Trump’s victory has grave consequences for Syria

The surprise election of Donald Trump as US president will deliver some unforeseen consequences to the long-running Syrian conflict, writes Sharif Nashashibi

A member of the Syrian pro-government forces in Aleppo's 1070 district. Georges Ourfalian / AFP
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Donald Trump’s shock election victory has major implications for the Syrian conflict, particularly given the mutually warm words exchanged between him and Russian president Vladimir Putin.

Until Mr Trump explains how he plans to tackle ISIL, US policy on Syria should be seen largely through the lens of the burgeoning relationship between these two men.

The Syrian regime’s opponents will feel grave and understandable concern, given that Mr Putin is a key backer of Bashar Al Assad. However, they have also strongly criticised Barack Obama’s approach to the conflict.

This too is understandable, but both opponents and supporters of the regime have mischaracterised or overly simplified US policy under Mr Obama. They may be doing the same with Mr Trump, particularly with regard to how his approach towards Syria and Russia will be received at home.

Mr Al Assad’s opponents have long condemned Mr Obama for not having done more to stand up to the regime and to Moscow (the same criticisms they will make of Mr Trump). They have criticised Mr Obama for not intervening on humanitarian grounds, and for not supporting Syrian rebels anywhere near the extent that Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hizbollah movement have backed the Al Assad regime.

However, countries act primarily out of self-interest, and the reality is that from the start of the Syrian revolution, Mr Al Assad’s foreign backers had much larger and older vested interests in crushing it than Washington had in supporting it.

Mr Obama lacked public and political support for more strident measures, such as air strikes against the regime or supplying Syrian rebels with surface-to-air missiles. This arguably informs his backing down from his warning in August 2012 that the regime’s use of chemical weapons would constitute a “red line”.

On the other hand, Mr Al Assad supporters’ condemnation of US involvement in Syria ignores the fact that US-led coalition air strikes have focused solely on ISIL and Jabhat Fateh Al Sham (formerly the Al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front), and that American support for Syrian rebels has been overwhelmingly in the service of operations against ISIL.

That has allowed the Al Assad regime and its allies to focus their firepower on Syrian rebels rather than ISIL – this has been acknowledged even by American officials. In effect, US involvement has actually benefited the regime.

On the surface, Mr Trump’s victory bodes very well for Mr Al Assad. Despite having called the Syrian president “bad”, Mr Trump has said that “any nation” that “shares in this goal” of defeating ISIL “will be our friend in this mission”.

He is thus likely to embrace the narrative, espoused by Mr Al Assad and Mr Putin, that the regime is a partner in a “war on terror”, rather than the primary cause of Syria’s destruction and bloodshed. This will only encourage the sense of impunity enjoyed by the regime and its foreign backers.

However, Mr Trump will face considerable difficulties when in office, whether due to policy content or characteristic lack thereof. He has said it could take up to 30,000 US troops to defeat ISIL in the Middle East – were he to commit to such a deployment, this would be staunchly opposed by regional friends and foes alike, as well as by most Americans, according to opinion polls.

Polls also show most Americans holding an unfavourable view of Russia (the feeling is mutual).

This may hurt his ratings if his expressed interest in good ties with Moscow is perceived domestically as kowtowing to America’s historical and resurgent adversary. After all, a groundswell of nationalist sentiment contributed to his election victory. To many, even his supporters, cosying up to Mr Putin will jar with his election pledge to “make America great again”.

On Syria specifically, much of Mr Trump’s Republican Party holds a hawkish stance on Mr Al Assad and Mr Putin – he and his own running mate Mike Pence have openly disagreed – so Mr Trump’s conciliatory approach towards Moscow will cause divisions within the party and his administration.

Rapprochement with Damascus would further strain ties with key regional allies, particularly Gulf Arab states and Turkey, which soured amid accusations of Mr Obama’s meekness over Syria.

Furthermore, Mr Trump’s opposition to a no-fly zone goes against American public opinion.

According to a recent poll, a slim majority of Americans (52 per cent) supports a no-fly zone, including the bombing of regime air defences. Such support transcends party lines, with 54 per cent of Republicans and 56 per cent of Democrats in favour.

There is also the underlying issue of Mr Trump’s mercurial temperament. Having flip-flopped notoriously on a range of major issues, it is by no means certain that he could maintain good relations with the Russian president. Indeed, they disagree on issues of major importance to both countries, such as the Iran nuclear deal.

If Mr Trump makes good on his expressed intention to “treat Vladimir Putin firmly”, this is unlikely to go down well with the Russian strongman. Indeed, Mr Trump has previously said he “cannot believe” Mr Obama allows “Putin and Russians” to “get away with so much”. He may become perceived as doing the same.

The 45th American president may soon realise the difficulties of his campaign positions when he enters the White House. Though their desire to do so is understandable, it is too soon for Mr Putin, Mr Al Assad and their supporters to celebrate Mr Trump’s win.

Sharif Nashashibi is a journalist and analyst on Arab affairs