The policies of former United States president Barack Obama towards the Syrian crisis were impartial at best.
They seemed indifferent to the Syrian catastrophe, refusing to give the Syrian opposition effective weapons to stop the regime’s air and ground strikes and hardly trying to pressure the regime’s allies to make it end the war and accept the political solution that most think is inevitable for a political transition to take place in Syria.
The Syrian opposition hoped that new US President Donald Trump would not be like his predecessor and that he would follow different policies that would correspond more to its demands.
However, this hope began to dissipate even before Trump was sworn in as president when it became apparent that he had a negative view of the Syrian opposition. Last July, Trump said that the “Islamic State [IS] is a threat to us much more than [Syrian President Bashar] Al-Assad is.”
During a presidential debate in the run-up to the elections Trump said that “I don’t like Al-Assad at all, but Al-Assad is killing IS and Russia is killing IS and Iran is killing IS.” This seemed to mean that Trump did not intend to put pressure on Al-Assad or his regime.
Early in his campaign for the presidency, Trump declared that the Arab “Gulf countries should use their money to gain more territories in Syria and create a safe zone for the people,” shrugging off any US responsibility in creating the safe zones which the Syrian opposition have been demanding.
Such statements often pleased the Syrian regime. However, Trump’s positions towards Syria have been contradictory. On one occasion he said that “the suffering of the Syrians began when Obama did not keep his promise and did not do the job he should have done when he drew a red line for Al-Assad. There is no doubt that we must do something about that,” referring to former president Obama’s failure to act against the Syrian regime.
Soon after his inauguration, Trump said he would create a safe zone in Syria to protect civilians and end the flow of refugees out of the country. Such statements are threatening for Russia and the Syrian regime because the new US president could take steps that could be as reckless as many of his positions.
Since last September when the US withdrew from its involvement in the Syrian crisis, leaving Russia to take advantage of the vacuum on the ground, it has stood by while Moscow focuses on changing the military geography in Syria, using excessive force to cut down the opposition and significantly tip the balance of power in favour of the regime.
Russia then decided to unilaterally look for a political solution, making deals with Turkey and Iran to sponsor a ceasefire beginning on New Year’s day. Russia tried to obtain US blessing for this ceasefire, but all it got was the US “taking note” of these efforts and putting pressure on UN Security Council members to put out a similarly non-committal statement.
After such US indifference, Russia was quick to hold the Astana Conference in Kazakhstan to enforce the ceasefire, bringing together the regime and the opposition. It neutralised the political opposition and promoted the military opposition, which it had earlier refused to recognise, and attempted to make the US co-sponsor of the conference, which the latter refused.
One of the outcomes of the Astana Conference is that the US is now once again talking about safe zones “in Syria and neighbouring areas,” as Trump put it during a recent telephone conversation with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdel-Aziz.
The Trump administration’s proposal to create such safe zones in Syria has ended Obama’s hesitation, with the latter using the pretext of a possible Russian or Chinese veto in the UN Security Council in order not to take action.
Washington has not wanted to repeat its earlier experience at the Security Council in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and Trump’s new call comes after the Astana Conference, Russia’s meeting with the opposition forces, and on the eve of the Geneva IV Conference on the Syrian crisis.
This conference, strongly supported by Russia unlike previous Geneva conferences, continues to be ignored by Washington. The Russians may continue to postpone it until the US agrees to sponsor it, which for the moment appears unlikely.
Russia’s haste to move forward on the Syrian crisis comes against a background of growing hostility between the US and Iran, including the US Senate’s extending sanctions against Iran for another ten years. Trump has made the confrontation with Iran a priority, and he seems to want to shoot down the Iran nuclear deal, meaning that serious economic sanctions could once again be imposed on Iran.
The US confrontation with Iran could mean strengthening alliances with Turkey, Egypt, Israel and perhaps Saudi Arabia to contain Iran. The current Turkish-Iranian relations could sour and weaken Russia’s position, perhaps making them the weakest link in Moscow’s chain as Russia’s power relies on neutralising other key players.
It appears the new US administration is determined to remove Iran and its militias from Syria in the light of the possibility that some agreement could be reached between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
However, military elements in the Syrian opposition have said something deeper could be in the offing. One former Syrian army officer currently living in Europe told Al-Ahram Weekly that Trump had asked his military and political aides to give him a detailed brief within 90 days about a “strong intervention on Syria”.
He said the plan that would be presented to Trump includes “forming a strong joint military council that includes officers who have deserted the Syrian army living in their thousands in Turkey, Jordan and Europe. These will be joined by officers who are still working for the regime but have no power without an international plan.”
“The US intervention will be strong politically and militarily. The Russians understand that Trump’s priority is confronting Iran and then forming a military council in Syria, which is why they took the first step to curb Iran’s role and sabotage their relationship with Tehran. In a second step, the Russians are trying to gather the armed Islamist opposition factions in confronting the American plan,” the officer said.
Trump has adopted a very different policy on Syria to that of his predecessor, aiming to restore the US role as a strike force in the Middle East. It is possible he will demand direct military intervention if he feels this is needed.
Russia’s alliance with Turkey and Iran has allowed Moscow to improve its position in Syria as a major power that cannot be ignored. However, this does not mean it is the sole protagonist in events because the US still has tough sanctions in place against it.