Trump's Syria policy: The wrong direction

Nearly a year into Donald Trump’s administration, the president has followed the track laid down by his predecessors in Syria, accelerating it in some cases, and reinforcing the negative trends of Barack Obama’s defective policy that will undo even apparent successes, like the destruction of the Islamic State’s (ISIS) “caliphate”.

It did not have to be this way, and Trump started out by indicating a break with Obama’s policy, despite his campaign rhetoric, which indicated a distinct similarity to his predecessor’s view of the Syria conflict.

It seemed just possible from the moves in the early months of the administration that Trump, or at least his advisors, understood the problem with Obama’s plan for defeating ISIS, which was creating political conditions favourable to ISIS and ignoring the much more serious problem of the Iranian regime expanding its power in the region by, among other things, capturing the territory from which ISIS was being displaced.

In February, Trump paused the offensive against Raqqa, the ISIS “capital” in eastern Syria, recognising that the plan to openly arm the People’s Protection Units (YPG), the name under which the terrorist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) operates in Syria, to take and hold the city with some dependent Arab units attached to their force as political cover, was “inadequate”.

There were signs that Turkey, against which the PKK has run a terror-insurgency since 1984, was being lined up as the partner force for the U.S.-led coalition in liberating Raqqa. Given the views of the local people, the Turkey option seemed far more likely to produce the kind of locally legitimate government that is needed to attain the durable stability that will keep IS down. Other more sensible options were also said to be circulating within the administration at the time.

Trump’s most decisive break with Obama came in April, after the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad attacked the town of Khan Shaykhun with nerve gas, murdering more than 80 people.

Nearly four years before, Assad had attacked the suburbs of Damascus with these weapons, slaughtering 1,400 people. Obama had promised that chemical weapons would cross his “red line”, but instead he stood down and accepted a “deal” offered by the Russians that ostensibly decommissioned Assad’s chemical programme. Assad was relegitimised and now a partner in disarmament, and the Russians were back in the Middle East, and in the driving seat in Syria. Naturally, Assad never disarmed.

Trump gave the United Nations a chance to live up to its responsibilities, and found that two veto-wielding members, Russia and China, were set on sparing Assad from any serious retribution by grinding down the United State in the UN machinery. The chemical attack had been launched on the morning of April 4, and in the early hours of April 7 Trump ordered a barrage of cruise missiles against the Shayrat Airbase from which the Khan Shaykhun attack had been launched.

Assad had inflicted a “slow and brutal death” on so many, “even beautiful babies”, Trump said, and this would not be allowed again. It is in the “vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons”, Trump added.

“Our administration never would have gotten this done in 48 hours,” one former senior official of the Obama administration told Politico. “It’s a complete indictment of Obama.” In the region, there was a wave of support for Trump, at popular and governmental levels.

The Shayrat strikes, the first time the U.S. had ever deliberately attacked the regime in Syria, was followed on May 18 by the U.S. bombing of a convoy of Iranian-controlled pro-Assad militias heading towards a U.S. base at al-Tanf, and on June 8 and 20, the United States shot down Iranian drones in the same area. The Trump administration insisted these were force-protection measures, yet with all the rhetoric against the Iranian government’s belligerence people did start to wonder. And then there was the narrative of a “race” with Assad for control of the areas of eastern Syria from where ISIS was being evicted.

But it turned out to be a series of data points that did not add up to anything. Whether Trump had ever had another plan or whether he had been overtaken by the weight of inertia as his administration was battered by bureaucratic insurrection, it came to the same thing. Trump reverted to the policy Obama left him.

The Trump administration, it transpired, was even more monomaniacally focused on ISIS than the Obama Team, and even less concerned about the consequences that focus had on wider dynamics. “Annihilation tactics” were adopted that obliterated large sections of Mosul and Raqqa, even as ISIS adapted to the campaign, limited the damage to itself, and transitioned back to insurgency mode. Trump publicly armed the YPG/PKK and sent them into Raqqa in June, further worsening relations between the United States and Turkey.

The entire “race for the east” was a mirage. Not only was the Iranian land grab as the caliphate recedes not halted, but the United States invited the Iranian-led ground forces that keep the regime alive to take over these areas if they could and enabled this advance with their air strikes. All notion of using the PKK as a bulwark against the Assad-Iran-Russia coalition is dissolving before us: the PKK’s deep historical relations with all of these actors are coming back to the fore, and the U.S. policy of protecting the PKK statelet and doing nothing to limit the pro-Assad coalition has forced Turkey into a political process led by the Russia-Iran axis - neutralising the most powerful external actor the United States could use against the Iranian revolution in Syria.

Trump can say, with justice, that he was trapped in Syria to a significant degree by Obama. Obama’s pro-Iran tilt and lack of response to Russia’s intervention had allowed Assad to crush Aleppo, the last urban bastion of the mainstream rebellion, in December 2016. As the deportation and massacres were occurring in Aleppo, the Obama administration came very close to saying the Russians and Iranians were justified in this conduct since the city was a haven for terrorists. Moscow had altered the terms of the war already and this was confirmation of the opposition’s strategic defeat. What Trump cannot say is that he had no options.

Trump did have options in Raqqa, to have the final blows dealt to the caliphate by a credible “Sunni” face, one that is, when it has America at its back, reliably opposed to Assad/Iran. Looking beyond Syria, there is little to point to as evidence of a concerted change of policy on Iran: the Obama policy that protects Lebanon as a base for Iran to sow chaos in the Levant remains in place, and even the “decertification” of the Iran nuclear deal that underwrote Obama’s reorientation of American policy in Iran’s favour might yet come to nothing.

Perhaps there is a grand strategy in the works that accepts the reality of the northern Middle East as it is and accepts accordingly the resources and risk that will now be required to do anything serious to dent Iran’s imperium. That the last year has been spent continuing to travel in the wrong direction allows a measure of scepticism, and the more the Trump administration ups the rhetoric, the more scepticism it engenders by highlighting the gap between word and deed.