Analysis

Trump Is Abandoning Syria to Moscow's Whims - With Grave Implications

One outcome of Trump's policy on Syria is an accord designed to eradicate the country's various ethnic rebel concentrations, which will lead to a flood of refugees.

A displaced Syrian woman after fleeing battles between Syrian Democratic Forces and ISIS. Trump's Syria policy is likely to lead to a flood of refugees.
DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP

“Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting [Syrian President Bashar] Assad out,” Nikki Haley, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, said last Thursday – and with that put the final kibosh on Barack Obama’s policy for Syria.

Donald Trump is now aligning himself with Russia, Iran and Syria, in dictating a policy that will have implications for Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations that still are trying to topple the regime in Damascus.

With every passing day, support of Assad’s regime seems to be increasingly popular among countries that want to see Syria remain orphaned and crumbling, as commentator Eyad Abu Shakra wrote on March 24 in an op-ed for the English site of the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya newspaper. Another commentator tweeted that the United States is behaving as though ISIS is its enemy, but to his own people, Assad is the enemy. Indeed, the slaughter of over 400,000 people is a tragedy. But what does that matter to the U.S.?

The American position is likely to have grave implications for the rebel militias in the war-torn country, but could also influence diplomatic moves. Obama’s rather muddy policy – which boiled down mainly to declarations about the need to topple Assad and the right of the rebels to fight for a democratic Syria – gave one the feeling that the U.S. is not indifferent to the human suffering in that country and would be willing to help the rebels in their resistance. But Trump, on the other hand, is spelling out to those forces now that the only war he’s prepared to participate in, is the war against ISIS.

Washington isn’t alone in essentially shelving the issue of Syria. France, which had led the opposition to Assad in Syria, declared its agreement with the American position last week, when its foreign minister explained that the reality that has developed on the ground there has to be acknowledged. Of course, that reality was not the result of some spontaneous development: The positions espoused by Europe and the U.S., in addition to the policies of Russia and Iran, contributed their parts.

Syrian children fleeing after Syrian forces bomb the city of Aleppo, in December 2016.
Muzaffar Salman/Reuters

From now on, the responsibility for Syria’s “reality” will fall on the shoulders of Russia, which apparently doesn’t get queasy every time masses of civilians get killed in the civil war there.

The American and French position is the outcome of the rebels’ crushing defeat in Aleppo by Syrian forces backed by Russian jet fighters. The aftermath of that battle is now evident on two fronts.

On the international diplomatic front, there is no force left standing that can challenge the Russian strategy, use the rebels to achieve any influence in post-war Syria, or build coalitions to curb either Moscow or Tehran. In addition, the Arab League is not making its support for a diplomatic solution in Syria conditional on first ousting Assad.

On the domestic front, a demographic pathology is forming, designed to isolate and eradicate the country's various ethnic rebel concentrations, and to strengthen supporters of the Syrian regime. The latest example of this is the truce signed between Iran and the Tahrir al-Sham liberation organization, which is affiliated with Al-Qaida. The agreement was signed in Doha, under the sponsorship of the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim Al-Thani.

According to the pact, the rebel forces – most of whom are radical Islamists – will leave the locales of Zabadani and Madaya west of Damascus, near the Lebanese border, in exchange for lifting the approximately year-long siege Islamic militias have imposed on the towns of Foua and Kefraya, in Idlib, in northwestern Syria. Also, about 8,000 civilians, mostly Sunni residents of Zabadani and Madaya, will be permitted to move north, while a similar number of civilians, mostly Shi'ites, will move out of Foua and Kefraya to two locales west of Damascus. Also, Al-Qaida fighters will leave the Palestinian refugee camp of Al-Yarmouk in southern Damascus.

The truce is supposed to come into force on Tuesday, and to last nine months. Its geographical and demographical aspects are of particular interest.

What will result from the accord is essentially a population exchange that will beef up the Shi'ite presence along the border between Syria and Lebanon, giving Hezbollah and Iran territorial contiguity between Syria and Lebanon.

This isn’t the only cease-fire signed in the last two years but it is the most significant, demographically speaking. It shows how Iran is envisioning its areas of influence in Syria after the war.

As far as the people affected by the new agreement are concerned – on the one hand, they will have greater freedom of movement, access to food and medication, which have all but run out; moreover, and mainly, the deadly bombings will stop, if indeed the various parties comply with the truce. On the other hand, these citizens will become refugees, cut off from their ethnic and religious base, living among an unwelcoming population, and dreaming of going home.

Last week Wahid Abd Al-Majid, a deputy director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Egypt, compared these demographic changes to the expulsion of the Palestinians from pre-state Israel by its nascent army in 1948.

Writing in the Arabic newspaper Al-Hayat, Al-Majid bitterly criticized Arab intellectuals and leaders for failing to react to the demographic tragedy unfolding in Syria. The expulsion of the Palestinians, wrote Majid, was actually a modest incident compared with the demographic disaster Syria is undergoing at present. He added that while in Israel, there are researchers and intellectuals who have beat their breasts and revealed the real history of the events surrounding the creation of the Jewish state – nobody in the Arab nations is so much as talking about the surgical demographic operation Syria is experiencing. As Trump says, it’s Syria’s problem.