Indifferent to Assad, anti-Iran: Trump's Syria Policy Baffles Experts

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A Syrian refugee girl shout slogans as she holds pictures of Syria's President Bashar Assad (R) and Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.
A Syrian refugee girl shout slogans as she holds pictures of Syria's President Bashar Assad (R) and Lebanon's Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.Credit: REUTERS

When Donald Trump began his run for the presidency in September 2015, he was asked during an interview on Fox News if he believed, as many of the other Republican nominees at that stage of the primaries did, that the United States should push back against Russia's violent involvement in the Syrian civil war and force the Assad regime to stop slaughtering its own citizens. Trump replied that it was "a wonderful thing" that Russia is fighting ISIS in Syria, and that he couldn't care less if at the end of the civil war Putin and his proxies would take over that country - and exert control over the Middle East. 

Last week, a year and a half after making that statement, first signs emerged that Trump might follow through on this campaign promise. His ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, said that it "was no longer our priority to sit and focus on getting Assad out." Haley explained that "you pick and choose your battles." Fighting against the Syrian dictator, who is supported by Moscow and Tehran, was now officially a fight that the United States wasn't interested to participate in. 

The next day, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer, attempting to clarify Haley's comments, said that "with respect to Assad, there is a political reality that we have to accept." He added that "the United States has profound priorities in Syria and Iraq, and we’ve made it clear that counterterrorism, particularly the defeat of ISIS, is foremost among those priorities." 

Spicer put the blame for this policy - which effectively allows a leader who is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths to remain in power - on the previous administration, stating that the opposition currently fighting against Assad's government in Syria "is not the one we had before." 

These statements came under immediate criticism, including from within the Republican Party. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said that "Trying to fight ISIS while pretending that we can ignore the Syrian civil war that was its genesis and fuels it to this day is a recipe for more war, more terror, more refugees, and more instability." 

McCain was an outspoken critic of the Obama administration's policy on Syria ever since the breakout of the civil war in 2011. He called on Obama to fully support the Syrian opposition and stop Assad's slaughter. Obama kept insisting publicly that the United States was committed to Assad's ouster, but in practice did very little to achieve that goal - leading McCain and other critics, both Republicans and Democrats, to accuse him of a de-facto acceptance of Assad's rule over Syria. These accusations became especially common after the Russians increased their involvement in the war on Assad's behalf in 2015, leading the Syrian opposition to lose ground while the U.S. stayed out of the fray.

The Trump administration's statements over the last few days can be characterized as both a departure and a continuation of Obama's line. On the one hand, the United States has now officially given up on removing Assad. On the other hand, it has practically given up on doing so long ago. 

"These statements acknowledge what is already reality," says Ilan Goldenberg, a former State Department and Pentagon official, who is now a director at the Center for New American Security. "On the one hand you could argue the administration should have held out to try to get something in negotiations with the Russians in exchange for this concession. But on the other, given that it is the reality, there is not too much harm in saying it." 

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nation Nikki Haley said it 'was no longer our priority to sit and focus on getting Assad out.'Credit: Drew Angerer/AFP

Goldenberg doesn't believe such a statement would have any practical effect in Syria, where the fighting continues in full force. "This won't have any impact on realities in the ground. I doubt it will hurt anti-ISIS efforts, since our partners gave up long ago on the notion that the United States was really going to push for Assad to leave," he said. Still, it's not fully clear what the Trump administration was trying to achieve by making these statements. "It's not fully clear because unfortunately with this administration you never know when they are articulating fully baked policy that is the product of a thorough review or just improvisation," Goldenberg said. 

One thing that has left many spectators confused is that while saying it will not demand Assad's ouster, the Trump administration has also been presenting a talking point - so far not backed by any concrete action - that unlike Obama, it will seriously push back against Iran's influence in the Syrian arena. After all, there is no greater ally for Iran and Hezbollah in Syria than Assad's regime. 

"It's fantasy to talk about separating Russia from Iran in Syria," says Martin Indyk, a former senior adviser to presidents Clinton and Obama on the Middle East. Indyk says that the axis of Russia-Assad-Iran is likely to stick together, and that the idea of accepting Assad but getting Iran out of Syria is contradictory. 

"You can criticize Obama for declaring an objective that he had no intention of achieving, by stating that Assad must go," says Indyk. "In my view he should not have raised that objective in the first place. Now the Trump administration is raising an unrealistic objective with regards to Iran. Iran has perhaps 25,000 soldiers on the ground, many of them embedded in the regime. Unless we go on a military campaign, how are we going to push them out? Which army are we going to use for that purpose - the same Syrian opposition, Sunni, that just heard from us that we're not planning to get rid of Assad?" 

Dr. Jonathan Schanzer from the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies told Haaretz that it made sense for the White House to direct much of the blame towards the Obama administration, which he says "left a bloody mess" in Syria. And yet, he adds, "this doesn't absolve the Trump administration of its responsibility to address this problem." Schanzer, who was a vocal critic of Obama's policy on Syria, warns that working to defeat ISIS without also addressing the dangers posed by Iran's proxies in Syria - including Assad and the Lebanese terror organization Hezbollah - would be a major mistake. 

Schanzer added, however, that it was still possible that different policy ideas regarding Syria's future will emerge within the administration, just like what happened at some points during the Obama years. "There are different people within this administration that have different views on a number of actors in the region - Russia, Iran, Assad, and to some extent also Israel and the Palestinians. It wouldn't be unheard of if we will see some dissonance, specifically on an issue like Assad's future. It's also important to remember that statements by the White House spokesperson, important as they are, are different than statements by, say, a senior cabinet member. I'd wait to see the messaging on this issue in the coming days." 

On Monday, ambassador Haley indeed began to somewhat walk back her statement from last week, emphasizing in interviews that Assad is a "war criminal" and that the Trump administration "hopes" he will be brought to justice. But how exactly, and who will come in his place? Like the senior officials in the previous administration, she did not have a clear answer to that question.

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