The Slatest

Could Trump Make Things Even Worse in Syria?


Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Images via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; the_guitar_mann/iStock.

This is the second in a series of posts looking at how Donald Trump’s presidency could impact countries and regions around the world.

One of the few issues Donald Trump was relatively consistent on throughout the campaign was the war in Syria, where he wants to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS and potentially partner with Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s regime to fight terrorism. Consistency is not necessarily good—Trump’s ideas about Syria do not make a whole lot of sense—but it does allow us to consider how Trump in the White House will affect the situation on the ground.

Despite Trump’s specious claims that the fight against ISIS has been hampered by the lack of surprise, the Islamic State has been steadily losing territory in both Iraq and Syria. And while the battle for Mosul is slow-going, the recapture of the last Iraqi city under ISIS’s control is probably inevitable. “Obama is leaving them with a coalition that has, despite its fits and starts, produced some major wins on the ground,” Will McCants, an analyst at the Brookings Institution and author of The ISIS Apocalypse, told me late last week.

Trump may step up airstrikes and the number of U.S. troops on the ground. He has also suggested he is open to working with the Russian government and Bashar al-Assad’s regime to combat the group in Syria. This ignores the question of whether Assad purposely allowed ISIS to spread in order to create just this scenario, but it’s true that ISIS would have a hard time fighting against all of these powers at once. “A U.S.-Russia partnership against ISIS will accelerate against the group,” says Charles Lister, a fellow at the Middle East Institute and author of The Syrian Jihad. “It would accelerate the disintegration of their caliphate. But the near-term gains achieved in such a partnership would not secure long-term gains against the group.”

Lister argues that ISIS is already preparing to convert to an underground guerrilla strategy once it’s pushed out of its urban strongholds, and that Trump’s favored strategy will play into its propaganda perfectly. “ISIS will play up the fact that not only has America been brutal in bombing and killing civilians, but now they’re teaming up with the worst of the worst—Russia. It will acquire something that it never really had—popular acceptance in the areas it controls,” he says.

In Trump’s rhetoric, the goal is simple: Do whatever it takes to destroy ISIS. “There’s an amount of ISIS-hysteria in Trump’s discourse,” says Emile Hokayem, a Beirut-based analyst for the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Yes, ISIS are barbarians, but he’s transformed it into an existential threat to the United States that it’s not. Everything is subordinated to fighting ISIS, and that’s actually very problematic.” Trump’s single-minded focus on ISIS could lead to neglect of the political factors that allowed the group to emerge and gain territory in the first place.

As for the Syrian civil war: Trump seems intent on getting the U.S. out of it, with the exception of killing terrorists. This may sound very appealing—its not like U.S. involvement in the war has been a spectacular success under Obama—but it’s going to be a lot harder than Trump thinks. Given his stated suspicions about the anti-Assad rebels, he is likely drop the already limited covert U.S. program aiding them. This would seem to make some brutal strategic sense: Yes, Assad is a mass murderer, but if he finally takes over the country, at least it will restore stability. Too bad it’s not likely to turn out that way. “I don’t know that even on their own with Russian firepower and Iranian firepower that they’re going to be able to consolidate control of the country the way we think they will,” says McCants.

For one thing, the Obama administration has actually been working to limit the amount and type of aid that governments in the region—namely Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf countries—give to the rebels, and which groups this aid goes to. If the U.S. drops out of the rebellion entirely, these countries may adopt a much more risky strategy: giving more powerful weapons, like anti-aircraft systems, to the rebels and openly working with groups like Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, which is no longer formally allied with al-Qaida but still shares the terror networks tactics and goals.

That means the stalemate would continue, only with more firepower and more risk of dangerous weapons systems falling into the hands of anti-American terrorist groups. Some groups may become even more radicalized, predicts Hokayem. “The Assad regime is winning the cities. The rebellion is at risk of turning into a rural insurgency. This will be more difficult to support and also more radical,” he says.

Trump could also go beyond merely encouraging the Russian-regime strikes against the rebels, and actively join in an air campaign that many countries consider a war crime. “It’s the biggest possible gift we can give to the jihadist narrative for the world’s two great superpowers to team up to carpet-bomb terrorists and kill a lot of civilians in the process,” says Lister.

The Islamaphobic rhetoric employed by Trump and his circle, including his choice for National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, is also music to the ears of jihadist groups. “The more that the United States speaks of this conflict as a war against Islam, the religion, and all the subtlety drops out, that’s a win for them in terms of propaganda,” says McCants.

Trump also seems dangerously uninformed about the complexities of the conflict, such as tensions between Turkey and the Syrian Kurdish rebels fighting ISIS. (He famously mixed up the Kurds and Iran’s Quds force.) It’s hard to imagine him keeping the complex and uneasy coalition battling ISIS on the same page—something the Obama administration could barely pull off. If Trump embraces an almost entirely military approach to the extremely complex political problem, that will have devastating long-term consequences. “There will be massive resentment in the Arab world for years against the west and America. If you think Palestine or the U.S. presence in Saudi Arabia provided a basis for radicalization, wait until you see how Syria will play into this narrative,” says Hokayem.

Lister agrees. “Everything Trump talks about in Syria is about terrorism, but everything he’s proposing to do will dramatically empower terrorists ability to create support and acceptance within broad communities and populations,” he says. “It was conditions like that in Afghanistan that made 9/11 possible. And unlike Afghanistan, Syria is right on Europe’s doorstep.”

Even Americans who care little about the fate of Syria should be extremely concerned about a large-scale terrorist attack, and about how a President Trump would respond.

Earlier in Slate: