Some of the most salient concerns over the Trump presidency revolve around his potential foreign policy, or rather, his lack of it. However, based on the President-elect’s statements on the Syrian conflict, and some of the actions his team has taken so far, Trump has actually taken us a step in the right direction in possibly bringing an end to the bloody civil war.
Throughout the campaign trail, Trump mentioned many times that his stance on Syria included working with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Russia to deal with the biggest threat within the conflict, ISIS. He claimed that his good relationship with Putin would allow the two world powers to craft a possible solution to the conflict. Furthermore, Donald Trump Jr., the president-elect’s son, recently met with pro-Russian groups, and had a discussion about the Syrian conflict, which shows that Trump may actually be following through on his stance. However, in order to show why this is a step in the right direction, President Obama’s policies in Syria must first be analyzed, explained how and why they have not reached their goals, and how Trump’s (currently very crude) plan in Syria may actually work.
When the conflict first began in 2011 with armed resistance against Assad’s dictatorship, the Obama administration sided with the then mostly-moderate rebels against Assad. Their claim was that regime change in Syria was necessary to allow Syrians to create the democracy they wanted. They argued that Assad was oppressive and violated too many human rights to be allowed to stay in power. Therefore, the Obama administration armed these moderate rebels, called the Free Syrian Army (FSA), in hopes that they could overthrow Assad. The core pillar of Obama’s Syria policy was the idea that no future Syria could exist with Assad still in power.
It is safe to say that Obama’s Syria policy has failed to reach their goals. The war has now lasted five and a half years and killed almost half a million people. One of main reasons for this is the emergence of various extremist groups, mainly ISIS, but also the Al-Nusra front and others. The establishment of US-backed Syrian Kurdistan has also created further instability in the region. The political and military mess that has emerged is quite obvious. The US-supported rebel groups are fighting the Russian-backed Assad regime while both are simultaneously fighting ISIS. Turkey, an important US ally, and Syrian Kurdistan are both fighting ISIS while simultaneously fighting each other. Widespread conflict between so many factions has led many civilians trapped in the crossfire. Just this week, a US airstrike killed over fifty civilians. Furthermore, reports have surfaced that our moderate rebel allies have sold weapons and collaborated with non-ISIS extremist groups, causing the US to lose leverage in talks with Russia. Turkey and Saudi Arabia, important US allies, have begun withdrawing support in the fight against Assad. It is clear that current US policy has neither deposed Assad nor created a more democratic Syria, and represents a clear failure in the Obama administration.
Why, though, have these policies failed to reach their goals? First of all, the Obama administration focused way too much on creating an idealistic democracy in Syria rather than focusing on the practical demands of the war. A clear example of this is Obama’s refusal to even consider creating a unified front, which must include Assad, to fight the increasing power of ISIS. Second, Obama failed to realize that Assad’s regime is the only legitimate power structure remaining in Syria. Clearly, the regime has its shortcomings, but the rebels are not much better. They may sometimes espouse democratic principles, but in the face of war and atrocities, they are just as easily, if not more likely, to turn to extremism. Simply put, these rebel groups are mostly ordinary Syrians trying to improve their lives, not statesmen who have governed. If extremism is more attractive than democracy in improving their lives, than they will gladly choose it. This point is clearly represented by increasing cooperation between the US-supported rebel groups and non-ISIS extremist groups. Assad is by no means an ethical president, but deposing him means destroying the only governing body in Syria, which will only serve to create the vacuum of power that extremists will fill. Lastly, Obama did not take into account the notion that war breeds more extremism. The more the US arms the rebels, the longer the war lasts, and the more people are traumatized into fear and turn to extremism. The US reaction to 9/11, in which thousands died, is a strong example. The ensuing fear caused us to hastily invade Iraq as well as pass massively invasive legislation such as the Patriot Act. Furthermore, widespread xenophobia and fear of terrorism got Donald Trump elected, a huge slap to the face of political mainstream ideology. If we as a country are capable of reacting so severely to these events, then it is not difficult to imagine what five and a half years of war, destruction, and death have done to the minds of the Syrian people. US policy must focus first on stopping the killing instead of regime change or democratization, and Obama’s policy has not achieved that.
Compared to Obama’s policies, Trump’s crude policy of supporting Russia and Assad actually holds plenty of promise. The US-supported moderate rebel groups have already lost a lot of legitimacy as democratic instruments of change after their defeat in Aleppo, so supporting Assad may soon be the only viable option. Supporting Assad is also the best way to stop the massive bloodshed. As the only existing power structure in Syria, Assad’s regime is the only place to start a unifying movement to contain and defeat ISIS. A temporary US-Russia alliance behind Assad, something Trump is in a very good position to create, could bring together Kurds, straggling moderates and regional allies in a coalition against ISIS. All of this is in the interest of both Russia and the US. Lastly, supporting Assad may also bring about the very democratic reforms that were the ultimate goal of Obama’s Syria policy. The US could use its still massive influence to push Assad in the right direction, and perhaps may eventually remove him by peaceful means. While Assad may not have stepped down peacefully in the past, diplomatic means are still the only option as it is clear that the use of violence does not work to force regime change or instill democracy. Democracy must be created through reforms to the current power structure rather than overthrowing it, which creates a power vacuum often filled by extremists in many areas of the Middle East. In the end, lives matter the most, and Trump’s plan provides the best opportunity to stop the killing, while providing a possible avenue to democratic reform in Syria.
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