by Henry Johnson
In no question of foreign policy has Donald Trump distinguished himself as more of a realist than Syria. During his debates with Hillary Clinton, the two clashed vociferously over what to do there, with Clinton in support of expanding current policy and Trump in stubborn opposition to it.
Clinton, as in much of her general political approach, depicted the current U.S. policy of supporting rebels against the Assad regime as basically correct, though perhaps needing a modest makeover. “We have to work more closely with our partners and allies on the ground,” she said in the second debate, in addition to calling for no-fly and safe zones.
In his characteristic staccato, Trump rebutted her argument: “She talks in favor of the rebels. She doesn’t even know who the rebels are. You know, every time we take rebels, whether it’s in Iraq or anywhere else, we’re arming people. And you know what happens? They end up being worse than the people [in power].”
This exchange represented an uncomfortable moment for many who follow the Syrian conflict critically. As repugnant as Trump’s other beliefs and personal conduct, he did seem to have a point for those who question the premises of U.S. policy in Syria. He rightly pointed out that credible alternatives to the Assad regime are lacking, and even the CIA-backed rebel allies will not reliably advance U.S. objectives
Is Trump Right?
According to a range of Syria experts speaking at an event held by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Middle East program last week, Trump was right to second-guess the assumptions driving U.S. policy in Syria. The panelists didn’t directly critique Obama or lay out a path forward for Trump. But they described a feckless U.S. strategy and a Syrian revolution whose true nature eludes the West.
Realities on the ground have made a mockery of U.S. hopes to create a pliable, moderate force of rebels. When the U.S. sent its first batch of 54 trained-and-equipped fighters into the field, they fell nearly instantly after coming under attack by a far more powerful and rabidly anti-American force, Jabhat al-Nusra. That embarrassing defeat soon led Obama to scrap the program, which had already fallen far short of its target goal of 5,000 rebels.
The U.S. has continued to send arms, ammunition, and money to certain vetted groups, without the kind of strings it had attached to the train-and-equip program, through a pair of Military Operations Centers. It has managed to keep non-jihadi groups from extinction, but it has achieved practically nothing of greater import, according to Noah Bonsey, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Syria.
Even with those groups, the U.S. “can’t even really get them to overlook their own local and personal competitions and coordinate more effectively,” Bonsey said. That lack of cohesion, he added, enabled Jabhat al-Nusra and other jihadist outfits to employ a strategy of divide-and-conquer, gobbling up weaker, U.S.-backed groups and crushing the ones that put up a resistance.
Bonsey said that he doesn’t expect Trump to reverse the official U.S. position toward the conflict itself or the nominal goal of political transition, which Obama has progressively moved away from in the twilight years of his presidency. Trump is likely to accelerate that trend, emphasizing the fight against the Islamic State and investing less in political outcomes. This, in turn, will lead to a further decline in “U.S. influence on local military and political dynamics.”
Perhaps that’s a good outcome. It never seemed possible for outside actors to organize those doing the fighting and dying on the inside into a national political movement. What’s happening in Syria is not the concerted attempt at regime change that the U.S. and others would like it to be, but a hundred localized uprisings distributed around the country, according to Malik al-Abdeh, a consultant for the Humanitarian Dialogue Center, a Geneva-based group that quietly works to mediate conflicts and has significant access in Syria.
“In many ways you can argue that the revolution isn’t one revolution. It’s a series of revolutions happening in various places that have distinct leadership and nature, unified by two things, one: deep dislike of the mukhabarat, the secret police state, because [it] taxed these people; and two: the dislike of the command economy, the socialist economic model which they believe has deprived them of their rightful slice of the cake in Syria,” al-Abdeh said.
What Those on the Ground Want
Those on the ground don’t want to simply change who’s in charge of the state; they don’t much want a state. The people in charge of the Syrian opposition, Al-Abdeh continued:
wanted to be parachuted into Damascus, and take over power but essentially keep the state as it is. They wanted the state as it is but for them to be in power, this is what the regional countries wanted. The people who were rebelling against the regime wanted to fundamentally change the state. They wanted to grab as much economic power. They wanted to dismantle the state. They don’t want the state back in those areas, they wanted to be in charge.
More controversially, al-Abdeh said, the diaspora opposition is so out of touch with its armed counterpart that it actually shares more in common with the regime. “The regime looks down on the rebels, they see them as riffraff. In many ways the Syrian opposition sees them in the same way. Their vision toward the state, toward the way the country should be run, is fundamentally not that different to that of the regime.”
Trump’s claim that Clinton didn’t “even know who the rebels are” applies equally to the U.S. foreign policy establishment. To be sure, the U.S. understands what is quantifiable about the rebels—their force size, insignia, operational strategy, inter-group relationships—but the deeper meaning of their uprising has remained elusive. The pretenses of democracy and liberty, genuinely felt by many in the diaspora, sound nice to American ears but ring hollow for those slogging away on the battlefield. This gap between the means and ends of U.S. policy in Syria doomed it to fail. A more cynical president might have ignored the armed opposition’s political limitations and simply flooded it with arms to more effectively batter and bruise Iran, Russia, and Assad—though that might’ve merely supercharged the jihadists in the movement.
Trump, a man apparently disillusioned with liberty and the democratic process in his own country, is perhaps less disposed than Clinton or other elites to take what the U.S. has at home and project onto the world around them. Under Trump, if one takes what he says at face value and if he follows the advice of Sam Heller to not overcorrect in favor of Assad, the U.S. may have an opportunity to return to realism and extricate itself from a mess it doesn’t understand and for which it can, at best, limit the fallout.