This essay is the first in a series of articles that dissects American foreign policy towards Syria under previous administrations and what actions the next White House can take to remedy the relationship. Consider it a practical action agenda for charting a new course. One that is more aligned with the values and beliefs of the next POTUS and the people who voted for him.
The most urgent U.S. foreign policy problem faced by Americans when they took to the polls on November 8 and voted Donald Trump as the next President of the United States was the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The terrorist organization’s ability to incite and inspire terrorism against the streets of Paris and the nightclubs of Orlando through terror cells operating on the homefront was a clear reminder that the guys in power, whether Socialist Hollande in France or Obama in America, were not keeping us very safe. With each terror attack launched against the U.S., France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Greece, or the rest of the West, Trump’s popularity increased.
His plainspoken and direct response to attacks that unfolded out of the chaos the Obama administration helped unleash abroad struck a chord among Americans who were sick and tired of their government acting foolishly in the Middle East. That those foolish actions abroad had deadly consequences at home made confronting radical Islamic terrorists even more urgent and that we close this misguided chapter of promoting regime change in Syria. It is not the Syrian government threatening to launch suicide bombers in Berlin and Paris, but the enemies of Assad have successfully carried out violent actions, killing civilians from Mosul and Damascus to San Bernardino and Orlando. Assad was optimistic that new opportunities for cooperation may open up because of the change in Washington. President Assad, on hearing the news of Trump’s victory, said he is willing to cooperate with the future POTUS. Syrian presidential advisor, Bouthaina Shaaban, stated that the American people sent a great message to the world by electing Donald Trump on Tuesday.
The U.S. electorate was given a genuine choice between two contrasting foreign policy agendas for the future of American involvement in Syria. Hillary Clinton promised to increase U.S. military engagement against the government of President Bashar al-Assad. That would include sending advanced military armaments to rebel groups, ramping up our train-and-equip program that has already failed to show any success, and perhaps most dangerous, the initiation of a unilateral No Fly Zone (NFZ) over northern Syria, where Russian and Syrian jets fly in the fight against Al Qaeda-turned al-Nusra-turned Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. Donald Trump offered a sharper strategy focused on defeating ISIS and cooperating with Russia and potentially Assad in an effort to stabilize the region.
The Democrats promoted a neo-McCarthyite future for US-Russia relations that may well have turned the New Cold War hot. Ironically, it was the Republican standard bearer that sought improved relations with the Kremlin and showed a willingness to cooperate with the Syrian government and its ally Russia. The American people voted in Trump for a variety of factors, many that are domestic. Those determinants are for a separate discussion. It’s important to remember that the American people also made the willful choice to moderate American foreign policy. Hillary Clinton’s infatuation with regime change was beyond palpable and did not reflect the mood of the country. Clinton, having the same demands as Obama, the usual laundry list of non-starters like recognition from Assad he will depart the Presidential office on the rebels timeline, would have fallen on deaf ears in Damascus and Moscow just as they had for Obama. Clinton would have taken more military measures to overcome the obstacle than Obama ever wanted to. The outcome of those moves would likely have been an even worse humanitarian situation inside Syria, especially for the majority population living in government territory. It also would have meant a higher probability something that has become routine, like unsanctioned flights over northern Syria, turn into air clashes with Russia if the former Secretary of State carried out her plans for a No Fly Zone (NFZ).
The election of Donald Trump offers America an opportunity to moderate and discontinue the mistakes made over the past two presidents and additionally, as Kissinger put it in a new interview with the Atlantic, transcend the “gap between the public’s perception of the role of U.S. foreign policy and the elite’s perception…an opportunity to reconcile the two.” A host of new possibilities opened up because of this election in terms of US-Russian-Syrian relations in the Middle East. Trump has been elected with a popular mandate, and his past statements indicate he is inclined towards cooperating with secular governments against fanatical Islamist groups the Obama administration, the Gulf monarchies, and Turkey’s Erdogan have propped up. President-elect Trump and President Putin spoke by phone Nov 14 in their first telephone meeting. The two agreed they share a common view on terrorism and will seek to strengthen bilateral ties.
In Syria that common view can be exemplified by pulling back our military and political support for rebels and de-escalating US-Russian hostilities that could potentially lead to direct military conflict in Syria.
Here are 6 actions the U.S. President can take starting January 20 to improve the U.S. position in Syria and dramatically decrease the capabilities of radical terrorists operating in the fragile nation and abroad.
- Cooperate with Russia in the skies over Syria
We saw how easily a relationship between two powers operating over the same airspace can go awry when one oversteps the boundary and shoots down the jet of another. Turkey shot down a Russian plane and for a year after tensions between the two increased dramatically. There were economic hardships for both sides as commercial relationships fell off a cliff and uncertainty between the two increased. A mishap like this can be overcome, as we’ve seen Russia and Turkey begin to thaw their relations, but it is not in the interest of America or Russia to see how an armed confrontation would play out between two nuclear superpowers with infinite small arms resources at their disposal. To avoid a collision over the skies, both need to be more transparent about the designated targets their respective planes are approaching. If we go further and not just avoid a collision but coordinate our air power against ISIS and Al Qaeda, we can have an even more devastating effect on enemy combat operations. President Putin had sent a congratulatory telegram to the president-elect after his victory, signaling improved relations are possible and they can move away from the current “crisis state.” It will be wise of Trump to ignore the neoconservative voices that opposed his presidential run, vowed they would never work for him and have warmongering ideas for his presidency. Trump should stick to the path of reconciliation and tough negotiation that got him where he is today.
- Initiate direct communications with the Syrian government
The United States and Syria have had frozen relations since the outbreak of rebel violence. Communications have been outsourced to third party players like the Iraqi government we are mutually allied to and which is in the same fight against terrorism as Syria. Quite frankly, breaking off communications serves no purpose but to delegitimize the legitimate Syrian government. If Donald Trump has “an opposite view of many people regarding Syria,” an excellent way to prove that through a deliberate action is direct engagement with Syria’s government. In his first interview since the election, Trump spoke to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) and had the following to say about where our focus should be:
He suggested a sharper focus on fighting Islamic State, or ISIS, in Syria, rather than on ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. “My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is becoming powerful, because of us, is aligned with Syria. Now we’re backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who these people are.” If the U.S. attacks Mr. Assad, Mr. Trump said, “we end up fighting Russia, fighting Syria.”
It was an encouraging interview for those seeking a peaceful resolution of the conflict in Syria. A resolution that would maintain regional stability, improve the humanitarian conditions of Syrians waiting for this proxy war to end, and reposition the United States on the side of rational actors and against fanatics posing as American friends. These friends cannot serve American national interests in the long run but only undermine it.
- Withdraw American support for rebel groups in Syria
The Department of Defense (DOD) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) both have ongoing train-and-equip programs for America’s “moderate” allies in Syria. They are being trained in Jordan and Turkey. These programs have been notoriously wasteful. They cost billions of dollars with little return. Not because there aren’t fanatics who have traveled from all over the world to commit genocide in Syria against Shias, Christians, and any moderate Muslim living in Syria, but because the U.S. programs expect our rebels to live by certain standards that they are simply unwilling to commit to. They seek not to fight ISIS but fight Bashar al-Assad. They take American arms and head to the nearest Islamist groups recruiting office they can find, usually Al Qaeda if they are in north Syria, but many have joined the Saudi-backed Wahhabi groups or Qatari-backed Muslim Brotherhood organizations. Defunding these wasteful programs will show America is serious about working with the legitimate actors in Syria and also that we aren’t interested in prolonging the war through inexhaustible military support. It will also show the American people that their tax money won’t be wasted, or worse, used in crimes against humanity. For America to retake its moral position, we must not only disavow the apologist Obama doctrine that aided Islamists, but we must not fund any of these projects that are causing harm to ordinary people and state institutions. Further, the program has begun to have deadly consequences for U.S. soldiers. The death of three members of the Army Special Forces at the hands of the Jordanians should be a wake-up call that the train-and-equip program is costing America more than its giving back.
- Direct audits and a postmortem of CIA and DOD train-and-equip programs
American arms and aid ended up in the hands of some of the most extreme Islamist ideologues on the face of the planet. Donald Trump should open the books on the Obama-funded programs. The money was appropriated for specific groups. How did the money and weapons end up in the hand of our enemies? What role did our “good” rebels have in transferring these weapons to other rebel groups and eventually landing into the hands of ISIS and Al Qaeda who hold dominion? For the new White House and, where it wouldn’t risk American national security or personnel who have been operating on the ground, for the public a light needs to be shined on these shadow programs. Did the White House cover up facts on the ground so they could paint a rosier picture of events to the public? Many CENTCOM analysts certainly seem to think so. Trump cannot drain the swamp if heinous crimes are covered up for his predecessors. He should shut down these programs and find out the truth.
- Direct the Treasury to go after international financiers of terrorism
The Department of Treasury has taken a more sophisticated role in American foreign policy. They are capable of shutting down money laundering rings, freezing financial assets, and cutting off individuals and countries from the international banking system. The Treasury played a fundamental role in cutting off Iran from the international financial market and using that as pressure for delivering the Islamic Republic to a negotiating table over its nuclear program. Trump can direct the Treasury to take tough actions against these international financiers of Wahhabi terrorism. Some of these financiers are related to the royal families in the Gulf monarchies, it is paramount we know which. The United States has to clearly determine who’s on its side in the fight against radical Islamic terror and who is funding it to our detriment and to the detriment of global peace and regional stability.
- Pressure client states to withdraw support for terrorists
And finally, the relationship between states that have pledged friendship to the United States, like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and their relationship to violent non-state actors has to be disclosed and halted. We cannot have rebel groups acting as proxies for foreign governments that seek to control Syria through Islamist ideology and brute force. These groups are not secular, democratic allies that America can cooperate with. Their innate weakness is a threat itself, creating vacuums wherever they go and leaving citizens radicalized and willing to take on suicide missions or leaving them miserable attempting to live under their rule or flee it. This is as much against international law as it is against U.S. national interests. The U.S. must pressure these states, if they truly are our friends, to cease their destabilizing pro-Jihadist activities in the region. These activities will inevitably be directed at the United States, as we have seen from ISIS and Al Qaeda who still see the U.S. as a threat that must pull out completely from Muslim lands. We cannot abandon truly moderate partners in the region because some see radical Islamists as a useful non-governmental tool against their sovereign enemies.
Conclusion: Charting a new course
The United States, under the direction of a President Donald Trump, has a small window to represent the best intentions of American foreign policy. To remove ourselves from the wrong side of history. To disavow the pro-Islamist, Muslim Brotherhood activities of the Obama administration, and to say enough is enough to endless, costly wars that have little value for American citizens and promote chaos abroad. It is impossible to expect all of this can be achieved on January 20th. Steering foreign policy is like steering a large ship, changing course takes time. It is imperative, however, that we do begin to turn the ship in the right direction and with urgency.
Stay engaged with The International Scope as we explore the challenges and opportunities facing the United States in Syria under a new foreign policy doctrine. This article examines President Obama’s decision not to launch airstrikes against the Syrian government in 2013 and what the next President can learn from that decision.