THE LEVANT NEWS Exclusive – By Dr. Haytham Mouzahem* – The Syrian regime breathed a sigh of relief when Donald Trump won the US presidential elections. The opposition, however, was less pleased, due to concerns about his expected policy vis-à-vis the Syrian crisis after taking office on Jan. 20, 2017.
The regime’s relief and the opposition’s concerns stem from Trump’s statements regarding the Syrian war. He wondered if it was wise to support the armed opposition to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, which is fighting the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. “I’ve had an opposite view of many people regarding Syria. My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting Isis, and you have to get rid of Isis,” he said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal on Nov 11.
Trump was also impressed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and wanted to cooperate with him to fight the arms of terrorism, IS and al-Qaeda, a step would enhance the role of the Syrian army in this battle.
Despite the initial reassurance of the regime and concerns of the opposition, they both seemed cautious in their stances and are waiting to see whether Trump will change Washington’s policy in Syria or will stick to outgoing President Barack Obama’s policy.
Assad commented on Trump’s victory, saying that the president-elect made promising remarks to fight terrorists in Syria. Assad wondered if Trump will keep his promises. He added, “We do not have high expectations because the US administration is not restricted to the president, but also to various forces within and the different lobbies that will influence Trump.” He noted that when Trump takes on his tasks, his politics will be clearer. But, Assad asserted, “If Trump is willing to fight terrorists, we will be natural allies, along with Russians and Iranians.” He expressed his readiness to cooperate with Washington against terrorism, if it stops backing the armed opposition.
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem said on Nov. 20 that it is too soon to judge Trump’s policy in Syria, and he asked the upcoming US administration to halt the activities of terrorist groups and stop regional states supporting them [in reference to Turkey, Saudi and Qatar.
He added, “We hope the new US administration will reconsider the old strategies towards Syria. Did the outgoing administration fulfill its goals after spending millions of dollars on training the so-called moderate opposition, knowing that the money landed in the hands of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham [formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra] terrorists.”
Head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition and Revolutionary Forces Anas al-Abdah said on Nov. 9 that Trump’s election might give a new push to end the war in Syria. He noted, “Trump has a sense of leadership and wants to reaffirm the US pioneering role in the region and in Syria, unlike the current approach which allowed Russia to take action without any fear of accountability.” Abdah asked Trump to take back his recognition of Assad’s representation of the Syrian state.
Trump asserted that his priority is to fight IS rather than topple Assad’s regime. Abdah commented on this, saying that the president-elect listened to one side of the story which tends to Iran and Russia. He should hear the opposition’s proposition to form a real and balanced impression.
General Coordinator of the Syrian Higher Negotiation Committee in the Syrian opposition Riyadh Hjab seemed more optimistic and hoped Trump to end Assad’s rule along with the Syrian crisis. He sharply criticized Obama’s administration because it did not do enough to end the crisis.
Secretary-General of the People’s Council of Syria, Member of Parliament Khaled al-Abboud, told The Levant News, “After Washington’s failure to implement its project for the region, and when the balances of power shifted and the Russian-Iranian-Chinese axis rose to power, US institutions were no longer sure how efficient the former US policy in Syria was. If they see that rapprochement with the Syrian state would do them good, they will embrace it.”
Abboud said, “All the talk about Assad stepping down and the regime’s overthrowal and division of the state has evaporated into thin air. Trump will follow a new tactic in the next stage and will create more space for positive cooperation with Russia in the region.”
Abboud added that Trump’s statements about fighting IS do not indicate that his reasoning is different from that of the US ruling administration. It is more like proof that the US was defeated in the region.
Member of the opposition’s Syrian National Council Saleh Mubarak told The Levant News that he was cautiously positive about Trump’s potential policy in Syria. He noted that Russia is worried despite its alleged Trump-Putin rapprochement. He added, “The only sure thing is that the Republican Party won the presidency and Congress majority. We know that this party has historically fought Russia and undermined its role. For that reason, Russia is trying to expedite a deal in the Syrian issue before Obama’s term ends.”
Mubarak thinks that Russia believes it is on the verge of a crisis with the new Republican US administration which will ally with Europe to besiege it. He noted that Russia is aware of this plan, “and has escalated its violent campaigns to push the rebels to accept a deal before Obama departs.”
But the former U.S. special Middle East coordinator Dennis Ross believes that Trump may call for a ceasefire and diplomatic ties in Syria, ‘essentially paving the way for Assad’s return to power’.
Syrian researcher Akil Mahfoud told The Levant News that the Syrian government’s relative reassurance to Trump’s victory stems from two points: his discourse which is different from Clinton’s and from the US administration’s hawks and Russia’s satisfaction with Trump.
Mahfoud did not rule out that Trump might change his stance, under the influence of the Pentagon’s bureaucracy and the State Department. He believed the negative development was the Congress’ renewal of sanctions against Iran. He added that Trump’s hawk team is against Iran and Syria, and this is a new source of threat, especially since Trump is not a veteran in politics and will be under others’ influence.
Although the president takes decisions, the decision-making process is subject to tugs-of-war within the administration (the White House, Pentagon, State Department and the US Central Intelligence Agency CIA) and to pressure from interest groups (weapon lobby, oil lobby, the Israeli and the Gulf lobbies). Trump’s policy in Syria will therefore be part of the upcoming administration’s strategy in Eurasia and the Middle East. If the US interests favor ending the Syrian war and fighting terrorism with the cooperation of Russia and its allies, Assad’s legitimacy will be reaffirmed and his adversaries will be weak. But, if the new administration decides to fight Russia, Trump will support the Syrian opposition to drain the regime and its allies Russia and Iran.
*Dr. Haytham Mouzahem is the president of Beirut Center For Middle East Studies.