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Trump wants to work with Assad. Can Australia follow?

Australia will face some difficult choices in Syria with the next US administration.

An Australian F/A-18 refuels somewhere over the Middle East, 2016. Photo: Commonwealth of Australia/Department of Defence/CPL Nicci Freeman
An Australian F/A-18 refuels somewhere over the Middle East, 2016. Photo: Commonwealth of Australia/Department of Defence/CPL Nicci Freeman
Published 13 Jan 2017   Follow @VKAbramowicz

Among the more notable positions of President-elect Donald Trump are his affinity towards foreign policy mercantilism (viewing world affairs through the prism of financial return on US investment) and authoritarian leaders. These are apparent from his desire for allies such as South Korea and Japan to pay more for hosting US forces (or better yet, fend for themselves), his doubts about defending NATO members who don’t spend the guideline 2% of GDP on defence, his relentlessly warm comments about Vladimir Putin and his unwillingness to criticise Recep Erdogan.

But perhaps the most obvious locus of these leanings are Trump’s views on the Middle East in general, and Syria in particular. He appears to wish to disengage entirely from the region due to the expense, thinks it better that the US had never become involved, but, given that it did, it should at least have taken the oil to defray its costs. On Syria, one of the world’s largest humanitarian disasters, he has stated his willingness to work with Bashar al-Assad and Putin to end the conflict and defeat ISIS, including potentially sending 20,000-30,000 US troops into the area to finish off the terror group.

Such an approach has raised a justifiable storm of controversy. Assad’s regime is the root cause of Syria’s catastrophe; its repression, incompetence and inflexibility laid the groundwork for the protests that evolved into civil war. Its forces used indiscriminate means such as barrel bombs and chemical weapons against opposition-controlled areas. This is a blunt force trauma strategy that seeks to kill opponents hiding among civilians no matter the collateral damage. It also intimidates the rest of the population into loyalty by showing what happens to those areas that fall out of the regime’s hands.

Assad’s forces have been complicit in a variety of war crimes, from bombing aid convoys and hospitals to indiscriminate purges in areas they’ve recaptured. The Syrian regime has fought little against ISIS, located in the east, compared to (comparatively) moderate rebels in the centre and west, who have threatened its coastal power bases. Russia’s support, and potentially it's involvement in war crimes, has been crucial to allowing Assad to hang on and regain territory.

Perhaps the only thing worse than collaborating with such governments is the realisation that it offers one of the few, and possibly only, practicable ways forward. The other options available are either impractically expensive or will simply perpetuate the disastrous status quo. To unpack this, it’s worth noting that the Obama Administration’s approach to Syria has also been mercantilist – not because it has sought oil but by because it has aimed to minimise costs. This has resulted in a strategy best described as muddling through while hoping for the best (Assad abdicating or being removed by internal dissent).

While a large-scale US-led invasion and occupation would resolve the military situation in Syria in short order, there is understandably no US appetite for it. Iraq showed how expensive that approach is in time, lives and dollars ($1.7 trillion and counting). As Obama himself stated, one of reasons he didn’t favour a large US involvement is that it couldn’t be done ‘on the cheap’; for the price of wholesale invasion and occupation, Syria is literally not worth saving compared to investing those resources elsewhere.

Unfortunately, anything below that level of effort won’t really work. The minimalist American approach of striking ISIS while calling on Assad to leave has simply led to the current situation. Proposals for more robust (but still limited) military action against the Syrian Government’s forces ignore the fact that any such destruction would weaken the regime’s ability to fight rebel groups. These groups are of dubious virtue (some, for example, are aligned with al Qaeda). While being bitterly opposed to each other, none have the strength to win and govern alone. Hurting the regime would only increase its desperation, expand the conflict, and heighten the likelihood of total collapse with no successor government in sight. These are likely the very reasons the US has avoided hitting Assad and providing more than token support to the rebels.

With all that said, there really is only one existing power in Syria that has the military strength and powerful enough friends to impose stability: the murderous regime that is at the heart of the problem. And it seems the next US President is willing to work with the devil he knows rather than keep hoping for the best.

All this produces a conundrum for Australia. Our forces have been attacking ISIS since September 2014 under Operation Okra, comprised of 780 personnel, six F/A-18 fighter-bombers, and support aircraft. While doubtless welcomed by the US as another flag in the 64-nation anti-ISIS coalition, these forces are only fraction of the US effort (which has conducted around 80% of the air strikes). It is impossible for Australia to play a significant role in pushing back ISIS, but Okra has demonstrated commitment to the US while it has muddled along.

Now, our ally appears to be readying to align with an exceptionally violent, tortuous and despotic government (and its Russian mentor), while expanding its footprint to end ISIS once and for all. In Syria, it is unlikely Trump will seek anything less than the current military commitment from America’s allies, and based off his mercantilist rhetoric will likely demand far more. Our government can either pull out its support, doubtless infuriating Trump, or become complicit in returning Syria to under Assad’s thumb.

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