With the election of Donald J. Trump on 8 November 2016, the United States plunged itself headfirst into an unknown abyss of foreign policy. With all current obligations to international treaties, international organisations, and multilateral trade pacts in doubt, Trump has effectively questioned the very fabric of both current international norms and the neoliberal theory that the system is based upon. However, this international ambivalence is perhaps nowhere more crucial and more visible than in the current war raging within Syria. This multi-faceted conflict has grown even more complex within the last year and a half due to the increased involvement of Russia and its continued support for the Assad regime. Under President Barack Obama, U.S. support was directed to both rebels fighting the Assad regime as well as those fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Currently, however, this dual pronged approach has seemed increasingly unsustainable to many American people, with the CIA supporting dozens of ‘vetted’ groups that are fighting both the Assad regime as well as ISIS with no end to the conflict in sight. With the arrival of president-elect Trump and his ‘America first’ policies, this multi-pronged and anti-Assad policy could be under threat. Unfortunately, if his policies are implemented as they are currently stated, the Syrian situation will most likely continue to degrade, with the true losers of the conflict the millions of civilians still in Syria as well as the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have fled the country.
Within the last few weeks, Trump has continually maintained both a more cautionary approach to regime change in Middle Eastern countries as well as a commitment to destroy ISIS. Trump has stated that the United States should be focused on defeating the Islamic State, and finding common ground with the Syrians and their Russian backers. However, it seems that Russia has been more committed to destroying the rebels fighting the Assad regime than to destroying ISIS. According to Foreign Policy, data analysis of airstrikes across Syria have shown that ‘only 8 per cent of areas targeted by Russian airstrikes between October 12 and November 8 belonged to the Islamic State.’ This discrepancy in policy is in accordance with Russia’s interest, with Putin seeing an opportunity for more stability in the region under the firm hand of the Assad government. In addition, Putin sees the Islamic state as the buffer that is needed to keep the American public and government’s focus as he tries to prop up the loyalist forces against the rebels. With Obama, much of the focus was still on the multitudes of human rights abuses committed by the Assad regime, but with Trump, the unifying nature of disdain for the Islamic State seems to be a more powerful force. If Trump were to simply consider the option of keeping Assad as the head of state, this would have disastrous consequences. Charles Lister states, ‘Were president elect Trump to drop Americas insistence that Assad has lost legitimacy and must be removed through transition, not only would Iran gain immeasurably, but the greatest immediate terrorist threat to Israel would be free to point its formidable weapons array toward America’s most valued regional ally.’
Donald Trump’s suggested policies are an over-simplified and underdeveloped piece of American protectionism. With reading the anti-war, anti-ISIS consensus within the United States, he has unwittingly allowed Russia to place itself in a position to profit completely off of the Syrian conflict. For Putin, ISIS is simply a diversion, perfectly placed and timed to distract the Americans suffering from the Iraq-war hangover. As frustration mounts with the lack of progress on both sides, chances for a coalition government made up of the various anti-Assad forces seems increasingly unlikely. It seems as though Trump, Putin, Assad, Erdogan and others ‘might for the nucleus of a loose fraternity of leaders in the Middle East that allows the U.S. to continue its decades policy of favouring ‘stability’ under strong leaders to democratic transformations and civil rights.’ Unfortunately, all of this focus on ‘stability’ is detracting from one of the largest issues within the region: the massive number of civilian deaths perpetrated by the Assad regime and the thousands forced to leave the country out of fear for their own life. A strong Russian involvement in Syria is nothing but bad news for civilians, with allegations that they have fired upon targets in eastern Aleppo, ‘where at least 65 civilians have been killed [within a matter of days] according to the Syrian observatory for human rights.’ Trump’s entrance into the Syrian battlefield as the most influential individual decision-maker must not force Americans and others abroad to simply think of stability within the region under the Assad regime as the goal. If anything has been shown throughout this conflict, it is that Bashar-Al Assad is not fit to rule the country and the people of Syria deserve the international community to fight on their behalf, rather than simply for the quickest solution or the one that will garner the most support in the domestic elections.