By Joyce Karam
US President Donald Trump’s stance on Syria has seen a “complete turnaround,” embracing what could be a trilateral strategy to fight Daesh, weaken Bashar Assad and attempt a bargain with Russia, an expert has said.
As a candidate, Trump decried US interventions in the Middle East and promoted a strategy that would focus on fighting Daesh, not on Syria.
Yet the president last week approved the first US military action against the Assad regime.
According to an expert and statements of US officials, the move will likely be followed by a trilateral strategy that prioritizes the defeat of Daesh in Syria, but looks to weaken Assad and possibly seek a bargain with Russia that could include lifting of sanctions imposed following the annexation of Crimea.
If nothing else, “Trump’s strategy on Syria has made a complete turnaround from the campaign trail and departs from positions he’s held over the past few years,” said John Arterbury, a security analyst based in Washington and a former fellow for Georgetown University’s Global Futures Initiative.
Arterbury told Arab News that the military response despite its limited nature marks “a complete departure from Obama-era policy and signals US willingness to take a more proactive role in what Washington hopes will result in Assad’s removal through a political transition.”
Following the strike, the Trump team signaled a clear uptick in its criticism of Assad. The US president, known for his unfiltered language, this week called the Syrian autocrat an “animal” on Fox News, hours after Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told his European counterparts that “it is clear to all of us that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end.”
But is it? Arterbury said while “Assad is committed to retaking the entire country” his “regime has been running into two key strategic challenges.” It is “short on manpower and relied on a wider array of foreign and domestic militias to stop the recent rebel offensive in northern Hama than it has in previous Hama offensives.”
It is unclear if Iran or Russia, both under sanctions, can keep Assad afloat. While “winning” the war is still not impossible for Assad, said Arterbury, “attempting to retake the country in its entirety risks draining what little remains from its people and its treasury.”
Arterbury, who researches Syria’s militant groups, said a “continuation or an increase in covert lethal aid to some opposition factions, as well as greater coordination with Jordan in the south,” could also be on the table for Trump.
“There’s a realization of the ‘day after Daesh’ that will leave Assad as the elephant in the room.”
For any political solution, however, in Syria, the Trump administration could see itself turning to Russia. While Arterbury does not see high likelihood for a US-Russia deal on Syria in the near future due to “the delicacy of ongoing investigations” about Trump associates relations with Russia, “something can still be done.”
“Russia is not wedded to Assad in the same way that Iran is and may, therefore, be more amenable toward brokering a deal so long as its key strategic assets in Syria remain untouched,” Arterbury said. One tool in this bargain could be the Ukrainian issue, and the Trump team’s willingness for a Ukraine-Syria tradeoff with Moscow.
Tillerson raised eyebrows at the G-7 Summit on Tuesday when asking his European counterparts ,“Why should US taxpayers be interested in Ukraine?”
While this question might not indicate an inclination to negotiate over Ukraine, Arterbury noted that the Trump administration has also been relatively quiet on the Ukrainian issue, suggesting it may not occupy as much a centerpiece as it does for some Senate Republicans and Democrats.
Al-Hayat newspaper reported this week that the US might be willing to negotiate Assad’s ouster in return for easing Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia. Such chatter remains, however, early in the game as no breakthrough emerged after Tillerson held his first meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the US continues to seek to increase its leverage inside Syria.