What Trump Will Do in Syria

Rarely has it occurred that the president of the United States has not had to deal with international issues. During and since its ascension to global superpower status, the United States has had the ability — and some would argue responsibility — to intervene in other countries’ internal affairs. Since the end of the Cold War, the United States, often at the behest of NATO or the United Nations, has done just that. It has intervened for the sake of stability and humanitarian principles through military means in Somalia, Kosovo and Iraq (the first time, in 1991), and through diplomatic means in North Korea and Iran.

As the Syrian Civil War now rages on into a seventh, bloody year and with more people dying every day, is now up to Donald Trump to decide whether or not to intervene in Syria.

Two destroyed tanks in front of a mosque in Azaz, Syria. © Christiaan Triebert

So far it doesn’t look good. Trump neglected to send a delegation to the recently concluded Astana Peace Talks in Kazakhstan, which took place between Russia and the Syrian government and Turkey and the rebels. Though Trump has said notoriously little with regards to actual policy, he has made statements that would suggest his intentions.

“America First”

Trump made it abundantly clear during his inauguration address that he would put America first. By this he means that American interests would be his top priority. This seems to suggest that Trump will not be a globally-minded president, that he will only be concerned with American interests instead of, and in spite of, allies and humanitarian principles. This means that the United States will abandon its role as global hegemon, as police officer and stabiliser, except where American interests are directly concerned. This is evident not only in foreign policy — on which he has said very little — but also with regards to his immigration policy, having announced the building of a wall to keep Mexicans out and the ban on Muslims from entering the United States. Isolationism, then, will be Trump’s modus operandi for the United States.

This is not good for global stability. It is the American security umbrella that keeps the Pacific open for trade and out of China’s nefarious influence. It is the same umbrella in Eastern Europe, where American-led NATO prevents Russia from claiming more territory or impinging on the freedom of its neighbours. Without the American security umbrella dissuading China and Russia, more of the world is at risk from the Chinese dictatorship and Russia’s very illiberal democracy, not to mention other minor aggressive states, all of which have ulterior designs on the rest of the planet or at least in their respective regions. China already claims an obscene amount of the South China Sea, well beyond what it is afforded by international law, and Russia has invaded Crimea, part of Ukraine, and has been bullying its neighbours, like Georgia, for many years. This is all part of attempts by both countries to claim more of a sphere of influence in order to once again establish themselves as global powers. Both countries wish to return to a status that they both once possessed: China, to before the end of the 19th century when it was an imperial power, and Russia, both to its hegemonic Soviet days and also to its former imperial glory. With less American (and hence NATO and a more active UN) influence around the world, China and Russia are freer to pursue their ambitions.

Trump intends to put “America First”. Photo © Gage Skidmore

Proof of the cost of American withdrawal can be seen in Syria. Obama’s minimalist Middle East policy left room for Russia to once again re-engage in the region. Russia does this with the aid of its proxies and allies Iran and the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. In fact, just as Trump was assuming the presidency, Russia signed a contract with Syria to increase its permanent military presence in the country by expanding its naval base in Syria and building an airbase.

Trump has referred to Obama as “the founder of ISIS”, presumably because, in Trump’s mind, Obama has allowed a power vacuum to be created in the Middle East, which allowed for the rise of ISIS to take place. (The power vacuum was truly created by President George W. Bush’s toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, NATO’s ousting of Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and the regional chaos that was a result of the Arab Spring in Syria, but Trump has never been one for facts). This would seem to suggest that Trump is aware of the problems that a power vacuum can have. Yet his claim of “America First” would seem to preclude any regional intervention. That is, besides to combat Islamist terrorism.

To Eradicate ISIS

When questioned on Syria during a presidential debate, Trump made it clear that his priority and only concern with the country was to combat ISIS, and during his inaugural address he stated that he would eradicate it. If that is his only aim for Syria then Trump will cede further influence to Russia, Iran and the Syrian government. This makes Trump a de facto ally of Russia, Iran and Assad, as all three are also committed to combatting ISIS, along with the rebels that Turkey and the United States once supported.

Trump has been quite public about his intent to reengage with Russia. Russia will no doubt accept a friendlier United States as it will give it more leeway to pursue its own interests. But there is no way that a friendlier relationship with Russia will separate Russia from Iran and Syria. Russia trades with Iran, which many countries will not and cannot do because of stringent American and European Union sanctions. Russia also provides military support for Iran. And Russia does much the same for Syria. In turn, Iran and Syria provide regional influence for Russia. No new alliance will threaten Russia’s relationship with its regional proxies.

Trump has also said that he wants to undo the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, known as the JCPOA or as the Iran Deal. The Iran Deal is an agreement between the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, Germany and Iran about Iran’s nuclear ambitions and use. It is as of yet unclear if Trump would be able to break a deal to which several other countries are signatories, but should he be able to do so, Iran will be pushed closer to Russia.

Trump has referred to Obama as “the founder of ISIS”. Photo © Gazete AK

Obama’s Legacy

If Trump is able to establish closer ties with Russia it will do nothing to prevent further bloodshed in Syria, as Obama’s and Trump’s disinterest in the country gives Russia, Iran and Syria’s government a greater ability to seek their own aims, aims which do not respect human rights or take into consideration the lives of the Syrian people. But Trump has committed to combatting ISIS and ISIS is in Syria. Trump has asked his administration to look into no-fly zones in Syria as a means of aiding Syrians escaping the carnage, but this would violate the “America First” manifesto. Establishing no-fly zones would mean that American fighter aircrafts would need to patrol the zones. This would not be the same as putting American interests first. Trump is unlikely to establish such zones because there is nothing that the US would gain from doing so. Instead, look for Trump to act with one of Obama’s enduring legacies in the Middle East: drone strikes.

Trump will authorise drone strikes on ISIS in Syria, which will help Assad and his sponsors regain control of the country. Trump will watch while Syria continues to burn.

Featured image © Jesus Campos-Hernandez

[All opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect in any way those of Exploration as a whole]