
A member of Liwa Shuhada al-Islam, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) group vetted by the U.S. that fought desperately for four years against bombardment, siege, and massacre until it was forced to quit its area around Damascus and relocate to northern Syrian, put it bluntly to The Daily Beast: “I am not worried because the American government never really supported us. They are supporting us only with statements, but they act against us.”
In short, Trump is not seen as having an “opposite view” to the people who matter over Syria: he is seen as adopting Obama’s approach but with more cowbell.
Mistaken Assumptions and the Way Out
It would be a daring person who said the current approach to Syria was working. On any calculation—civilian casualties, refugees, growth of space for international terrorism, destabilization of neighbours, rise in influence of hostile rival powers—it has been a catastrophe. Everything that was threatened if there was an intervention has occurred without it. And this is hardly surprising, given the faulty premises.
It is simply a myth that the U.S. does not know who the Syrian rebels are. Robert Ford, the Ambassador to Syria, noted after his resignation in 2014 that the U.S. had known who the armed opposition was “for years“. There are eighty FSA-branded groups totalling tens of thousands of fighters that the Central Intelligence Agency has vetted and supplied with resources—albeit never enough to alter the balance of power decisively because of the Obama administration’s ban on such a thing. The failure to be a reliable partner in building up a nationalist opposition force left al-Qaeda to offer its services. At this point, al-Qaeda has protected the lives and interests of more Syrians inside Syria than the West, and received the corresponding political benefit, allowing it to lay down deep roots for a future base from which to launch of global terrorism.
Likewise it is untrue that the PYD/PKK is the most—in some formulations, the only—successful ground force against IS in Syria. The Obama administration has put Kurds at the centre of its anti-IS strategy in both Iraq and Syria, and Mrs. Clinton appeared to be set to continue this. The argument that there is no other choice understates the importance of U.S. airpower and overstates the PYD’s ability to extend outside Kurdish-majority areas, at least in a sustainable fashion that does not trigger a war even more protracted than the current one. It neglects that the rebellion cleared IS from positions in seven provinces and swept them from two entirely in a couple of months in early 2014. The rebels’ calls for help as they had IS cornered went unheeded. After six months of fighting and more than 5,000 deaths, IS was able to launch a ferocious counter-attack against a bloodied and exhausted rebellion with munitions captured after the takeover of Mosul. It also neglect that since the Turkish intervention in August, FSA rebels have cleared IS from 600 square miles of territory and are currently moving on al-Bab, IS’s last major urban stronghold in Aleppo Province. The argument further ignores the cost of the trade-offs necessary to work with the PYD, and their diminishing returns.
In the last month or so of the U.S. election, Russia went overt with its whispered theme of World War Three if the ability of Moscow or its client to commit atrocities in Syria was hindered. This problem could be approached obliquely: if Operation INHERENT RESOLVE was to have as its mission the elimination of all terrorists in Syria, Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hizballah and the other Shi’a militias on which Russia’s strategy rests would be cut from beneath it. Even approached directly, the Kremlin and Russian elite understand there is no possibility of the Russians competing with the U.S. if a decision was taken to disable the Russian presence in Syria. “Our detachment would be destroyed in two days in a single air offensive,” as one Russian defence expert phrased it. Which underlines that this was an influencing operation—an active measure—designed to build public and political pressure within Europe and America against Western governments doing anything to counter Russia’s activities in the Levant.
Which leaves the apparent dichotomy between IS and Assad. Put aside that Assad provided shelter, training camps, logistical and other support for IS during the entire time Western forces were present in Iraq. Put aside, too, how many foreign fighters arrived at Damascus International Airport and were then moved by Assad’s military-intelligence service to IS safe-houses overseen by this same intelligence apparatus in eastern Syria, before being set loose as suicide bombers on Iraq. It will never be possible to calculate how many hundreds of Western soldiers and thousands of Iraqi civilians would now be alive but for Assad’s support for IS. This wasn’t restricted to Iraq, either. U.S. courts found Assad liable for IS’s regional terrorism in the middle of the last decade.
What has Assad done to counter IS since it emerged in Syria? Very little. Assad said the opposition were terrorists, and then worked very hard to make it so. At the beginning of the uprising, the release of waves of Islamist prisoners was intended to stain a peaceful opposition with sectarianism and violence. “The regime did not just open the door to the prisons and let these extremists out, it facilitated them in their … creation of armed brigades,” as one defector explained. Among those freed at this early stage was Amr al-Absi (Abu al-Atheer), one of IS’s most senior leaders and a crucial actor in the formation of the caliphate.
For an entire year after IS began seizing territory, Assad left them alone, despite his entire war strategy by that point being built around using airstrikes to make life in rebel-held areas unliveable so that no attractive alternative government took hold to which people could defect. It’s not difficult to understand why Assad allowed IS to remain and expand: “letting black-clad terrorists run around … crucifying and beheading people, made for great propaganda,” as Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan write in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. During the 2014 rebel offensive against IS, Assad bombed the rebels. That summer, the regime and IS assaulted the rebels in tandem in Aleppo. In June 2015, during a replay of the joint assault on Aleppo, the U.S. Embassy in Syria protested that Assad was “aiding extremists against [the] Syrian population” and not only avoiding IS “but actively seeking to bolster their position”. This had been happening for some time, but, as a rebel spokesman noted, “It was never this blatant”.
Since Russia intervened in September 2015, it has been the same story: IS largely spared and rebels opposed to Assad bombed unmercifully—even if they are the only bulwark to IS. In the first months of Russia’s campaign, IS actually made territorial gains. In June, Russia twice bombed the base of an armed group supported by the U.S. that specifically doesn’t fight Assad, only IS. De facto air support for IS was the least of it. Kremlin-linked figures have facilitated the regime’s transfer of cash to IS, and Moscow itself provided technical support to keep the caliphate functioning. Even if the details of Palmyra’s fall to the pro-Assad coalition—and the ongoing pillage of a site taken in the name of defending civilization’s treasures—are ignored, the pushing back of IS from one town would hardly undo fourteen years of collusion. Nor would it erase the actual record of the Russian intervention, where IS was barely touched, al-Qaeda only slightly more so, and the mainstream rebellion, U.S.-vetted elements most especially, were systematically attacked.
Trump was deeply mistaken that Saddam Husayn was a foe of terrorism, and any such view of Assad is no less mistaken. The Assad regime has the distinction of having used terrorism against every single one of its neighbours, of having collaborated with IS against the West, and including within the coalition that props up the regime Hizballah, Kataib Hizballah, and the Quds Force of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps—all designated terrorist groups. Moreover, the pro-Assad coalition’s interest is not in defeating IS—not yet. Making the Syrian conflict binary between Assad and Sunni jihadists is the goal of the pro-regime forces: at that point Assad is politically rehabilitated, as well as militarily saved; the lesser-evil in the eyes of the world.
The truth is that IS’s rapid growth is a symptom of Assad’s conduct, his prior collaboration the group giving it a vast infrastructure on Syrian territory to outcompete other insurgent groups and his ongoing sectarian mass-murder of a nature and on a scale with few precedents since the Holocaust. Tackling IS in isolation has done, and will do, nothing to improve the political problems caused by the regime that led to the war. It is already widely believed that the U.S. has sided with the pro-Assad coalition, and not without cause. A direct cooperation with the pro-Assad coalition will make these problems worse.
Formalizing an alliance with the actors chiefly responsible for the humanitarian nightmare in Syria would leave al-Qaeda totally victorious. Usama bin Ladin’s revised thinking called for al-Qaeda to focus on local theatres, presenting itself as a local actor, hence the rebrand in Syria, normalizing their ideology and fostering co-dependency with populations. In Syria this has reached its culmination and U.S. policy has been enabling it. Restraining mainstream rebels from fighting the regime and diverting them against jihadi-salafists has severely damaged one of the most promising experiments in opposition governance in the south, and provided inroads for al-Qaeda and even IS as against groups who will not fight the dictator at the instruction of foreign patrons. The U.S. efforts to form “rebel armies” that focus only on IS—in other words, stop rebelling, and divert precious opposition resources away from the anti-regime struggle—has been a predictable and repeated failure. Above all, the Assad regime’s war against the Syrian population—and the West doing nothing to punish, deter, or even complicate it—has made the situation desperate enough that al-Qaeda’s offer of partnership could not be refused. If the U.S. now seals an alignment with the Assadists, al-Qaeda will be vindicated in its propaganda that the West was always with Assad, and able to recruit all who want to continue the anti-Assad struggle to its banner since they would no longer see a purpose in our friendship.
For IS, this partnership would also mark a victory. It is likely that IS will ride out its loss of overt territorial holdings; if it is pushed from those holdings by indiscriminate Russian bombing and Iranian-run sectarian death squads in a formal alliance with the United States, its political legitimacy—the thing IS needs above military power—will be greater than ever and its revival all the swifter. In the short term, it would also allow IS’s foreign intelligence infrastructure to direct more attacks inside the West.
The most concrete effect of de jure abandoning the rebellion would be the West’s allies, notably Turkey and Qatar, moving to a unilateral policy, unbound by U.S. strictures on the ideological composition of the groups they supported against the pro-regime forces and the kind of weaponry they could receive.
The widening of the pro-regime coalition’s war-making that would surely follow the receipt of a U.S. stamp of approval would undoubtedly increase the refugee flow, further stoking divisions and empowering chauvinist and pro-Russian political forces in Europe. Russia has already made itself the go-to actor in many ways in the region; a U.S. recognition of its beachhead in Syria would do nothing to assure friends or deter foes. And the legitimation of Iran’s presence in Syria—inevitable in any deal with Russia, since Tehran provides the ground force—would compound the effects of the nuclear deal, allowing Iran to consolidate its quasi-imperial regional structure, of which Syria is the linchpin, keeping open its lifeline to Hizballah, the most significant global terrorist organization in the world. None of this is favourable to Western interests and all of it has already begun.
It is often asked of people who favour a more active Syria policy to spell out with perfect prescience what they would do. The inequality in the question is that the advocates of a disastrous non-intervention such as Syria are never felt to be on the hook in quite the same way, morally, as advocates of failed interventions, though non-interventionist policies often have worse and more lasting consequences. Let it be conceded: any “good” option, and certainly any easy one, disappeared in Syria a long time ago. Let it also be said that any argument against doing anything further to move Syria toward peace must affirm that the current situation is the best than can be hoped for. If it does not then it is only the details of the intervention that have to be argued about.
Any improved strategy would include civilian protection as a core component, and that axiomatically means a confrontation with the pro-Assad coalition’s air force, which is the main instrument of mass-killing and-displacement of civilians. Countering al-Qaeda is also an urgent necessity, and the U.S.-led Coalition is beginning to take steps in that direction. Untangling al-Qaeda from revolutionary communities would be much easier in a less violent and chaotic environment, as has been seen in previous partial ceasefires, but uprooting al-Qaeda requires giving the opposition another option by bolstering the mainstream rebellion. Allowing current dynamics to continue, as the pro-regime coalition readies its final assault on Aleppo, plays into al-Qaeda’s hands; it cannot crush the insurgency but it can leave the opposition to be co-opted by al-Qaeda simply to defend itself in the face of regime coalition advances. Western support for the assault on Aleppo would obviously only increase al-Qaeda’s gains.
At a minimum these changes—civilian protection and increased support to the vetted opposition—would save lives and buy time, reversing the trend-line where the passage of time is destroying our friends and strengthening our adversaries.
Set in Stone?
Despite Trump’s statements that favour an alliance with the pro-Assad coalition, some of Trump’s Cabinet choices offer hints that in practice things might be different.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s designated National Security Advisor, has been criticized for being pro-Putin. There have been incautious remarks based on dubious evidence that played into Kremlin propaganda, and Flynn appeared at a dinner for Russia Today, the Russian state propaganda network, which certainly raised eyebrows given his position as a former Defence Intelligence Agency director. But Flynn’s written work does not give the impression of somebody who is soft on Russia—at all. Flynn seems keenly aware of Russia as a hostile peer competitor and the need to counter its influence. Anyone I have met who has worked with Flynn also does not recognize the portrait of him as a Kremlin apologist. And Flynn’s awareness of the danger of Clerical Iran and its proxies to Americans and American interests can hardly be doubted. What this means, who can say? It is another case where we are simply in the dark. It is simply to say that Flynn’s appointment should not be assumed to point in one direction.
The new director of the CIA will be Congressman Mike Pompeo, who has a history of strong opposition to the interference of Iran and Russia in Syria on Assad’s side. Pompeo supported the use of force to punish Assad for the massive chemical weapons attack in East Ghuta in 2013, and thought enforcing that red line was necessary to counter “Putin’s pattern of gratuitous and unpunished affronts to U.S. interests.” Pompeo is also a persistent critic of the Iran deal.
Most interesting is James Mattis, the Marine Corps General who oversaw CENTCOM until differences with the Obama administration over policy toward the Iranian revolution led to his “resignation”. Mattis is the leading candidate to be Trump’s Secretary of Defense. Mattis was unimpressed with the Iran nuclear deal and stated in 2013: “The collapse of the Assad regime … would be biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years.” Mattis meant this as a recommendation. The President, of course, has the ultimate say, but it is difficult to imagine Mattis implementing a policy that allows Syria to be an unchallenged Iranian colony and gives a free pass to Russian misbehaviour.
In opposition to these signs, Moscow timed the recommencement of its assault on Aleppo City to coincide with Putin and Trump’s first telephone conversation, which spoke of joint co-operation against “international terrorism,” the Kremlin’s shorthand for Syrians who don’t support Assad. This occurred without protest from the Trump camp. Assad welcomed Trump’s election as providing his regime a “natural ally” in “fight[ing] the terrorists”. Trump did not disabuse the tyrant of the idea he was now part of the U.S. counter-terrorism coalition. More concretely, it has now come to light that Trump’s son attended an event in Paris last month convened by Fabien Baussart and his wife, Randa Kassis, who are directly connected with the Putin and Assad governments. Baussart and Kassis aim, among other things, to discredit the Syrian opposition by promoting groups that are sometimes unironically called the “pro-Damascus opposition”. These groups are “tolerated” in regime-held areas because they do not advocate the removal of the regime, and they are in many cases outright fronts for Syrian intelligence. Baussart and Kassis have worked for a long time to convince Westerners that the only path to peace in Syria is by co-operation with Russia, a nice fit with Moscow’s posture of regional powerbroker. While it is unclear in what capacity Donald Trump Jr. was at this meeting, his presence meshes with his father’s stated views.
The short answer, then, is that the direction of a Trump administration’s Syria policy is far from clear.