Why the Trump White House may not change much in Syria

Despite the president-elect's campaign-trail promise to 'knock out ISIS,' experts say that Trump's options in Syria are already limited.

Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters
A Syrian rebel fighter watches news about Donald Trump's election as president on his smart phone in the rebel-held, besieged area in Aleppo, Syria, on Wednesday.

Most of the world is nervously mulling the implications of Donald Trump’s against-the-odds presidential win on Tuesday. But perhaps nowhere is the immediate import greater than in Syria, whose civil war is in its sixth year.

No one really knows what Mr. Trump's Syrian policy is going to be. Trump has been vague about his priorities there, both in terms of the survival of the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his approach to fighting the extremist Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS).

But the hints he has given suggest that the conflict will not be a top priority when his administration takes office in January. That is apt to bolster Mr. Assad and his key ally Russia, as they claw back terrain from the armed opposition in the north of the country. And both political and military options for the Syrian opposition, including those supported by the US and its allies in the region, look likely to shrink even further.

More of the same?

Many in the Middle East will be hoping for a recalibration of US policy after the Obama administration’s generally hands-off stance, particularly toward the war in Syria – despite anxieties fed by Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Gulf states have been openly critical of the Obama administration's apparent tolerance of Iran's spreading influence in the Middle East. President Obama has consistently refused to play a greater military role in Syria, preferring to concentrate on defeating ISIS.

The Syrian opposition was hopeful that Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would win the election and take a tougher line on Syria than Obama. During her campaign, she spoke of establishing no-fly zones in Syria and rolling back Russian influence.

Trump said Gulf states should use their own money to “take a big swath of land in Syria and … do a safe zone for people.” He has said that the US should “hit hard to knock out ISIS,” arguing that the defeat of the extremist group was a higher priority than toppling Assad.

“Unfortunately, candidate Trump outlined a Syria policy that was strikingly similar to President Obama’s – a tired, failed policy based on bombing ISIS without tackling the root cause of the Syria crisis: Assad’s indiscriminate violence and his targeting of civilians,” said Assaad al-Achi, executive director of Baytna Syria, an opposition activist group.

Limits against Assad

Trump's options have already been boxed in thanks to Russia's involvement in the war. Russia’s military intervention, which began in September 2015, has swung the battlefield pendulum in favor of the Assad regime, and limited how much Washington can increase support for rebel groups or negotiate Assad’s ouster. And Trump's warm words for Russian President Vladimir Putin suggest little interest in challenging him.

As a result, a Trump presidency may follow much the same policy as Obama, analysts say.

“I think the [Assad] regime and Russia are already in a position where they more or less have secured US disengagement.... Already Russia had maneuvered to a position in Syria where American choices are quite limited and that the US is going to have to come to terms with the Assad presidency for a while yet,” says Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.

Still, some analysts say that Trump’s pre-election rhetoric may not reflect his actual policy choices once in the White House – where his lack of experience in world affairs should make him dependent on the counsel of foreign policy advisers.

“I hope and suspect that he will broaden his foreign policy base [of advisers]; after all, he must deal with multiple challenges that are complicated and vexing,” says Frederic Hof, director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a former State Department point man on Syria under Secretary Clinton. “Based solely on what was said during the campaign, there is objective reason for celebratory responses in Moscow and Damascus. But there is, at least in American politics, always the potential for significant differences between campaign rhetoric and actual policy.”

Time to make choices

If Trump generally follows Obama’s policy of limited involvement, it could bode poorly for Syrian rebel groups.

The Syrian Army, supported by Russian airpower, Iranian forces, and a multitude of loyalist militias and foreign Shiite paramilitary groups, is battling to retake rebel-held areas of eastern Aleppo, Syria’s economic hub before the war broke out in 2011. The rebel forces have staged counter-attacks and could hold out for a while yet.

But the longer term picture for the anti-Assad rebels looks bleak. For more than a year, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states have reduced their material support for the rebel groups, partly because the war in Yemen has diverted attention. Turkey is more focused on rolling back Kurdish advances in northern Syria than helping Syrian rebels unseat Assad. And a Trump administration is unlikely to change the status quo in the rebels’ favor.

“They [the rebel opposition] can hold on for a while yet but they really are going to be coming against a need sometime in the coming 12 months maximum to make choices,” says Mr. Sayigh of the Carnegie Middle East Center.

“Basically, they will face the prospect of some sort of political deal that they like even less than [was offered] before and where their survival depends on accepting those terms.”

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