When he assumes the US presidency in a few weeks’ time, one of the first files that the President-elect Donald Trump will find in his foreign policy in-tray will be the continued tragedy in Syria. Speculation is already rife on what he might do.
Some analysts believe that Trump, having talked about Russian leader Vladimir Putin during the presidential campaign, might recalibrate US policy on Syria to bring it closer to the one pursued by Moscow.
Others, however, speculate that Trump, determined to focus on domestic issues, would whistle and walk away from the Syrian hornets’ nest as fast as he can. Still others, however, assert, maybe with a dose of wishful-thinking, that , having promised to “destroy” the so-called Islamic Caliphate in Raqqa, Trump would be obliged to replace President Barak Obama’s “make-believe” policy with a serious approach to what should be regarded as the hottest international crisis at the moment.
Speculation about what Trump might do is made possible because the president-elect has not made any substantial statements on Syria or any other foreign policy topic for that matter. So the best one can do is to interpret his scant utterances and to create context by looking at the people he has so far chosen for his national security team.
The theory according to which Trump would axe his Syrian policy on that of Putin is based on the over-interpretation of the president-elect’s almost casual remark that he will “get along fine with Vladimir Putin.” “Getting along fine” however, doesn’t mean sub-contracting US policy on a sensitive issue to the Russian leader.
More importantly, perhaps, a strong case could be made about the assertion that Russia itself doesn’t have a clear strategy on Syria. Moreover, while Putin has spoken warmly about Trump‘s victory, the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been more cautious. It is quite possible that, in time, Trump would find out that Moscow is as clueless about what to do in Syria, that is to say apart from killing people with indiscriminate air attacks, as the Obama administration has been for almost five years.
Lavrov’s bitter attack on Saturday on Obama for having advised Trump to be cautious about rapprochement with Russia indicates Moscow’s concern that the new US administration may not be a mere pushover as some analysts believe. It is not prudent to see Trump’s casual nictitate as a sign that he will be little lamb to Putin’s Mary.
Uncertainty regarding Trump’s possible stance on Syria is even greater when it comes to the fate of Syria’s beleaguered President Bashar Al-Assad. This was amply reflected in an interview with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim published by the Iranian official news agency IRNA on Sunday. “It is too early to say what the new US administration will do,” the Syrian says. “We are in daily contact with Russia on the subject as on other issues.”
Tehran also seems concerned, not to say worried, about what line Trump might take on Syria especially if the Syrian issue is raised in the context of a broader understanding between Moscow and Washington.
In an editorial last week, the daily Kayhan, reputed to reflect the views of the “Supreme Guide” Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned against a possible deal between Russia and the United States that might undermine “the vital interests of the Resistance”. “Resistance” is the label Tehran uses for itself and its allies including Assad, the various branches of Hezbollah and several armed groups in Iraq and Yemen.
Khamenei has made the fate of Assad a litmus test for his own claim to the leadership of the Islamic “ummah”. “The Supreme Guide will not allow President Assad to fall,” says Ali-Akbar Velayati, Khamenei’s key adviser on foreign policy.
However, Assad’s hand over of power to a transition authority that reflects Syria’s myriad factions is the starting point of almost all schemes for ending the tragic conflict.
“Europe cannot accept any solution that would leave Assad in power,” French Cabinet Minister Jean-Marie le Guen, said in a radio interview yesterday. The assertion echoes similar statements by British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and the European Union foreign policy spokeswoman Federica Mogherini.
Putin, of course, may hope that he could finish off the anti-Assad opposition before Trump is sworn in as president. But, even if that happens, it would not be up to Moscow to decide who governs in Damascus. To regain the semblance of a normal country, a broken Syria would require resources that Russia, or any other power, alone could not provide.
Only a coalition of the United States, Europe and Russia would be able to prevent Syria from becoming a cesspool in which mosquitos of terrorism breed, threatening the whole world. Judging by the people he has so far named to his national security team, Trump is likely to adopt a more robust policy on fighting terrorism. His National security Adviser Lt. General Michael Flynn quit his position as head of the defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in 2014 precisely because he believes Obama was not serious about combating terrorism, especially in Syria.
A sign that Flynn will be one of Trump’s closest aides on all aspects of foreign policy came when the general was invited to attend the president-elect’s meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abbe in New York last week. The man that Trump has named as the new head of the CIA, Mike Pompeo, is also bad news for Bashar Al-Assad, having often argued that defeating ISIS requires the turning of the page in Syria. Assad’s heavy reliance on Iranian support also diminishes his chances of switching to the American side in the hope of prolonging his tenure.
Senator Jeff Sessions, the man named by Trump as his new Attorney General, has always adopted a hardline stance on the Iranian mullahs and “the destructive role” he claims they play in the Middle East. Mike Pence, who is to be Trump’s Vice-President is also on record condemning Assad’s “criminal repression of the Syrian people.” As Congressman, Pence sponsored a resolution demanding support for the Iranian uprising against the regime in 2009. Assad’s dependence on Tehran means that Pence and others who regard the Islamic Republic as an enemy also reject the acceptance of the current regime in Damascus.
A survey of all the names mentioned as Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State would also result in the rejection of Assad’s hope of being allowed to remain in post as a result of a Trump-Putin deal. Mitt Romney, Rudi Giuliani and John Bolton may soften their tough stance on Russia in a give-and-take deal with Putin. But they are unlikely to become part-heir to the burden that the Assad regime has become for everyone, including its sponsors in Tehran and Moscow.
In any configuration, Trump as president isn’t good news for Assad and his backers in Tehran. This is because Assad is bad news for Syria, to start with.