‘Unknown unknowns’: What Trump means for Syria

By Christopher Phillips for Middle East Eye, 9th November 2016

Former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld once famously remarked that throughout its history, the US has faced “unknown unknowns”: what we know we don’t know. Trying to forecast how his namesake, President-elect Trump, will approach foreign policy in general and the Syria crisis in particular, seems to fall into this category.

While analysts had Hillary Clinton’s record in public office or the countless statements she has made to sketch out what her Syria policy might have looked like, Trump has provided little more than vague populist soundbites.

Trump’s unlikely triumph will dismay those hoping for a more assertive US role in Syria. Clinton had a reputation as a hawk from her days as secretary of state, having favoured arming Syrian rebel groups in 2012, and calling for no-fly-zones to face down President Assad and his ally Russia during her presidential campaign.

Many in the DC foreign policy community had hoped a Clinton victory would usher in greater activism, recently outlined in policy documents that will now be hastily revised or jettisoned. Similarly, the US’s traditional regional allies, notably Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel were also hopeful that Clinton, seen as a friend, would tack Obama’s seemingly detached Middle East policy more in their favour, especially on Syria.

Instead, they must now deal with a man who mentioned Syria little during his presidential campaign, and what he did say caused alarm.

No weapons for rebels

In the second presidential election debate, Trump implied that his priority was fighting the Islamic State (IS) group, not challenging Russia or Assad, stating: “I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS.”

While acknowledging the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the besieged rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo, he claimed the city had “basically” fallen already. He also slammed the idea of arming the Syrian rebels saying, “they end up being worse,” and has been hostile towards Syrian refugees.

lsewhere, Trump has spoken admiringly of Putin and disparagingly of Saudi princes and, of course, is famous for his anti-Muslim policies. This, alongside his questioning of multilateral institutions such as NATO and international trade agreements, has led many to fear that he will adopt a more isolationist stance: drawing the US further back from the Middle East and Syria, possibly ceding the field to Moscow.

Reality check

However, some caution is needed. Firstly, Clinton’s possible shift on Syria should not be exaggerated. She would have faced the same structural constraints that deterred Obama from taking a more pronounced role: the reluctance to commit “boots on the ground”, the deterrence of Russia’s forces already in Syria and uncertainty over which, if any, “moderate” rebels could be trusted with further US arms.

Moreover, like Trump and any newly elected president, she would likely have prioritised domestic concerns and been wary of foreign adventures early in her term. There may have been more assertive rhetoric on Syria under President Clinton, but the policy menu would have remained restricted.

Secondly, Trump’s Syria policy remains an unknown. Until he assembles his administration and appoints a secretary of state, Trump’s approach to the Middle East remains unclear. Will his appointees be there to add substance to his isolationist campaign statements or, on taking office, will he moderate somewhat and draw from the pool of established DC foreign policy experts?

Key to this may be how Trump handles the Republican Party. Though he clashed with the GOP in his campaign, the Republicans now control both houses of Congress and so may build bridges with their unlikely champion.

In this scenario, Bush-era officials that advocate a view of the Middle East not unlike Clinton’s may yet find themselves returning to government. Depending on who is appointed, it is possible that Trump’s approach to Syria may not prove the radical departure some fear.

US options limited

But perhaps most importantly, it should be noted that the US is not the only major external player in the Syrian civil war, to the chagrin of some DC think-tankers.

Since the uprising began, the Obama administration has limited its political and armed support for the rebels, and other states have played a more decisive role. Today, the most influential states are Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, while Washington’s anti-Assad allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have proved more influential than the US at times.

Whoever won the presidential election would have struggled to shift this dynamic, requiring political and military capital that arguably no candidate was willing to expend.

Indeed, many commentators suggested that Clinton’s call for a no-fly zone was largely rhetorical, since to implement such a course would have required attacking Russian positions, risking an escalation that Pentagon officials, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had strongly warned against.

Nowhere is the reality of this better seen than in Aleppo today. Irrespective of hysteria surrounding the US election, Moscow is gearing up for an all-out assault on the besieged rebel east. Russia had prepared this attack in an effort to make a decisive breakthrough before a change in administration, whoever was elected. Putin may be happier that the new president is Trump rather than Clinton but is unlikely to deviate from this plan as he still doesn’t know what the government will be like.

The president-elect remains an “unknown unknown” to Putin, the Syrians and other observers of this conflict: unpredictable and inconsistent and, therefore, potentially worrying to all.

Advertisements

More reviews of the Battle for Syria

Two more reviews of the Battle for Syria have recently been published. Charles Glass, author of Syria Burning, Tribes with Flags and The Tribes Triumphant, among others, writes in The Intercept:

“Christopher Phillips’s brilliant analysis of the factors fueling the Syria war is a refreshing contrast to works by most ostensible experts, who are partis pris, ill-informed, or both. With his new book, “The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the New Middle East,” published by Yale this month, Phillips joins a short list of writers, among them Joshua Landis, Patrick Cockburn, Fawaz Gerges, and the late Anthony Shadid, who have made original contributions to understanding the Syria war’s causes and consequences. “The Battle for Syria” makes a determined and successful stab at apportioning responsibility to all the countries whose lavish provision of weapons and money have prolonged the war far longer than Syria’s own resources would have permitted. The deaths of more than 500,000 and the dispossession of almost half of Syria’s estimated 22 million inhabitants testify to the lack of interest these outsiders have in Syria itself and the priority they place on their own competing goals…

If Hillary Clinton becomes commander in chief on January 20, 2017, her promise of an American-patrolled no-fly zone will lead to direct confrontation between Russian and American warplanes and draw the U.S. deeper into a war that Phillips believes Obama was right to avoid. She should read this book first.”

James Denselow, a columnist for Al-Jazeera writes in the New York Journal of Books:

“Philips, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, argues in a lucid and readable manner with a good balance of facts and anecdotes, that while domestic triggers and the wider impact of the Arab Spring may have caused the crisis, it was maintained by “external powers being unwilling to prioritise ending the conflict over their own wider geopolitical agendas.”

…What Philips skilfully argues is that the issue was not that Obama did not understand power, or that real power is not having to use it, but rather than in his rhetoric around red lines and Assad’s behavior he was unable “to dispel the myth that he might intervene” which “served as a conflict escalator as rebels and regional allies pursued strategies that rested on eventual US military support.”

…The book explains that “the more external actors involved, the longer the civil war is likely to last.” The large cast of countries playing their own politics inside Syria has indeed poured fuel on a complex conflict that operates at several geopolitical layers. Philips’ conclusion, that it is a war that “everyone lost,” does not give much hope for the future and sets the scene for an examination of what sovereignty in the region means.”