Has Trump deferred to Russia in Syria?

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Elizabeth Palmer reported from Ankara last Thursday that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson had difficult and inconclusive discussions with Turkish president Tayyip Erdogan concerning Syria. After the meeting he said publicly, that the “longer-term status of President (Bashar) Assad will be decided by the Syrian people.”

CBS and other news organizations argued that Tillerson’s statement signals a shift in US policy from that of the Obama administration, which called for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to step down.

This point is true as far as it goes. But it also has to be said that the Obama administration decided at the time of the fiasco of the red line over chemical weapons use (when Obama could not get the UK parliament to support joint Anglo-American action) in September of 2013, that it was unwise to try to unseat al-Assad. From that time till now, the US Air Force has never deliberately targeted a Syrian military or governmental facility.

So regardless of rhetoric, Obama behaved as though he believed what Tillerson just openly said.

Still, it is a little startling to have the US abruptly speak about Syria exactly the way the Russians do. Michael Jansen notes that the US is now decisively on the other side from the Syrian rebels, who have been demanding at the Kazakhstan peace talks that al-Assad step down as a prerequisite to new elections and national reconciliation. Jansen reports that one reason the rebels make this demand is that their electoral analysis suggests to them that if free and fair elections were held in Syria, al-Assad would likely win.

This analysis is correct. The regime probably has 80% of the population under its authority now– all the major cities plus some of the countryside, whereas the rebels have only a couple urban enclaves and then mostly rural villages. Moreover, populations like those in Aleppo, Latakia and Damascus are grateful to be living under even a brutal one-party state rather than under the mostly fundamentalist rebels, some of whom are openly allied with the al-Qaeda-linked Syrian Conquest Front (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra or the Support Front).

Syria is probably about 6% Christian, 3% Druze, 14% Allawi, 2% Shiite, 10% Kurdish– i.e. about 35% minorities. Then of the 65% that are Sunni Arabs, a majority are secular-minded and, as in West Aleppo, are just as afraid of al-Qaeda and ISIL as are the minorities. So al-Assad would almost certainly get a majority of the votes in any free and fair election at the moment. That doesn’t mean people like living under a one-party state or one that tortures. It just means that the rebel opposition turned to an extremist Sunni discourse that scared the minorities and secularists. The Saudi-backed Army of Islam, tagged as ‘moderate’ by Obama’s CIA, thundered against the wretched Allawi heretics, as they called them, and no state erected by this Saudi candidate would offer a decent life to Syria’s minorities.

So if the rebel private polling is correct, then what Tillerson is really saying is that Syrians are stuck with al-Assad, and that the Trump administration is sanguine about that prospect.

Saying this publicly puts Tillerson and Trump on the same side as Russia and Iran in Syria, but poses a set of problems for US relations with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, who have been supporting one or another of the increasingly fundamentalist rebel groups now bunched up in Idlib Province in the north or East Ghouta near Damascus, etc.

In essence, Tillerson is telling the Gulf Cooperation Council, including the Saudis, and Turkey that their side in Syria has lost.

Worse for the Erdogan government in Turkey is that the US still seems determined to use the post-Communist YPG Kurdish militia to expel ISIL from its Syrian capital of Raqqa. Turkey views the YPG as indistinguishable from the PKK terrorist group it is battling in eastern Anatolia. Erdogan had high hopes that Trump would drop this Obama policy. Instead. Trump’s Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, appears to have doubled down on the alliance with Syria’s Kurds. The Kurds will want a loose federalism in Syria after ISIL is gone, within the matrix of which they can erect an all but independent Kurdish mini-state. Such a development is Ankara’s worst nightmare.

At the same time, Trump seems to be peeved at Erdogan and at Egyptian strong man Abdel Fattah al-Sisi for not stepping up to wage the war on ISIL in the country’s east.

BBC Monitoring translated a discussion on Russia’s NTV from last Friday:

Channel One accused the USA of trying “to break up Syria into small pieces”, “to weaken Bashar al-Assad”, “to destabilise Iran”, “to put pressure on the Turkish president who is out of control” and “of course, to weaken Russia’s influence in the region”.

‘According to Channel One and NTV, the USA has promised Kurds in Iraq an independent state. Creating an independent Kurdish state, a pundit told Channel One, “poses a direct threat to national security and the territorial integrity” of the states which have Kurdish enclaves on their territory. As a result, “the whole system of regional security will be destroyed”, he said.

According to NTV, Tillerson and Erdogan, who met in Ankara on 30 March, had “difficult talks” and reached no agreement on Kurds. The US support for the Kurds is aimed “against President Erdogan”, a pundit told NTV.

“We will be witnessing a conflict emerging between the USA and Turkey before our very eyes,” another pundit told NTV.

And Channel One described relations between the USA and Turkey as being “on the point of a nervous breakdown”.’

in Russian 1900 gmt 31 Mar 17

In fact, the US is unlikely to have promised the Kurds their own state. But maybe a loose federalism. The use of the YPG isn’t aimed at Erdogan; it is just Pentagon pragmatism. The YPG are the only ones willing to step up and take ISIL on. And while US relations with Turkey have been better, they aren’t on the verge of breakdown, however much the Russian intelligentsia are hoping for that.

So, yes, Tillerson is speaking a different language about Syria than did Obama. But Trump’s concrete policies and those of Obama with regard to Syria seem to show a great deal of continuity.

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Related video:

CGTN: “Hundreds flee clashes for control of Tabqa, Syria”

11 Responses

  1. “But Trump’s concrete policies and those of Obama with regard to Syria seem to show a great deal of continuity.” Is this true? The US backed jihadis including offshoots of al quaeda before and after the failure to bomb SyrIa in 2013. The US looked the other way while ISIS grew. As Kerry said the plan was to get ISIS and the jihadis to do the regime change work for the US. So there is significant discontinuity in policy.

  2. What would happen if the US pulled out of Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria and left them to their own devices without any financial or military support?

    Neocons might suggest without our efforts the middle east would be quite a different place. A place controlled by the most violent fringes of humanity. While others might argue this country has turned Iraq, for one example, into a perpetual war zone where millions of those we attempted to “Liberate” are rotting in their graves. Afghanistan is little more than a decade long quagmire with only minimal results to show for hundreds of billions of dollars squandered and several thousand American lives lost.

    I know. We Americans, like any run of the mill control freak, gasp at the thought of not involving ourselves in the affairs of middle eastern nations. However a sober reflection of the last 25 years will not encourage even the most starry eyed optimist of what we can hope to achieve in a region fractured by intense hatred for one other.

    I suggest we take a new approach at , as Comrade Trump says, “Draining the swamp.” Take a two year sabbatical from involvement in the region… even to the point of not giving aid and comfort to Netanyahu at the UN. After two years I doubt you would be able to see where our absence made any difference at all.

  3. The US desire to remove Assad has never had anything to do with eliminating Daesh, and attempts to combine them in a common purpose make both tasks all but impossible. One cannot accept that the demonisation of Assad derives solely from the offence his regime’s approach to activist political opposition gives to US sensibilities. Suffice it to say that such methods are widely employed and ever have been. Those hostile to a regime, be it commonwealth or dictatorship, invite severe punishment or total elimination. That is and has always been the black and white of it, enshrined in Brutus’ post-regicide condemnation of his sons. If a democracy overthrows a dictatorship then it will adopt that approach to any person or group that seeks to re-establish dictatorship, and vice versa for a dictatorship. Ignoring that is hypocritical, look at Egypt, and all those other States where the US turns a blind eye while reserving opprobrium for the Syrian regime. Trump, who lacks a capacity for perspective thought and its associated deceits (otherwise known as diplomacy) appears to see this intuitively. Many more cerebral analysts have reached the conclusion that Assad is more popular than the US etc. would like. To effect those purposes concealed behind the labarum of humanitarianism the US must eliminate Assad and manipulate a consequential election. I much doubt Putin has any particular personal affection for Assad but he works with him because he is the current legitimate president and he has the army. Had the majority of Syrian people really hated him, the population would have abandoned him for the rebel cause and so would the army, and he would be gone. Claiming he has lost his legitimacy is delusional nonsense, there is an age old distinction between an office and the behaviour of its current occupant. That is why Trump still gets up and retires as the US President. Putin’s approach to Daesh is commonsense, and so is Trump’s if this ‘change’ is real. In those terms it is perhaps a coincidence that Iran is largely in same line, but were a constitutional change unsympathetic to Iran’s interests to be adopted that would become another matter.

  4. Regarding continuity- Sure – but the concept of continuity is stretched, given the lack of coherence of Syria policy under the Obama administration.

    Granted, with every regional “frenemy” of the US pulled into Syria, it was inevitable that US policy came off as somewhat schizophrenic. But what’s to come? In terms of regional power and pipeline politics, the lowest common denominator “solution” remains the status quo – a marginal conflict-fraught state. Too weak for independence, so as to guarantee that any development in favor of Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia &Gulfies can by blocked by the others. Russia, the US, and Israel too are part of such an arrangement, by an unlikely convergence.

    As for any novel approach by the Trump administration, the Bush-Obama spectrum of care and foresight in middle east policy didn’t exactly leave much new ground to break. If we are lucky, the current crew will be too busy to try anything too creative.

  5. “when Obama could not get the UK parliament to support joint Anglo-American action)”

    He also could not not US congressional approval, so was bailed out by Russia.

  6. The simplest explanation for deferring to Russia, is, I believe, that the situation is complicated, even more than US health care, plus, any choice results in a loss. No action leads to a win for anyone.

    There is no way to manufacture a tweetable trump triumph.

    So, to simplify & avoid thinking, plus to avoid losing… the solution? Let Putin do it.

  7. Fat President Trump is unwilling or unable to accept the fact when events happen on his watch as the President of the United States the ultimate responsibility falls to him.

    By rolling up the “red Line” in Syria, Fat Trump openly supports the propped-up-by-Russia Assad regime, a regime which gasses it’s own citizens and subsequently bombs the hospital treating the victims, many innocent little children.

    Not too long ago the ultimate goal endeavored by a majority of the U.S. public was to stop the wars and disengage from the occupations in Afghanistan and the Middle East with the understanding it would be a slow process because of the fossil fuel assets involved.

    Fat Trump features himself as some kind of a obese Presidential stud who feels horrible death and maiming of brown-skinned Muslim people is what HIS mega-church gun-toting electorate wants. This tacit “Death to All Muslims” attitude amplified by maladministration •••clowns and played-down in media serves to plunge our country further into the ME tarpit and continuous war.

    • Apparently, someone sane told POTUS there are limits and norms he must follow, therefore the belated outcry and not much else.

  8. As to the question at the beginning of the article, who knows for sure. We’ve heard Trump wax on about how great Putin is, but in this case it may be that Trump really doesn’t know what to do. He is out of his league and therefore can not make a decision, hence giving the impression he has deferred to Putin/Russia.

    There isn’t much the U.S.A. can do about Syria and Putin has no limitations.

    As to the Kurds, they have so far demonstrated they are the most organized group in the region and certainly know how to fight as an army. It is to be hoped they will have their own country. To this day I remember the cover of National Geographic of the dead Kurdish father laying by his dead little son. They were bombed with chemicals by S. Hussein. had other countries dealt with Iraq/Hussein at the time, who knows how the middle east would have looked today. Most likely with a lot less blood and war.

  9. This article seems to have been overtaken by events

    US President Donald Trump should answer a suspected chemical attack in Syria that left scores dead by grounding the country’s air force, retired General John Allen told Middle East Eye on Wednesday.

    Allen, former US President Barack Obama’s envoy to the global coalition to counter the Islamic State (IS) group and a four-star Marine Corps general, said Syrian President Bashar al-Assad would continue gassing civilians “with impunity” without a tough US response.

    “I think we’re going to have to put the Syrian air force on the ground,” Allen told MEE at an event in New York. link to middleeasteye.net

    Like the previous major use of nerve agent in Syria there is a possibility that this may be a false flag operation.

    “citing evidence that the al-Nusra Front, a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida, had mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity. When the attack occurred al-Nusra should have been a suspect, but the administration cherry-picked intelligence to justify a strike against Assad.”

    link to lrb.co.uk

    President Trump going off at half cock may in fact be a victim of his lack of reliance on his intelligence people link to theguardian.com

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