Dr. Bouthaina Shaaban, an adviser to Syrian President Bashar Assad, told NPR the Assad regime was ready to cooperate with President-Elect Donald Trump, although the Syrians want to “wait and see” what his policies look like, “particularly toward terrorism.”
“I think the American people have sent a great, a very important message to the world,” she said.
The Trump team would be well-advised to remember that when the Syrian regime talks about “terrorism policy,” what they really mean is “helping Assad defeat the rebellion and remain in power.”
To the Syrian government, everyone in the resistance is a “terrorist.” They frequently blame Western powers, including the United States, for “supporting terrorism” and prolonging the Syrian civil war by arming and training rebel groups.
After stressing those points, NPR sought a comment from Washington D.C.-based Syrian-American activist Kenan Rahmani.
“The Syrian opposition was really looking forward to Secretary Clinton coming to power and implementing some kind of civilian protection to protect the civilians from Russia and the Assad regime. And now, of course, that hope has been completely devastated,” Rahmani said.
On the other hand, a Syrian opposition leader in Istanbul named Samir Sashar said, “We have hope – we can’t say more than that – that maybe [Trump] will defer to his advisers when exerting his authority, especially since he’d be surrounded by a team of experts.”
Mr Trump has indicated that his foreign policy stance will be less interventionist than his predecessors’. He stated in the second presidential debate that regime change only causes more instability in the Middle East and while Mr Assad is not exactly a welcome partner, shoring up his government is the best way to stem the extremism that has flourished in the chaos of Syria’s civil war.
Mr Trump has suggested withdrawing support for the Syrian rebels still fighting in east Aleppo, neighbouring Idlib province and the south of the country, which could prove to finally tilt the war in the Syrian government’s favor.
The Independent goes on to recall how Trump memorably promised to “bomb the s**t” out of ISIS, which could be seen as helpful to Assad’s cause since the Islamic State has occupied Syrian territory. Then again, the fall of ISIS would erase a common Syrian and Russian talking point about how the Western powers should join forces with them to stamp out ISIS (which isn’t actually the target of most of the bombs Russia has been dropping in Syria).
In a similar vein, President Obama ordered the Pentagon on Thursday to target the leaders of al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria, the Nusra Front, which fooled no one by attempting to “rebrand” itself earlier this year.
“The move underlines the extent to which Obama has come to prioritize the counterterrorism mission in Syria over efforts to pressure President Bashar al-Assad to step aside, as al-Nusra is among the most effective forces battling the Syrian government,” The Washington Post observed.
Al-Qaeda may richly deserve every bomb we send its way, no matter what it calls itself, and its leaders are high-value targets in the battle against global jihad, but there is no getting around the fact noted by The Post: Blowing them up in Syria will help Assad, by crippling a force that more directly threatens his regime than ISIS does.
American policymakers need to decide, as President Obama has consistently refused to do, whether Assad absolutely must go. He is no more appetizing than al-Qaeda, but we must decide what the endgame of the Syrian Civil War will look like, and who should be allowed to survive it. Once upon a time, flinty-eyed geopolitical strategists thought it would be best to let Assad and his jihadi enemies bleed each other for years; the result of that strategy was a horrifying humanitarian tragedy in Syria and a refugee crisis that overwhelmed much of Europe.
Obama never had a realistic goal in mind for Syria. Perhaps the new president will find one. Realistic goals are sometimes ugly.