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Robin Jones

Vanishing Illusions: Trump and Syria

Syrian activists in the US fear the worst with the Trump administration [Getty]

Date of publication: 9 January, 2017

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Analysis: Donald Trump won't be much worse for Syrians than Obama was, but he'll be more forthright about it, writes Robin Jones.
Since his shock election victory, many left-wing commentators have argued that Donald Trump exposes America's bare face, openly giving voice to currents of chauvinism, xenophobia, and racism which previously lay silently under the surface of society in the form of structural violence.

Without minimising the danger of a president who threatens to target the most vulnerable, it is often correctly noted that Trump's brash rhetoric mirrors policies enacted under the Obama administration. While Trump promises to deport millions of undocumented immigrants and to build a wall along the Mexican border, Obama presided over the most deportations of any administration in US history.

And while Trump once proposed to kill the families of terrorists as a means of collective punishment, Obama oversaw drone strikes against wedding parties during a presidency which vastly expanded the extrajudicial assassination programme.

When it comes to Syria, however, the major continuities between Trump's rhetoric and Obama's policy have gone largely unnoticed in many left-wing circles. For years, Washington has been tacitly backing the Assad regime's survival while rhetorically feigning otherwise. Trump plans to be explicit about it.

Hardnosed realists in the Obama administration have been the primary architects of this approach. They recognise that Assad is relatively compliant - a committed neoliberal, a key partner in the CIA's torture programme, and a decent border guard for Israel - and approached the Syrian revolution, like the Arab Spring more generally, with an attitude of fear.

In essence, the US had little problem allowing its Russian and Iranian rivals to help Assad crush the uprising, while reaping some of the benefits.

But the current policy is not one of non-intervention. Washington has been bombing non-regime targets in Syria since 2014. This is not yet an intervention to back Assad directly, but is correctly perceived by many Syrians as an accession to the regime's war-on-terror narrative.

To be clear, no-one can be certain what Trump will do, and his rhetoric remains riddled with contradictions. But it seems likely that he will escalate this air war through an open alliance with Moscow and Damascus, blurring the distinctions in US policy between IS and opposition groups, as well as combatants and civilians.
Read more: Trump calls for Syria safe-zones funded by Gulf countries
"I think it would be great if we got along with Russia because we could fight ISIS together," he claims. "I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS. Russia is killing ISIS."

In fact, Assad and Russia are primarily waging a war against civilians in areas where IS is not present. Savvier politicians would refrain from openly praising a rival power as it commits such atrocities.
I think Trump will continue what the Americans were doing, but he will say it
But Trump is not a lone voice standing up to a foreign policy establishment bent on "regime change". Rather, this is business-as-usual: where others maintain a liberal-democratic smokescreen, he loudly expresses the reactionary realities of the existing policy.

"I think Trump will continue what the Americans were doing, but he will say it," explains Loubna Mrie, a Syrian activist who participated in the revolution and now lives in the US. "He will admit that they are basically against the uprising, unlike Obama."

British-Syrian leftist Leila al-Shami agrees: "The US has for some time been coordinating with Assad and Russia in the 'War on Terror'… Trump's policy is likely to be a continuation of this, only with even less lip-service to issues such as human rights, democracy or civilian protection."

Not all segments of the US political elite are united on this approach. A contingent of neoconservative politicians - likely smaller than the realist camp, but more vocal - has long called for intervention against Assad, to little avail.

The policy has also shifted slightly over the years. Early on, assuming that Assad would be swept away quickly by the popular uprising, Washington sought to stem the tide of mass politics through a managed transition that would prevent total state collapse. But Obama never matched empty pronunciations that "Assad must go" with real material commitment to his downfall.
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"Obama never showed any real interest, beyond rhetoric, to support Syrians in bringing down the dictatorship or protect them from its brutal assault," maintains al-Shami.

Even the hawkish Hillary Clinton, whose ambiguous proposal for a no-fly-zone figured prominently in left-wing discourse throughout the election cycle, stressed in her 2014 memoir that "it was important to maintain the integrity of the Syrian state and its institutions".

Significant portions of the left are shadowboxing with insignificant neoconservatives rather than challenging actual American policy in Syria.

Yasser Munif, co-founder of the Global Campaign of Solidarity with the Syrian Revolution, notes that some leftists have been "importing language from other contexts to a scenario which they don't really understand".

Contradictions between America and its various regional allies are often obfuscated in favour of a simplified US proxy war narrative.
Comment: Trump and his Syria policy
The CIA has undeniably spent large sums of money on Syria operations - an understandable cause for eyebrow-raising. But it has primarily sought to push insurgent groups to fight potentially hostile extremists instead of the regime, and to control and limit the flow of arms to the opposition.

Often in contravention to Washington's diktat, factions of the Turkish and Gulf ruling classes have ostensibly intervened on the side of the revolution - with the states themselves largely backing Sunni warlords and Islamist groups, and a conflicting segment supporting more independent extreme Salafist elements.

While much of the left simply conflates the two as "NATO-backed jihadis" - and Trump shares a roughly similar interpretation - the US seems to fear all of these factions, and has tried to use the former against the latter while moving towards an alignment with the regime.

Great tensions have emerged between opposition militias and the independent revolutionary movement, which has become increasingly relegated to the civilian sphere. Revolutionaries have been disappeared by warlords, and minorities are understandably alienated by Salafists.

Notably, in a conflict characterised by the regime's aerial bombardment of civilians, the US has sought to block anti-aircraft weapons from reaching opposition factions since day one. Were this veto successfully bypassed, such armaments seem more likely to help opposition-held communities defend themselves from aerial bombardment than to promote advances by sectarian factions.

This could provide breathing space for the persisting civilian revolutionary movement.

Considering specious arguments about Israel's role in the war, the question of Palestine seems ironically to be a factor in American efforts to thwart arms deliveries to a predominantly Sunni mass movement so close to the occupied Golan - even a reactionary one that could potentially be co-opted.

Yet if Washington's anti-aircraft embargo were circumvented by a renegade US ally or even a non-state actor - perhaps one operating on the basis of solidarity with suffering Muslims - much of the left would simplistically attribute such action to American imperialism.

For the independent revolutionary movement, there remains a risk that Saudi Arabia or Qatar may intervene more directly, to thwart the oft-misdirected popular momentum now building up in the region. Trump has left room for this possibility, speaking of safe zones paid for by the Gulf states.
Having largely misread the nature of US involvement in Syria, substantial segments of the anti-war movement have hardly protested the existing bombing campaign
With civilians under attack, the Syrian opposition is in little position to refuse help. But the revolution will reap greater benefits by soliciting direct support from the ranks of more moderate Islamist forces in the region - particularly in Palestine, Turkey and Jordan.

While still reactionary, these more inclusive factions could replace Salafists in providing support for Syrian insurgents, assuaging Alawite, Christian, and Kurdish fears about the prospect of Assad's downfall. The reopening of direct confrontations between the regime and the YPG, an avowedly leftist force, would open new possibilities for international solidarity.

Currently, having largely misread the nature of US involvement in Syria, substantial segments of the anti-war movement have hardly protested the existing bombing campaign and are unprepared to mount an effective resistance to Trump's plans to intensify it.

Some are even directly aligned with his proposals.

The Hands Off Syria Coalition recently backed "the right of the Syrian government to request and accept military assistance from other countries" - a clause that would paradoxically allow Assad to seek further American intervention in the name of anti-imperialism, as Charles Davis notes.

"The pro-Assad left is not ready for Trump," argues Munif. "He is going to undermine their worldview and narrative.

"But some in the pro-revolution camp are also not prepared. There was this illusion that the West would help and intervene at the right moment."
Make falafel great again: Trump-inspired restaurant opens in Syria
Such illusions are quickly vanishing. As one member of an opposition local council in Aleppo recently told the New York Times: "At least today we can get rid of the burden of this so-called harmful friend."

Despite this silver lining, the potential implications of a direct US war against opposition groups are harrowing, threatening to aggravate sectarian grievances and irrevocably alter rebel dynamics for the worse.

"If Trump begins bombing areas in Idlib where [former al-Qaeda affiliate] Jabhat Fatah al-Sham is present, it will drive recruitment," explains Munif.

"It will radicalise FSA factions and drive some of the Salafi groups even further. For instance, there is currently a debate within Ahrar al-Sham about whether to join JFS or not. American bombing will make it easier for them to do so."
Read more: Syria's Assad says Trump 'a natural ally'
The US is already shifting toward a more aggressive stance, with Obama having taken major steps to escalate American bombing immediately after the election. The regime is also capitalising on the new political climate: the timing of Assad's brutal offensive to retake East Aleppo is no coincidence.

A clash of civilisations seems nigh, and many Syrian activists are anticipating a joint US-Russian onslaught. "Now we will have a Trump-Putin-Assad alliance against Syrian civilians," writes US-based Syrian leftist Nader Atassi. "Time to stand with Syrians against imperialism."

But the revolutionary movement remains defiant, if only because it seems that things cannot get any worse. "What’s going on in Aleppo today is going on under the Obama administration," explains Mrie. "So we are not scared of what Trump might do to Syrians."

Robin Jones is a freelance writer with a focus on Middle East affairs. His writing on Palestinian issues has been featured in Electronic Intifada, and he holds an Honours BA in Anthropology and Politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @RobinJones101

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