'Unknown unknowns': What Trump means for Syria

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Despite the perception that he is an isolationalist, Trump said very little on the campaign about Syria, but what he did say caused alarm

Former US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld once famously remarked that throughout its history, the US has faced "unknown unknowns": what we know we don’t know. Trying to forecast how his namesake, President-elect Trump, will approach foreign policy in general and the Syria crisis in particular, seems to fall into this category.

Trump’s unlikely triumph will dismay those hoping for a more assertive US role in Syria

While analysts had Hillary Clinton’s record in public office or the countless statements she has made to sketch out what her Syria policy might have looked like, Trump has provided little more than vague populist soundbites.

Trump’s unlikely triumph will dismay those hoping for a more assertive US role in Syria. Clinton had a reputation as a hawk from her days as secretary of state, having favoured arming Syrian rebel groups in 2012, and calling for no-fly-zones to face down President Assad and his ally Russia during her presidential campaign.

Many in the DC foreign policy community had hoped a Clinton victory would usher in greater activism, recently outlined in policy documents that will now be hastily revised or jettisoned. Similarly, the US’s traditional regional allies, notably Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel were also hopeful that Clinton, seen as a friend, would tack Obama’s seemingly detached Middle East policy more in their favour, especially on Syria.

Instead, they must now deal with a man who mentioned Syria little during his presidential campaign, and what he did say caused alarm.

No weapons for rebels

In the second presidential election debate, Trump implied that his priority was fighting the Islamic State (IS) group, not challenging Russia or Assad, stating: “I don't like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS.”

While acknowledging the humanitarian disaster unfolding in the besieged rebel-held eastern half of Aleppo, he claimed the city had "basically" fallen already. He also slammed the idea of arming the Syrian rebels saying, “they end up being worse,” and has been hostile towards Syrian refugees.



Syrians carry their belongings as they leave Aleppo's southwestern frontline on 30 October, on the third day of a rebel offensive to break a three-month regime siege (AFP)

Elsewhere, Trump has spoken admiringly of Putin and disparagingly of Saudi princes and, of course, is famous for his anti-Muslim policies. This, alongside his questioning of multilateral institutions such as NATO and international trade agreements, has led many to fear that he will adopt a more isolationist stance: drawing the US further back from the Middle East and Syria, possibly ceding the field to Moscow.

Reality check

However, some caution is needed. Firstly, Clinton’s possible shift on Syria should not be exaggerated. She would have faced the same structural constraints that deterred Obama from taking a more pronounced role: the reluctance to commit "boots on the ground", the deterrence of Russia’s forces already in Syria and uncertainty over which, if any, "moderate" rebels could be trusted with further US arms.

Moreover, like Trump and any newly elected president, she would likely have prioritised domestic concerns and been wary of foreign adventures early in her term. There may have been more assertive rhetoric on Syria under President Clinton, but the policy menu would have remained restricted.

Depending on who is appointed, it is possible that Trump’s approach to Syria may not prove the radical departure some fear

Secondly, Trump’s Syria policy remains an unknown. Until he assembles his administration and appoints a secretary of state, Trump’s approach to the Middle East remains unclear. Will his appointees be there to add substance to his isolationist campaign statements or, on taking office, will he moderate somewhat and draw from the pool of established DC foreign policy experts?

Key to this may be how Trump handles the Republican Party. Though he clashed with the GOP in his campaign, the Republicans now control both houses of Congress and so may build bridges with their unlikely champion.

In this scenario, Bush-era officials that advocate a view of the Middle East not unlike Clinton’s may yet find themselves returning to government. Depending on who is appointed, it is possible that Trump’s approach to Syria may not prove the radical departure some fear.

US options limited 

But perhaps most importantly, it should be noted that the US is not the only major external player in the Syrian civil war, to the chagrin of some DC think-tankers.

Whoever won the presidential election would have struggled to shift US Syria policy, requiring political and military capital that arguably no candidate was willing to expend

Since the uprise began, the Obama administration has limited its political and armed support for the rebels, and other states have played a more decisive role. Today, the most influential states are Assad’s allies, Russia and Iran, while Washington’s anti-Assad allies Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have proved more influential than the US at times.

Whoever won the presidential election would have struggled to shift this dynamic, requiring political and military capital that arguably no candidate was willing to expend.

Indeed, many commentators suggested that Clinton’s call for a no-fly zone was largely rhetorical, since to implement such a course would have required attacking Russian positions, risking an escalation that Pentagon officials, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had strongly warned against.



Smoke billows from the frontline district of Dahiyet al-Assad following an attack by rebels on Syrian regime forces in Aleppo on 29 October (AFP)

Nowhere is the reality of this better seen than in Aleppo today. Irrespective of hysteria surrounding the US election, Moscow is gearing up for an all-out assault on the besieged rebel east. Russia had prepared this attack in an effort to make a decisive breakthrough before a change in administration, whoever was elected. Putin may be happier that the new president is Trump rather than Clinton but is unlikely to deviate from this plan as he still doesn’t know what the government will be like. 

The president-elect remains an "unknown unknown" to Putin, the Syrians and other observers of this conflict: unpredictable and inconsistent and, therefore, potentially worrying to all.

- Christopher Phillips is Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London and Associate Fellow at Chatham House. His latest book, The Battle for Syria: International Rivalry in the new Middle East is on sale now. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: A Syrian woman brings a child to al-Razi hospital on 16 October 2016 in the government-controlled district of al-Jamiliyeh in Aleppo, following shellings on al-Sayed Ali neighbourhood. (AFP)

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.