There’s no guarantee that what Donald Trump said during the election campaign is what he will actually do, but based on the little he revealed during his campaign, no one in the Syrian opposition will be pleased with the US election result.
There is a distinct possibility that Trump will look at Syria in business terms: the US had no interests there before the civil war and won’t have any after. Russia and Iran have had first-mover advantage for decades and the opposition is an underperforming asset that has absorbed resources for little advantage to the US share price.
So, based on what he has said and what he can do early in his presidency to distance himself from the Obama Administration at little domestic political cost, here are some possible changes in US Syria policy:
1. The train-and-equip program will be stopped or severely limited
Trump has said he doesn’t think the US knows who it is training in Syria and to whom it is giving weapons. This position was reiterated in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week. There would be little political downside to this decision domestically and it is in the new president's power to do it. He could even use the concerns of regional states about perceptions of US abandonment to put the squeeze on them to fund the entire program themselves if they want it to continue. But a cessation appears the more likely option.
2. Calls for Assad to step down will stop
Trump has gone on record as essentially saying the Middle East would be a lot more stable if Saddam Hussein and Muammar Ghaddafi had remained in power. Based on that logic alone, he would see Assad’s remaining in power as a stabilising factor in the Middle East. Trump may not explicitly change US policy, but calls for Assad's departure (a key element of both Obama and Clinton’s rhetoric) are likely to disappear.
3. Support to the Kurds will remain but the Kurds will look to the future
One thing Trump has been consistent on is the need to ‘bomb the shit out of ISIS’. The Syrian Kurds have been successful against ISIS to date, thanks in part to the support of a limited deployment of US and coalition special forces teams. This is likely to continue as long as the Kurds are deployed against ISIS.
For the Kurds however, the feeling that US interest in Syria will rest solely on defeating ISIS and that Assad may remain in power will give them pause to contemplate their long-term future. Assad wants to reassert control throughout the whole of Syria but he lacks the combat power to do so. The Kurds are in a strong bargaining position currently and it may well be that discussions between the Kurds and Damascus on a degree of political independence in return for acknowledging Assad’s rule may start to take on greater urgency.
4. Aleppo is yesterday’s news, Raqqa is tomorrow’s
As Russian naval forces arrive off the coast of Syria and other indications show that a renewed assault on rebel-held parts of Aleppo is about to commence, Trump has written Aleppo off already, stating a month ago that ‘Aleppo has basically already fallen’. Expect some criticism from the Obama Administration at the lack of precision used by Russian and Syrian forces in attacking Aleppo, but nothing more. The Russians know Washington is in transition and that the president-elect has basically given them the green light to take back Aleppo.
The ground assault against Raqqa is a bit more challenging. Just last week the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces grandly announced the start of their own campaign against Raqqa, with the support of coalition air cover. But the optics of a largely Kurdish group fighting to take an Arab city is not good for either the Syrians or the Turks, and the presence of two significant Iranian-funded Shi’a shrines in Raqqa (destroyed by ISIS) will also raise the interest of the Iranian groups. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff said last week that Raqqa might be recaptured by moderate Syrian opposition, US-vetted Syrian opposition and elements of the Free Syrian Army. But given president-elect Trump’s views on these same groups, it may be time for Plan B.
Syrian government forces have attempted to push against Raqqa in the past, but ISIS stopped them when they tried to move against Tabqa (to the west of Raqqa) in June. They don’t appear to have the combat power to try again, given their focus on Aleppo and the growing number of rebels congregating in Idlib, so it may well be that whichever group (or groups) liberates and occupies Raqqa, they may see an advantage in cutting a deal with Damascus rather than relying on the promises of a mildly engaged Washington or a regional foreign power like Turkey.
5. Closer cooperation with Russia on Syria
On the one hand Trump has said that Russia will get bogged down in Syria, just like everyone who enters the Middle East. Yet he also echoes Putin’s narrative on Syria, which is that Assad is fighting Islamist terrorists of all persuasions. The simplicity of Moscow’s binary view of Syria (‘there is the government of Assad and everyone who opposes it are terrorists’) likely appeals to Trump and makes the development of a Syria policy much simpler than Obama’s ‘selective containment’ model. And Trump is likely to prefer simple choices when it comes to foreign policy decision-making.
The only difficulty with these five predictions about Trump’s approach to Syria is that he will have to concentrate on his domestic promises to the disaffected voters who elected him. And it most certainly wasn’t Washington’s Syria policy that made them disaffected. So any change in Syria policy is likely to reflect a ‘path of least resistance’ criteria. Easily explained ones like a decision that allows him to save money by focusing exclusively on ISIS at the expense of a costly and complex train-and-equip mission will likely be readily accepted.
Of course, simplifying US policy towards Syria by acknowledging Russia’s stake and downplaying Assad’s departure as a prerequisite for the resolution of the civil war is also in line with Tehran’s policy. Trump has been deeply critical of the Iran nuclear agreement and told to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that he would stand up to Iran’s ‘aggressive push to destabilize and dominate the region’. Yet a new Syria policy along the lines described here would actually suit Tehran. Is Trump's AIPAC statement inconsistent with his comments on Syria? Absolutely. But inconsistency is an aspect of the Trump presidency we will all have to learn to live with.
Photo by Flickr user Kurdishstruggle.