New Syrian reality

Print edition : April 28, 2017

A March 7 video grab of U.S. forces patrolling on the outskirts of Manbij, the Syrian town that was a flashpoint between Turkish troops and allied Syrian fighters and U.S.-backed Kurdish fighters, in Aleppo province. Photo: AP

President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. Since Trump assumed office, the U.S. armed forces have bombed along the geography of the War on Terror—from Yemen to Iraq and Syria. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations: "It's about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out." Photo: Bebeto Matthews/AP

Bashar al-Assad. The comments by the Trump administration do not clarify the political difficulties posed inside and around Syria. Photo: Joseph Eid/AFP

With a shift in slogan from “Assad must go” to “Assad can stay”, regime change in Damascus seems to be off the table. But what is not clear is the status of the U.S. and Israeli policy to isolate Iran.

THE Donald Trump administration has now formally said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure is not imperative. White House spokesperson Sean Spicer said on March 31: “There is a political reality that we have to accept in terms of where we are right now.” Russia’s presence inside Syria makes the overthrow of Assad impossible. This is the “political reality” that Spicer referred to.

The previous day, Trump’s Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said: “You pick and choose your battles. And when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit and focus on getting Assad out.” The immediate reaction to these comments from Nikki Haley, Spicer and the U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was that there has now been a major shift in U.S. policy on Syria. In fact, the policy articulated by the Trump administration is no different from what had been stated by the Barack Obama administration after the Russian intervention in Syria in September 2015. To understand the shift from “Assad must go” (Obama’s slogan that began to be uttered in 2011) to “Assad can stay” (the Trump slogan), one has to consider the reaction in the U.S. to the Russian intervention of 2015.

New reality after Russia’s entry

In September 2015, the Russian military entered Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government. What this did was to make it impossible for the U.S. to attempt a “full spectrum domination” attack on the Syrian Arab Army and on the government of Bashar al-Assad. A few days later, CNN’s Erin Burnett invited Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump onto her television programme to discuss, among other things, the question of Syria. By then, the U.N. had stopped counting the number of the dead. The war was grotesque, with half of Syria’s population displaced and desolation the mood amongst the people.

“I really understand what’s going on in Syria,” Trump said. “We’re helping to make it a mess.” This was a position far outside the mainstream of U.S. foreign policy discourse. One of Trump’s signature themes in his campaign had been against the regime change policies of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. “Why are we knocking ISIS, and yet at the same time, we’re against Assad?” he asked Erin Burnett. Let the U.S. fight the ISIS in Iraq, he said, while the Syrian Arab Army with Russian support fights the ISIS in Syria.

Was the U.S. under Obama really trying to get rid of Assad? “We’re knocking the hell out of them,” Trump said in reference to the Assad government, “though it’s not a very full-blown thing.” The U.S. had been giving arms, logistical support and training to various groups that it hoped would morph into a “moderate” rebel army. “We have no idea who these people are,” Trump said. “We give them weapons. We give them ammunition. We give them everything.”

Ten days before this interview, General Lloyd Austin, chief of the U.S. Central Command, told the U.S. Congress that the $500 million spent on a rebel army had created “a small number. The ones that are in the fight, we’re talking four or five.” He meant not four or five hundred but four or five fighters who were reliably moderate. The rest, he suggested, had been trained by the U.S. but then drifted off into extremist organisations.

Trump’s comments in 2015, after the Russian intervention, were not substantially different from those of the Obama administration. Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry said he hoped that Russia and Iran would use their influence to open the door for a serious political negotiation. “For the last year and a half, we have said Assad has to go,” Kerry said in London on September 20, 2015. During that period, the U.S. was quite unequivocal that Assad’s departure from the presidency was a precondition to any political dialogue. After the Russian entry, Kerry said that the U.S. was not fixated on a timetable or modality for Assad’s departure. “The modality and timing has to be part of a political solution that allows us to move forward,” Kerry said, indicating that no longer was Assad’s departure the opening gambit of a discussion.

In other words, Trump, in September 2015, spoke with more bluntness but along the grain of the direction of official U.S. policy. Reality had struck. The intervention of Russia would make it impossible to remove Assad short of an all-out war between the U.S. and Russia. Russia and Iran would now dictate the terms for the political process, which meant that Assad’s departure could no longer be the first point on the agenda. This is precisely what happened both at the U.N.-sponsored talks in Geneva and at the Turkish-Russian-Iranian brokered talks at Astana (Kazakhstan).

‘Bomb the Shit Out of ISIS’

In December 2015, at a campaign rally, Trump outlined his policy for the war in Syria and Iraq. Obama, he alleged, was weak on the ISIS. Trump would “bomb the shit out of ISIS”. Trump shared a great deal with his Republican colleague Ted Cruz, who wanted to bomb the ISIS to “see if the desert glows”. The implication here was that the Republicans would use weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear weapons, to strike the ISIS. Trump and his confederates were not interested in building up a rebel army against Assad. What they wanted was to give the U.S. armed forces free rein to bomb the ISIS—regardless of civilian casualties—without any consideration of the political aftermath of this harsh military campaign. Complications with Turkey’s own anxiety in the region, particularly around Syrian Kurdish ambitions, did not matter to Trump or to Cruz. Their foreign policy is framed around testosterone rather than reason.

Since Trump has come into office, the U.S. armed forces have ruthlessly bombed along the geography of the War on Terror—from Yemen to Iraq and Syria. Trump is not the sole author of this brutality. Last year, the U.S. dropped at least 26,171 bombs in the region, according to the Council of Foreign Relations. Harsh bombing in Iraq and Syria, as well as in Yemen, has resulted in a large number of civilian casualties, including a major incident in Mosul (Iraq), which the U.S. has acknowledged.

Trump’s rhetoric about using U.S. resources to rebuild the U.S. rather than indulge in foreign wars is empty. He has deployed troops in Syria and Iraq, with air strikes being sanctioned with as much licence as under Obama. Trump has sought an increase in the U.S. military budget—already the largest in the world—by $54 billion (this increase is itself 80 per cent of the total Russian military budget). There is every indication that Trump will increase the number of U.S. troops in West Asia and that he will not draw down the use of lethal U.S. air power in the region. Trump might indicate that the U.S. should isolate itself from conflicts it does not understand, but his policies show the opposite. Belligerence will continue to be the tone set by Washington.

Pushing Iran out

Nikki Haley had not said that Assad would be a partner against the ISIS, which is the Russian position. She noted that Assad “is a big hindrance in trying to move forward”. But even more than Assad, Nikki Haley noted that “Iran is a big hindrance in trying to move forward”. The U.S. priority, Haley said, is to “get Iran and their proxies out” of Syria.

The Trump administration, with its close ties to Israel, is committed to pushing Iran to the margins of any deal in Syria. This is a curious position, given that the U.S. relies on Iran in the battle against the ISIS in Iraq and that Iran is perhaps Assad’s closest ally. But the Trump administration hopes that pressure from the U.S. and from Israel will drive the Russians to edge Iran to the margins of any Syrian deal. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani went to Moscow for a two-day visit in late March to ascertain the temperature. There has been no clear message from Moscow as to the fate of Iran in these developments.

One of the divides between Iran and Russia is that the former believes that the Assad government can actually win in Syria, whereas Russia would like Assad to make an agreement with the political opposition. Assad has been trying to bridge this rift, which could be utilised by the U.S. on behalf of Israel to isolate Iran from the next phase of the Syrian war.

A senior Iranian diplomat told this writer that he believed that Russia would not abandon Iran, which has proven to be an important regional partner. He worries that the Trump administration will attempt to insinuate itself into the new Syrian reality in order to push Iran out of the picture. The comments by the Trump administration that Assad need not go immediately do not clarify the political difficulties posed inside and around Syria. What is clear is that regime change in Damascus is off the table. What is not clear is the status of the U.S. and Israeli policy to isolate Iran.

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