If you’re going to get involved in the Syrian Civil War, there are two tracks you can take. The first is to attack Sunni jihadists, on the ascent thanks to ISIS and the Islamists infesting the anti-Assad rebellion. The second is to take a stand against the Assad regime and its Russian and Iranian backers, a risky course that would likely trigger a war with Moscow, now militarily invested in Syria. The Obama administration in recent years has mostly pursued option one, though it’s never quite given up on Assad either, continuing to arm the Syrian rebels and publicly calling on the Butcher of Damascus to step down.
That all changed last week with the election of Donald Trump, who views America’s interests in the Middle East solely through the prism of the more conventional war on terror. That means fighting the Islamic State and other Syrian jihadist groups. It also means tolerating the Assad regime as a necessary bulwark against extremism. Trump has been critical of the rebellion, which he views (rightly) as too cozy with the group Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, née al-Nusra and an al-Qaeda franchise. It’s no light matter: Fatah al-Sham is so inseparable from the “moderate” rebels that President Obama’s attempts to arm the latter ultimately ended up with our weapons in the hands of the former.
President-Elect Trump is hardly schooled on foreign policy, but some of his instincts on Syria are sound and they’re already engendering change. Last Thursday, two days after Trump’s shock election, President Obama ordered the military to begin a drone campaign against Fatah al-Sham. There are plenty of objections to be raised here, about the efficacy of drone strikes in a country that’s been pummeled from the air for years, about the risk of blowback, but it at least represents the further intrusion of reality into the Syrian theater. To wit: the Assad regime does not threaten the United States and the rebellion-allied jihadists do. The new drone initiative is an acknowledgment that Trump is going to shift American policy in Syria, so Obama may as well start things off. It may also be a flame under the president’s seat, driving him to do what he all along thought was right.
Trump, meanwhile, confirmed to the Wall Street Journal on Friday that he intends to abandon our government’s endless attempts to arm the “moderate” rebels, news that was met by the rebellion with defiance and resignation. The remnants of that cause are quickly running out of patrons. Our great and glorious ally Saudi Arabia, once a major funder of the rebellion, has largely divested from the Syrian theater in order to focus on famishing and incinerating the innocent people of Yemen. Turkey is still aiding the rebels, but it’s far more interested in obstructing the Kurds than in toppling Assad. The European Union struts and postures, while remaining relatively uninvolved. Except against Hezbollah, Israel remains shrewdly neutral.
So Trump’s desertion of the rebels is more a shutting off of the lights on the way out than a revolution in policy. Still, even without American support, don’t expect the opposition to promptly fold. The Institute for the Study of War etches the latest battle lines:
Those spilled watercolors aren’t encouraging if you’re an Assad partisan. The regime will eventually take back the city of Aleppo, though even there wresting neighborhoods from the rebels has proven an excruciating inch-by-inch fight. But what happens after that? The opposition is still holed up in Idlib and controls much of the nearby countryside, as well as those pesky southern borderlands near Jordan. The YPG Kurds, who have clashed with the regime, have made remarkable progress in the north; the best hope against them there is Turkey…which also opposes the regime. And ISIS, though it’s lost more than a quarter of its territory in Syria, still persists in the hinterlands.
Winning this war, if such a thing is even possible, will be a long slog. Even Donald Trump is unlikely to change that.