The Donald Trump administration has all but announced officially the abandonment of the Syrian people to the not so tender mercies of Bashar al-Assad, the long-necked lisping satrap who has been waging a brutal war against them aided and abetted by his powerful sponsors Russia and Iran, thereby finishing a prolonged willful betrayal that began with the former Obama administration. Those Syrians fighting for dignity, justice and liberty and for a state free of political and religious tyranny are once again alone. In the last six years, Syria’s non-Jihadi opposition groups missed numerous opportunities to build viable political/military coalitions to deter or even overthrow the Assad regime, partly because of the inherent structural weaknesses of the opposition factions, and partly due to the machinations of regional and international powers. That failure should not obscure for a moment the courage and the nobility of the peaceful popular struggle for change in the early phase of the uprising and even in the later violent stages of the conflict when the fledgling civil society, the activists, the artists, and others continued the almost impossible good fight against the industrial scale violence of the regime and the barbarity of the Islamists. Those are the Syrians who are being abandoned, after the forces of the regime, the Russian Air Force, and Iran’s auxiliary marauders ripped their world apart, literally.
It is true that the Obama administration even when it was loudly condemning Assad for committing mass murder, never worked seriously to oust him and his regime, still maintained at least that the official position of the United States was that Syria’s future, after an interim political arrangement should be without Assad. Such position allows, theoretically at least, a successor administration to act more seriously on that official policy. That pretense is no more. The Trump administration is admitting publicly and officially now that it is willing to live with the “political reality that we have to accept” in Damascus named Assad, and should focus now on “defeating ISIS” which is at the heart of its “profound priorities in Syria and Iraq” as White House spokesperson Sean Spicer asserted on Friday.
A Faustian bargain?
On Thursday, in coordinated statements both Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations made it clear that the United States no longer seeks Assad’s overthrow. One could only imagine Assad’s silly nervous laugh at the good news, and see the faint cunning smile on Qasem Soleimani’s face. The Iranian minder of Assad and the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force is as influential in Syria as Assad and probably more.
On a visit to Turkey, Tillerson said that Assad’s future “will be decided by the Syrian people” while Haley in New York stated "our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out." Tillerson is stating the obvious; of course the Syrians should determine Assad’s future, and this principle is contained in every major document pertaining to negotiations, from the Final Communique of the Action Group on Syria in June 2012 to the Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015 which states that the “Syrian people will decide the future of Syria”. But the context of the Spicer, Tillerson, Haley statements begs a different interpretation. No one is talking about elections, or even a political process. The United States, as candidate and president Trump has been saying for months, will be willing to cooperate with Russia and by extension the Assad regime to fight ISIS, since the president has convinced himself contrary to evidence that Russia and Assad are fighting ISIS. Whether these statements constitute a major shift in America’s posture towards Syria or a pragmatic rejection of a rhetorical position can be debated among serious analysts, but what is not in contention is that most of America’s detractors and friends in the Middle East will read the Trump administration’s position as a concession to Assad and Russia.
The Trump administration is admitting publicly and officially now that it is willing to live with the “political reality that we have to accept” in Damascus named Assad, and should focus now on “defeating ISIS” which is at the heart of its “profound priorities in Syria and Iraq” as White House spokesperson Sean Spicer asserted on FridayHisham Melhem
Republican Senator John McCain saw in the new position a shift to “a Faustian bargain with Assad and (Russian President Vladimir) Putin sealed with an empty promise of counterterrorism cooperation”. McCain concluded “Trying to fight the Islamic State while pretending that we can ignore the Syrian civil war that was its genesis and fuel it to this day is a recipe for more war, more terror, more refugees and more instability”. His colleague and friend Senator Lindsey Graham said that if the “Trump administration is no longer focusing on removing Assad, I fear it will be the biggest mistake since president Obama failed to act after drawing a red line against Assad’s use of chemical weapons”. He added “ to suggest that Assad is an acceptable leader for the Syrian people is to ignore the wholesale slaughter of the Syrian people by the Assad regime. Leaving him in power is also a great reward for Russia and Iran”. American officials contemplating co-existence or even collaboration with Assad against ISIS should be reminded that the regime’s wholesale killing of civilians was the magnet that attracted many ISIS recruits. During the height of America’s military presence in Iraq, Assad allowed hundreds of radical Islamists to enter Iraq to do battle against American soldiers.
My friend Fred Hof, known for his insightful analysis of Syria and his encyclopedic knowledge of the country he first saw and loved at age 17 has a slightly different reading of the Tillerson-Haley statements. He pointed out in an article that the Trump administration “does not yet have a fully formed Syria policy”. Hof believes that the Trump administration has no illusions “about the Assad regime and its connection to Iran and to the explicitly terrorist Hezbollah. Yet it is, for the moment,’all about ISIS’ and policy answers to broader questions about Syria likely must await the onset of a coherent and productive interagency process”. In a later exchange of emails, Fred told me that the Trump administration is trying to speed up the military defeat of ISIS, but that “ultimately it will find that keeping ISIS dead requires the exit of the Assad family, the Assad entourage, Iran, and Iranian-led foreign fighters.” He correctly added; “yet whatever the Trump administration's motives and intentions toward Syria, accommodating Iran is not one of them. In and of itself that's an improvement over the predecessor”. To that, one could only say Amen.
But unless the political component of the anti-ISIS strategy is developed quickly and coherently the inevitable military victories in Mosul and Raqqa will be pyrrhic victories, followed by the deepening of sectarian and ethnic polarizations and the rise of identity politics pitting Arabs against Kurds, Sunnis against Alawites. The battle of Raqqa for example requires tremendous political resources and wise judgment to avoid friction and maybe violence among the victorious allies who may turn against each other when the defeated ISIS will cease to be their common enemy. But cutting down the budget of the State Department by more than 27% is hardly reassuring that America’s diplomacy will be robust and successful. So far the Department looks like a skeleton. And Tillerson has no permanent deputy or undersecretary for political affairs or assistant secretaries. There are at least 500 senior positions in various departments that require Senate approval. A vindictive White House is using its veto power to deny Tillerson at State and James Mattis at the Department of Defense the freedom to appoint their senior advisors, if they dared to have opposed Trump during the campaign. Finally, given the precarious nature of president Trump and his tendency to shift views and positions, rash and arbitrary decisions will inevitably be made. It is possible, maybe even likely as one senior former Intelligence official told me that after ISIS is defeated in Mosul and Raqqa, that Trump will quickly (and symbolically) raise the American flag among the other victorious flags, then quickly fold it and beat a quick retreat.
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem