BEIRUT (Reuters) – Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president on Wednesday drew concern among Syrian rebel groups and a degree of optimism in Damascus, where his victory was seen as a better outcome than a Hillary Clinton win.
Syrian rebels have long been fiercely critical of what they perceive as the Obama administration’s inadequate backing for their fight against President Bashar al-Assad, though Washington has been an important sponsor of the uprising.
But Trump’s statements on Syria, and his more open-minded stance toward Assad’s ally Russia, have fueled rebel concern about the policy he may adopt on Syria’s conflict, in which the Russian air force has been bombing insurgents.
“I think things will become difficult because of Trump’s statements and his relationship with Putin and Russia. I imagine this is not good for the Syrian issue,” Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of an Aleppo-based rebel group, told Reuters.
The Syrian opposition says Obama failed to back them adequately after calling for Assad to leave power, failing to enforce his own “red line” against the use of chemical weapons and blocking the delivery of anti-aircraft weapons to rebels.
“The Americans were never honest with us. They left us in a quagmire that drowned the Syrians … Everyone is trading with our blood and suffering,” said Abu Hamed, head of the military council of rebel group Liwa al Haq Brigade, speaking from Hama.
Some rebels believe that Trump will make no difference to long-established American policy towards the region.
“Trump is like any American president … Western policy and especially American policy have become clear towards the region and especially the Middle East in its enmity towards the aspirations of people suffering injustice,” said Abu Assad Dabeq, a commander in a Turkish-backed rebel group fighting Islamic State in northern Syria.
In Damascus, a member of the Syrian parliament said he was cautiously optimistic that U.S. policy would shift Assad’s way.
“We must be optimistic, but cautiously optimistic,” Sherif Shehada, the MP, told Reuters in a telephone interview.
He said Gulf Arab states – which have backed the Syrian rebellion – had been depending on a Clinton victory and were now in “a predicament”. “The American administration must carry out what it said in the election campaign.”
Russia’s intervention in support of Assad last year helped Damascus turn the tide against insurgents who had been making steady territorial advances, and gave Moscow decisive influence over diplomacy.
Prominent Syrian opposition politician George Sabra said: “We do not expect much from the new American administration, but we hope that the face of President Donald Trump is totally different to the face of Mr. Donald Trump the candidate.”
Trump said in an Oct. 25 interview with Reuters that defeating Islamic State was a higher priority than persuading Assad to step down, and warned that Clinton could drag the United States into a new world war over the Syria conflict.
Clinton was the U.S. secretary of state when the uprising against Assad began in 2011, during a wave of protests against Arab autocrats known as the Arab Spring.
The Syrian uprising mushroomed into a civil war that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, allowed for the rise of Islamic State and created the world’s worst refugee crisis.
Russia and Iran have provided direct military support to Assad while countries that want to see him gone from power, including the United States, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey, have provided rebels with backing including military support.
Another political opposition figure said indications Trump might have a more isolationist policy than President Barack Obama would mean other regional powers could start to play a bigger role in the Syrian and other Middle East crises.
Hadi al-Bahra, former president and current member of the Syrian National Coalition, an opposition political body, told Reuters that potential positive aspects to Trump’s presidency included his opposition to Iranian influence and Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, and his perceived willingness to work with Russia on the Syrian issue.
“All these indicators can be built upon to form policies which align with the national aspirations and objectives of the Syrian revolution,” Bahra said.