Will the south be Syria’s next battlefield?

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 19 June 2018

Syria’s army has recently built up its presence in the south, calling on the remaining rebels there to surrender or face a new assault. While some may accept reconciliation, the majority have already declined, and Syria’s previously quiet southern front will likely be awoken imminently.

Few give the rebels much chance. The grim tactic of heavy government and Russian bombardment – followed by a ground assault to force opposition enclaves into accepting evacuation, seen recently in Damascus – is expected again.

President Bashar al-Assad’s desire to reconquer the south requires little explanation. Having cleared Damascus of the last rebel forces, Assad is keen to claim victory and project normality at home and abroad. While swaths of eastern and northern Syria remain in enemy hands, the south is the last significant holdout close to the capital.

The role of Israel

Syria’s rebellion began in the southern city of Deraa, and its full recapture would prove symbolically valuable. There is also an important economic component: The rebels hold Syria’s border crossings into Jordan. Their conquest would greatly boost Jordanian-Syrian trade and, consequently, the ailing economy.

The impetus for the assault, however, comes from outside. Russia is rumoured to have agreed with neighbouring Israel to permit Assad to re-enter the south on the condition that no Iranian-backed militia, including Hezbollah, are present.

Israel has happily seen Assad and his allies distracted by civil war for years, intervening only occasionally. However, with Assad now looking secure, Israel fears the prospect of a permanent Iranian/Hezbollah presence in Syria, especially along the occupied Golan Heights. Assad’s recent successes have therefore come alongside a sharp increase in Israeli-Iranian hostility, including a May rocket attack on the Golan followed by a massive Israeli retaliation on Iranian targets deep inside Syria.

Any Russian-mediated plan may reduce tensions. It won’t keep Hezbollah and Iran out of Syria, as Israel ultimately desires, but in theory, it means that the Israeli army would only face Hezbollah along the Lebanese border, not in the Golan Heights.

Ironically, the Syrian army will act as a buffer between Israel and Iran, with Israel less fearful of Assad and believing Russia can reign him in. Some rebel commanders have claimed that Iran will still get around this by dressing its militia in Syrian army uniforms. However, should this be proven to happen, Israel will likely have Russia’s blessing to retaliate.

Russia and Iran

The agreement would mark the latest shift between Assad’s two patrons. Both Russia and Iran are committed to keeping Assad in power, likely to remain in Syria for some time and unlikely to turn on one another, despite what some fantasists in Washington hope.

But their interests are aligned, not identical, and Israel is arguably the greatest area of divergence. While Iran hopes to maintain pressure on its enemy, Russia sees mediation with Israel as one indicator that its involvement in Syria has transformed it into a regional heavyweight to rival the US.

The recent US decision to ditch the nuclear deal and sanction Iran has had the byproduct of strengthening Moscow’s hand vis-a-vis Tehran in Syria. Iran is now on the defensive, giving Russia increasing primacy. An agreement that sees Moscow persuade Assad to push Iranian and Hezbollah forces away from the Golan would confirm this shift.

The US itself has remained quiet on the prospect of any forthcoming southern assault. The US is a guarantor to the 2017 “de-escalation zone” truce, one of the few agreements on Syria made by President Donald Trump, alongside Russia and Jordan, and not a hangover from the Obama administration.

In the past, US diplomats might have been alarmed at the reputational damage of allowing their security guarantees to be violated so blatantly. Yet Trump has shown only fleeting interest in Syria – limited to headline-grabbing missile strikes – and is not expected to fuss over the assault, especially given its endorsement by his Israeli allies. Indeed, it is rumoured that the US will soon dismantle its only military presence in the south at al-Tanf, provided Iranian forces remain out. This would further boost Assad, as it would open another border crossing, this time with Iraq.

Cross-border trade with Jordan

A final external player quietly supporting the assault is Jordan, another guarantor of the de-escalation zone agreement. Jordan publicly opposes Assad but has recently softened, with a trade delegation visiting Damascus in May.

Some suspect Amman is courting Iran, in light of recent coldness from its traditional allies, Saudi Arabia and the US. The reality is likely more motivated by Jordan’s precarious domestic situation, with public anger growing over its failing economy. King Abdullah has sympathy for the southern rebels – who are among the most moderate in Syria’s opposition, and some of whom have family ties to northern Jordanians – but also recognises the need for the conflict to end.

Like Syria, Jordan would benefit from a resumption of cross-border trade. In addition, the pacification of the south might allow some of the 700,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, seen to be straining the economy, to return home. A quick but successful campaign by Assad that didn’t push more refugees into Jordan would be quietly welcomed.

The international forces opposing Assad’s advance south are thus dissipating. All gain something from a Syrian army advance. Even Iran, if forced to retreat as a condition for the attack, would not oppose its ally reconquering rebel territory, perhaps believing it could seek redress in the future.

Inevitable outcome?

As has so often been the case in the Syria conflict, Assad’s domestic opponents have been sacrificed by their international allies for wider regional priorities.

Questions remain over how quickly Assad will be able to advance, and whether he will prioritise an advance eastwards for the Jordanian border posts, or westwards to secure the Golan while Israel is seemingly acquiescent. Urban fighting for the rebel-held parts of Deraa may also take longer than anticipated.

However, the eventual outcome seems inevitable: Abandoned by their allies, the rebels’ days in southern Syria appear numbered.

Advertisements

Syria’s war: Trump’s chemical dilemma

By Christopher Phillips, Middle East Eye, 13 April 2018

At first, it appeared straightforward for Donald Trump. After President Bashar al-Assad reportedly used chemical weapons against civilians in the besieged Damascus suburb of Douma, Trump belligerently stated the next day that he would respond within 48 hours.

Having launched a Tomahawk missile strike on a Syrian airbase the last time he believed Assad had used chemical weapons in April 2017, many expected further military strikes, especially after the US president tweeted on Wednesday to “Get ready Russia, because they will be coming.”

The question of evidence

Yet the 48-hour deadline came and passed. Despite consultations with the leaders of Britain and France, Trump appeared to roll back on Thursday, tweeting: “Never said when an attack on Syria would take place. Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” Defense Secretary James Mattis, meanwhile, appealed for more time and warned of the situation, “escalating out of control”.

The Trump administration, it would seem, has discovered the reality that the Syria situation is far from straightforward and faces a dilemma on how to proceed.

Firstly, there is the question of evidence. French President Emmanuel Macron has said he has proof Assad was behind the attack, but the US says it is still gathering evidence. While there is some nervousness in Western capitals over launching military action without sufficient grounds following the 2003 Iraq debacle, in this instance the search for evidence is more likely a stalling tactic.

In April 2017, Trump launched the Tomahawk strike within 72 hours of the alleged attack, long before there was definitive proof that Assad was responsible.

Given his response a year ago, and his recent tweet in which he described Assad as an “animal,” Trump clearly believes the Syrian president is willing and able to launch chemical attacks, and hasn’t felt the need to wait for conclusive evidence in the past.

If conclusive evidence isn’t really the obstacle, what is? One dilemma is what any missile strike would achieve. Despite pleading from Syrian oppositionists and their supporters, Trump and Western leaders in general have shown little real interest in protecting civilians in Syria – who have been killed far more by conventional weapons than chemical ones – nor in trying to shift the balance of power to help end the war.

Trump’s dilemmas

Any assault is therefore being proposed primarily to protect the international norm against using chemical weapons and deterring Assad from doing so again. But how to do this?

Presuming Assad’s guilt, the April 2017 Tomahawk strikes did not sufficiently deter him, so whatever follows now must be greater. Some have proposed destroying Assad’s air force and suspected chemical weapon dumps.

But what if this doesn’t work? Both can be replaced and what if more chemical attacks occur? By acting now, the Trump administration knows it will be committing to acting in ever greater ways in the future if Assad calls the US bluff.

The second, greater dilemma, is how Assad’s ally, Russia would react. A Western strike on Syria will bring some cost to Moscow, compelling it to replace destroyed Syrian hardware, damaging its prestige if its air defences are easily breached, or, in the worst outcome for Trump, if Russian troops and equipment themselves are hit.

The scale of the strike will likely determine Russia’s reaction, but the White House will be aware that Russian President Vladimir Putin has shown himself far more committed than Western actors over the course of Syria’s seven-year conflict. He might react by targeting the numerous US-led bases in Kurdish-controlled Eastern Syria, in which case Washington would struggle not to respond.

This is just the kind of escalation that Mattis is concerned about. Faced with such an undesirable outcome, Trump’s wobble on whether to strike Assad in the first place becomes clearer.

A ‘sweet spot’

Thrown into this conundrum are Trump’s own personal views. He seems obsessed with avoiding the path taken by Barack Obama, appearing weak on Assad’s use of chemical weapons, hence his strike in April 2017. Assad has now openly defied him and exposed the ineffectiveness of that earlier deterrent, so his instincts could be to attack.

On the other hand, he has also expressed a desire to avoid further involvement in Syria, stating recently he wanted US troops to withdraw, and he is loath to confront Putin, both of which could occur as the result of further strikes.

Trump’s White House will probably seek out a “sweet spot”: a level of military strikes that sufficiently deters Assad without provoking a reaction from Putin. Yet finding such a delicate position may prove difficult for an administration that has shown itself thus far to be anything but.

In the meantime, the longer any strikes are delayed, the more Assad and Russia will be prepared. For them and the long-suffering Syrian people, the war continues, with or without chemical weapons. A Western strike might temporarily impact the conflict, but few believe it will be a blow that Assad and his allies can’t absorb and overcome.

Syria’s war is far from over

By Christopher Phillips in Middle East Eye, 10 January 2018

The year 2017 was a good one for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Islamic State’s (IS) “caliphate” was largely destroyed, squeezed by Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces on one side and by the American-backed Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) on the other.

Assad’s mainstream rebel opponents were largely abandoned by their external backers and pummelled by his allies, leaving them in isolated pockets, divided and politically marginalised.

His position will likely be further boosted by the upcoming Russian-led “peace congress” in Sochi in late January, in which Moscow hopes to broker a deal that will bring in some Kurdish and opposition elements while ultimately leaving Assad in control.

However, even if Russia can reach some kind of viable agreement, many opposition groups are likely to remain excluded. Moreover, Moscow, Tehran and Damascus have been far from conciliatory over the past six years of war and few would be surprised if any agreement was ultimately undermined or ignored.

Far from over

Indeed, it seems likely that whatever happens in Sochi, Syria’s war is far from over. The local, regional and international dynamics at play suggest conflict will continue beyond 2018, even if Assad’s position is secure.

Firstly, Assad and his allies appear committed to militarily defeating the remnants of the rebels. The rebels, including a sizeable Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) presence, currently hold four main territories: Idlib province, Rastan near Homs, some suburbs around Damascus (notably Eastern Ghouta) and an area along the Jordanian and Israeli border in the south.

While these were declared “de-escalation zones” last year in Moscow-led agreements, in reality Assad, Iran and Russia have frequently broken these ceasefires. The truces allowed forces loyal to Assad a respite to direct their forces eastward as IS collapsed, reclaiming former “caliphate” territory and denying it to the US-aligned SDF.

Now that IS is largely gone, Assad and his allies are directing their elite troops back on the rebels.

Already January has begun with the Syrian government’s offensive in Idlib, with the apparent goal to cleave from the rebels the less populated eastern part of the province around Abu ad Duhur. This may be the preamble to a government push on Idlib city, though much will depend on whether Russia can obtain tacit agreement from Turkey, who would likely receive many refugees from the province, currently estimated to have a population of two million.

With the dominant force in Idlib being HTS, viewed as terrorists by Russia, the US and Turkey, and most of the other rebel groups there reluctant to engage at Sochi, correctly seeing it as submission to Assad, conflict at some point seems inevitable.

Capturing ‘every inch’

A similar fate probably awaits the other rebel pockets. Some, perhaps Rastan and parts of the south, may be persuaded to compromise with Assad, either via Sochi or later deals. But Assad, confident in his position, will likely target Eastern Ghouta in Damascus militarily, being the source of the last remaining rocket attacks on the capital.

The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that 417,000 Syrians remain living in besieged areas, the majority of them in the Ghouta region. Any military campaigns in Idlib and Ghouta then would likely be violent, take a heavy toll on lives and create yet more refugees.

Secondly, beyond the continued conflict with the rebels, the future relationship between Assad and the Kurds remains uncertain and could descend into violence. At present the SDF and Syrian government forces face each other on opposite banks of the Euphrates, while retaining isolated pockets in each other’s territory.

As long as the US patrols its skies, alongside 3,000 American special forces and 10 bases on the ground, the SDF will feel relatively secure from Assad, whose stated goal is to eventually recapture “every inch” of Syria.

However, despite assurances from the Pentagon of a prolonged US presence, the unpredictability of President Donald Trump, Washington’s recent unwillingness to prevent the fall of Kirkuk and the US’s historical tendency to sell out Kurdish interests has led many Syrian Kurds to be wary.

Assad and the Kurds

Consequently some expect the PYD, the Kurdish force that dominates the SDF and is attending Sochi in an unofficial capacity, to cut a deal with Assad via Russia. Surrendering the Arab-majority lands along the Euphrates in exchange for autonomy in the Kurdish-majority areas along the Turkish-Syrian border is one mooted option.

US forces would presumably have to leave all of Syria in such a scenario. However, even were Assad to accept such an agreement – and he has shown himself far from compliant to Russian requests in the past – his long-term commitment to it would remain questionable.

The PYD, being Kurdish nationalists, pose an ideological threat that Assad will not allow to thrive in northern Syria.

The Syrian government will most likely seek to undermine Kurdish autonomy, either through political machinations or violent re-conquest (possibly with Turkish acquiescence), once the PYD’s external backers have all left.

Finally, alongside the violence coming from within Syria is that from the outside. IS’s caliphate may have been defeated but its followers, both old and new, remain in Iraq and Syria and could yet set off low-level attacks and possibly even a renewed campaign.

Turkey remains sceptical of the PYD’s presence, being affiliated with the Turkish Kurdish separatists the PKK, along its border, and could yet move against outlying redoubts such as Afrin in Syria’s north.

Similarly Israel fears the Lebanese Hezbollah and Iranian presence in Syria as a result of the war and has already stepped up its attacks against military convoys in 2017. The long-awaited next round of the Israel-Hezbollah conflict may this time be fought in Syria as well as Lebanon.

Assad therefore may have reasons to be cheerful, having survived the civil war launched to topple him. Whatever happens in Sochi this month, the Syrian dictator looks likely to remain as president. Yet the suffering for Syrians is far from over, and the conflict will evolve and continue in 2018 and possibly beyond.

Assad may have won, but peace likely remains elusive.

Syria after IS

‘Syria after IS’

by Christopher Phillips in Orient IV/2007

Three years after Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi declared his ‘Caliphate’, the so-called Islamic State (IS) appears in terminal decline. Its territory, which once stretched from the Syrian-Turkish border to the outskirts of Kirkuk and Baghdad, has been gradually cleaved. In Syria, the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a coalition of militia dominated by the Kurdish Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat or Democratic Union Party (PYD), have taken huge swathes of northern Syria back from IS and besieged the Caliphate’s capital, Raqqa. Independently of this, forces loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, backed by allies Russia and Iran, charged back into central Syria in spring-summer 2017, retaking Palmyra and reaching the provincial capital of Deir-Es-Zour. Though IS forces remain in Syria’s east along the Euphrates into Iraq, their long-term survival seems unlikely and the days of the Caliphate being a major player in the Syrian civil war appear over.

Neither Assad, the SDF, nor their international backers will take the task of finishing IS off for granted, but inevitably thoughts are turning to what happens next and what IS’ decline means for the Syria conflict. Both Russia and the US justified entering the Syria war as a means to defeat IS; will either or both remain even after it is gone? More significantly, how will their two Syrian allies, Assad and the SDF, now facing each other either side of the Euphrates, respond? Could local or international factors prompt a new conflict in former IS territory between the two victors or is some form of compromise on the cards? Moreover, does IS’ territorial defeat actually mean its complete removal from the Syrian war, or might remnants and supporters continue to be a thorn in both Assad and the Kurds’ side? This article will explore these key domestic and international questions emerging from IS’ decline in Syria. By considering the conflicting goals and priorities of the two main Syrian forces and their external backers, as well as the remnants of IS, it will argue that though the Caliphate may have been defeated, new conflicts and instability may yet emerge from the fallout…

Full version available at Orient. Draft available here.

 

Jordan’s smart Syria strategy

By Christopher Phillips

Middle East Eye, 24 June 2017

Jordan has maintained a cautious policy towards the Syrian civil war – by largely avoiding the violence that has spilled over into neighbouring states, it’s a strategy that’s paid off

Is Jordan about to invade Syria? That was the speculation following the unprecedentedly large “Eager Lion” joint military exercise with the US and other international partners in Amman in May.

This, alongside an exchange of insults with Damascus and increased tension between US and Iranian proxies near Syria’s al-Tanf, prompted speculation that, as part of Trump’s more aggressive line with Bashar al-Assad and Iran, his Hashemite ally might open a new front in Syria’s south.

Jordan was swift to deny this, and with good reason: it would mean the total abandonment of its cautious policy towards the Syrian civil war.

Jordan has played a smarter hand than most of Syria’s neighbours to insulate itself from the six-year conflict’s fall out. The four neighbouring states with open borders before the war – Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon – all received vast numbers of refugees and saw trade plummet, but violence has spilt over too.

Iraq and Turkey have seen battles with the Islamic State (IS) group and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) re-open. Lebanon has seen sporadic fighting along its borderlands.

In contrast, while Jordan has faced IS terror attacks, it has largely been spared the fighting seen elsewhere.

Tight border control

Local conditions differ along the Syrian regions that neighbour each state, but how porous the border has been has impacted the extent of spill over.

Iraq and Lebanon are weak states whose militaries struggled to prevent actors from within and without traversing their borders. Turkey opted to back armed anti-Assad forces early in the war, turning a blind eye or even actively encouraging fighters crossing into Syria. Many of these would go on to join IS or Jabhat al-Nusra, while the PKK’s Syrian arm, the PYD, also benefitted.

In contrast, Jordan, while also backing the opposition, controlled its border more tightly and tried harder to vet those that did cross. Partly as a result, six years on, moderate rebel forces remain relatively strong in southern Syria while in the north, they have largely been subordinated to radical groups like IS and al-Qaeda.

In contrast to Turkey, which saw the Syrian civil war and the Arab spring as an opportunity to extend Ankara’s regional influence, Jordan’s King Abdullah viewed both in terms of survival. The past six years has seen Jordan carefully balance its security and domestic concerns with the demands of its key international allies, many of whom were fervently anti-Assad.

In terms of security threats from Syria, Jordan fears radical jihadists like those from IS and al-Qaeda. As the tide turns against IS in Syria, Amman is anxious that the remnants of the “caliphate” don’t turn their attention to Jordan via home grown sympathisers. Late last year, IS claimed its first attack in Jordan when 10 people were gunned down in Kerak, while six soldiers were killed in a border attack the previous summer.

Jordan, unsurprisingly, joined the US anti-IS coalition as soon as it was formed in 2014 and, unlike the Gulf states who later reduced their role, remains active. Unlike Turkey, which was slow to recognise the threat from IS, it was fear of jihadists ready to attack Jordanamong the rebels that motivated the country’s much tighter border policy from the very beginning.

Aid leverage

The conflict has prompted further domestic concerns. Jordan has received 1.4 million Syrian refugees, 660,000 registered with the United Nations, many from poor parts of Syria, straining resources and competing for work with locals. This was worsened by the closure of Syrian and Iraqi trade routes, contributing to Jordan’s highest unemployment rates in decades.

However, Jordan has tried to turn the situation to its advantage. Long a beneficiary of “location rent” from allies in the US and Gulf, Jordan has used the refugees’ presence to seek greater international aid.

For years, it demanded that any funds received for Syrians must be matched with development aid that would benefit Jordanians. More recently, in 2016, a major donor conference brought $1.7bn in pledges, conditional on Jordan granting more work permits to its refugees.

While this had mixed results, Amman thus far seems to have successfully leveraged the refugee crisis to its advantage rather than be overwhelmed by it.

A careful dance

Perhaps the greatest challenge from Syria’s war has been managing Jordan’s international ties. Jordan is firmly in the US and Saudi Arabian regional camp, depending on both economically and militarily, and joined their calls for Assad to stand down in 2011 – a sentiment conveniently shared by the Jordanian public.

However, these allies pulled Amman in different directions. Barack Obama shared King Abdullah’s caution about arming Syria’s rebels, but Saudi Arabia pressured Jordan to do more.

The result was a careful dance from Jordan, allowing weapons and training over the border to vetted, mostly tribal, rebels through the CIA-led Military Operations Center in Amman, but resisting any efforts to directly intervene or open the border more.

Now under Donald Trump, the Saudis and the White House seem more aligned, with Iran the main threat, and the US wants to use Jordan as a base to frustrate Tehran’s plans along the Syrian border.

However, while Jordan has no desire to see Iranian proxies along its border, and knows it must maintain close ties with both Riyadh and Washington to survive, it remains unlikely to yield to any untenable demands.

Israeli-Jordanian cooperation has reached new heights during the Syrian conflict. This has involved intelligence sharing on militant groups, Assad, and Hezbollah, and a joint show of air power to deter Russian jets from southern Syria.

However, Jordan has complained that Israel seems to be ignoring and may even have aided a Jabhat al-Nusra pocket emerging near the occupied Golan Heights. While Israel may see these jihadists as a counterweight to Hezbollah, Amman sees a threat.

Russia meanwhile, while Assad’s ally and the US’ enemy, retains more ambiguous ties to Amman. Relations have improved in recent years, including strengthened trade and defence ties. Pragmatically, with Vladimir Putin intervening on Assad’s side, Amman knows Moscow will be the power broker in any peace agreement, while Russia knows Jordan will be key for any deal to hold in the south.

Russia invited Jordan to attend the Astana ceasefire talks and has urged the border zone to be one of its four proposed “de-escalation” zones. Characteristically, in pursuit of Jordan’s security, Abdullah urged Moscow and Washington to reach an agreement on this.

Insulation and crackdowns

Despite seeing its neighbour to the north consumed by civil war, the Jordanian government has managed to insulate itself better than Syria’s other neighbours thus far. Survival has required a clever game of balancing essential international relationships while never losing sight of its core security and domestic priorities.

This has not come without a cost, however, and Syria’s civil war has coincided with a crackdown at home. In March, 15 alleged terrorists were executed – unusually harsh for Jordan – while a reform movement that emerged in 2011 has been repressed.

As through much of Jordan’s history, the Hashemites have successfully managed a regional crisis in Syria, and are unlikely to shift this cautious approach unless it suddenly impacts the regime’s survival.

However, as has also been common in Jordanian history, this has come alongside a willingness to crack down at home, with its key location protecting Abdullah from Western criticism.

Trump’s strike is more of the same in Syria

By Christopher Phillips, The Washington Post, 7 April 2017<!–

President Trump’s missile strike in Syria appears to be a dramatic escalation in U.S. involvement in Syria’s five-year-old civil war. This military response to President Bashar al-Assad’s alleged use of chemical weapons is the first time U.S. forces have directly attacked the regime and sharply contrasts with former president Barack Obama’s hesitance to do so in 2013. Indeed, despite his own opposition to a military strike back then, Trump now blames his predecessor’s timidity for Assad’s brutality.While the style and delivery is different, Trump’s strike has much more in common with Obama’s approach to Syria than he thinks. As I argue in my recent book, this is the latest in a long line of piecemeal — and mostly symbolic — American interventions in the conflict that have done more to escalate the war than bring it to a close.

U.S. policy toward Syria since 2011

U.S. policy has been reactive rather than strategic since Syria’s uprising began in 2011. Although many inside the D.C. Beltway lament his lack of action, Obama actually intervened against Assad frequently. He deployed sanctions, called for Assad to step aside, warned him against using chemical weapons and armed rebel forces. But Obama was skeptical that the United States would be able to resolve the conflict.

Obama recognized that the United States needed to retrench from the Middle East. He was instinctively against military-led regime change — a position reinforced by the chaos in post-intervention Libya. Obama remained unconvinced that Syrians rebels — many of whom were Islamist militants — could prevent a similar descent into anarchy post-Assad. For these reasons, he halted several plans to increase U.S. involvement and stepped back from his own proposed missile strike in September 2013, accepting a Russian disarmament deal instead.

Obama’s Syria policy was thus contradictory: His realist instincts urged caution. Yet he frequently succumbed to pressure from domestic critics and foreign allies to be seen to be doing something. Obama’s anti-Assad escalations came in direct response to regime atrocities, rather than as part of a concerted effort to topple him. In summer 2012, Obama rejected a plan to arm the rebels, only to relent in June 2013 when allegations of the use of chemical weapons by Assad surfaced. Did Obama actually think arming rebels at this later stage enhanced their chances, or was it just the next logical escalation to publicly illustrate his displeasure with Assad?

Symbolic actions and unintended consequences

Whatever Obama’s intentions, his piecemeal escalations dramatically affected the Syrian civil war. Past studies of civil wars have shown how support and even the expectation of support from a foreign power encourage violent escalation. This clearly occurred in Syria, with multiple powers — notably Russia, Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar — joining the United States in shaping the conflict. One such example was Obama calling for Assad to stand down in 2011. Turkey and Qatar took this to mean that U.S. military intervention was forthcoming and encouraged the armed uprising against Assad.

At the same time, Obama’s statement helped reinforce Iran’s and Russia’s loyalty to Assad, seeing him as a line of defense against U.S. aggression. But in reality, Obama and his team thought that Assad was going to fall anyway and called for his departure to be on “the right side of history” rather than as the first step in regime change. Despite Obama’s reluctance about further involvement in the Middle East, Washington’s allies and enemies still believed the president’s hawkish rhetoric and expected action. When it never came, it angered the former and emboldened the latter.

Still no strategy to end Syria’s civil war

Obama used more cautious rhetoric about Syria in his final years in office. Trump may have to learn the same lesson. Despite a few mixed messages from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, it seems unlikely that Washington is about to seek to topple Assad, ditching its Syria policy that puts fighting the Islamic State first. There does not seem to be a renewed diplomatic effort to use the threat of future strikes to force Damascus and its allies into peace talks.

The more optimistic analysts suggest that Trump’s main goal for this strike was to preserve the international norm against using chemical weapons and deter such future regime attacks. The more cynical suggest that this was primarily domestic: yet another way to skewer Obama by appearing decisive and strong against Assad. A combination seems most likely, yet both actually reflect a continuation of Obama’s approach to Syria: short-term symbolic reaction to events rather than a concerted strategy to end the war.

Like Obama, Trump will find that such actions are rarely interpreted as merely symbolic. Assad’s opponents will be buoyed by the prospect of a U.S. president finally willing to deploy force against the regime. Turkey has already resurrected its calls for a no-fly zone, while the leader of a prominent Syrian opposition group said he hopes this will be the first strike of many.

U.S. strike raises international expectations

As Trump now implies that chemical weapons usage is the route to U.S. intervention, it would be unsurprising for the opposition and their international allies to highlight further claims, as they did in the months after Obama first declared his “red line.” In contrast, Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, will most likely double down on the regime, as they did when Obama first called for Assad’s departure. Moscow already announced it will be strengthening Syria’s air defenses. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin was informed of the strike beforehand, he may yet counter-escalate against the United States in some form.

The same structural concerns that held back Obama remain for Trump: the dangers of mission creep and quagmire — and the risks of post-Assad anarchy. His strike may have raised expectations without reducing the risks.

Trump styles himself as the anti-Obama. However, if his Syria policy is to be short-term, reactive and primarily symbolic without any clear strategy to ultimately solve the crisis, it will be more a continuation of his predecessor’s actions than the radical departure he claims.

‘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.