Trump’s Syria problem
Constant bombardment and decimation of Aleppo is a stark reminder of the horrors of Sarajevo. While Secretary Clinton was expected to take a harder line on Moscow, Tehran and Damascus’ total war campaign in Syria, President-elect Donald Trump potentially could now usher in a complete change of course from President Obama’s wobbly and feckless Syria policy. Trump inherits a crisis where there are no good options that are politically feasible.
With over half a million Syrians murdered and countless more displaced, President Assad has survived. Assad is tied to his masters in Moscow and Tehran and has succeeded in walking his tight rope of survival by exploiting internal fissures in his regime and the inherent tensions of his external patrons.
At present, there is no strong alternative to President Assad’s government in Syria beyond Daesh and Al-Nusra-held or dominated or marbleized areas. The remaining moderate Syrian military and political opposition is in no position, beyond in pockets of Syria’s borders, to build an alternative political force unless they received substantially more training and assistance, which there is no strong political will in the US or Europe for.
President Trump is left then with a poisoned chalice where both moral and politically feasible options are scarce. The average American voter is not wrapped up worried about democratic governance in Syria. The threat of Daesh and Al-Nusra using Syria and Iraq as a launching-point hangs more darkly in the American voter’s mind than the struggle for freedom in Syria. It would arguably have to take a political leader willing to risk his or her future to break through such a barrier.
A kingdom of rubble
While Trump has been criticized for his openness to work with Russia and potentially President Assad to address Daesh, this narrow counter-terrorism scope is arguably, the most politically palatable option he can take. However, a politically feasible route is not always a workable path.
While some may be lulled by the relative coherence of Damascus, President Assad in essence rules a “kingdom of rubble” buttressed by Russia and Iran, who are both using this foothold as an opportunity to recast and deepen their strategic positions in the heart of the Arab world.
Assad’s regime simply is a mere, battered, and riddled shell of what his government was on the eve of the protests in 2011. The state, his father, Hafiz Assad built, lays in ruins. His army lacks the capacity to effectively fight on its own and is severely underequipped. The regime held areas outside of Damascus are pockets of regime-aligned militias of various stripes and allegiances.
While the regime’s economic lifeline has come from states including India and China, Damascus lacks the treasury to rebuild and to deliver consistently basic services to its population. The idea that Damascus could resettle the millions of displaced refugees or offer any Syrians a secure, prosperous future is a far-flung fantasy.
America’s next long war?
This leaves then a difficult path forward. A “peace settlement” could be brokered with Russia (if Iran doesn’t seek to spoil it) and could actually, hold. It will be a violent peace with Russian and American military cooperation, with potentially NATO and GCC support, to roll back Daesh and Al-Nusra (hard though to see the GCC cooperating alongside Iran).
As challenging as that may even be to achieve, a President-elect Trump has the opportunity now to do so. The challenge then is can Washington and Moscow and its regional partners actually leave the “keys to the kingdom” to President Assad?
The Syrian president has persevered in keeping his regime viable in total war, but when the fighting stops everything will likely have to change for things to remain the same. The tight rope may go slack and become frankly, inevitably, a noose for Assad. Even if he does survive, it is unclear whether he could build anything from rubble.
Washington and Moscow then are left with a deepening challenge. If there is no actual partner on the ground, then who is responsible for ensuring stability in Syria so that groups such as Daesh and Al-Nusra don’t thrive? A narrow counter-terrorism mission could end up being another long war in the Middle East.
• Andrew J. Bowen, Ph.D. is a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.