Will Trump pull the rug from under Russia’s feet in Syria?
Following the start of the Syrian revolution, the American administration stood idly watching peaceful demonstrators being killed and arbitrarily arrested, without taking a decisive stance on these events. In reality, the US gave the Assad regime the green light to terminate the popular movement before things would develop to the point that Americans would be embarrassed for not intervening against it.
What never appeared in the media was the deep relationship of the Assad regime with the US before the Syrian revolution started. The Assad regime which claims hostility to the US was in constant contact with the American administration and mainly with the US intelligence, specifically on the issue of the exchange of information regarding the presence of jihadists after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Notorious for its heinous torture methods, the Assad intelligence was also used by the CIA to still information that the American intelligence could not get from some prisoners. Part of this secret cooperation was the arrangement of a secret meeting between the leader of the terrorist organization of ISIS, Abu Bakr Baghdadi, and CIA officials in the presence of Assad intelligence members in Zabadani in 2006.
Unlike many of the revolutions in the Arab countries, the first statement by the US administration on the need to stop targeting peaceful protesters and that the Assad regime lost legitimacy, according to the words of US Secretary of State at that time, Hillary Clinton, was made six months after the start of the Syrian revolution. However, the US administration did not do anything on the ground to end the brutal rule of the Assad regime.
The US administration in the first and second year of the revolution could have established a no-fly zone in the Syrian airspace without the need to get the approval the Security Council, as was the case when it invaded Iraq. The Americans were even able to force the Russians and the Chinese to not put a veto on such a resolution, but they shirked under false pretences to not end the conflict in Syria.
The US could have supported the US-trained troops by supplying them with reliable anti-aircraft missiles, it chose the role of the administrator of the Syrian conflict to prevent things going out of control. The argument used by the US administration was its fear of these weapons ending in the wrong hands which might pose a threat to the Western and US national security. This is an outright lie since these weapons could have been given to the US-trained forces and therefore trusted by them. All the US did was to organize the opposition, train them and equip them just to allow them to cope with regime forces without being able to defeat them.
The United States has imposed numerous sanctions pertaining to the Assad regime. Only few days ago, they imposed sanctions on 15 Assad regime military and political figures. The reality, however, is that those sanctions have never been applied. Many top Assad regime security men who are not supposed to be allowed to move freely do travel to many countries including Western ones, under the pretext of security coordination against terrorism. The economic sanctions against the regime were not binding. The US has allowed the regime to access of tens of billions of dollars coming from governments under US control, such as the Government of Iraq, as well as oil, gas, and to support the Assad regime. Moreover, the US administration has not prevented Russian ships which arrive once every two weeks at the port of Tartus from providing the Assad regime with tons of arms.
After the use by the Assad regime of chemical weapons at the eastern Ghouta area which cost the lives of more than 1,400 civilians, mostly children and women, the US administration could have conducted surgical military strikes targeting operations headquarters and military airports. Given that many Western countries, including Canada, France and Australia, have declared their support for such a move as a strike at that time would have been a fatal blow to the regime’s abilities, forcing it to accept a political transition to end the Syrian crisis.
On the 20th of this month, the new US administration headed by Donald Trump will have the upper hand in the American decision making. From what has been shown until now, the new leadership’s intentions are still a mystery. However, initial indications show that Trump would try to get closer to the Russian side, even at the expense of the Syrian people. But, let’s not forget that the US Congress will be controlled by the Republicans. Given that Trump suffers from media pressures and huge negative publicity, this could make him move towards seeking Republican support and therefore will try to please the Republican leaders who are against Iranian expansion in the region and the presence of Assad in power.
The first three months of Trump administration will be like a compass of its policy in the Middle East in general and in Syria in particular.
Eva J. Koulouriotis is Greek political analyst specialized in Middle East. Twitter: @evacool_f, Facebook: @evakoulouriotis