By: Rebecca Hanks
For the past five years civil war has raged within Syria’s borders. Under President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian Arab Army pushes back against the Free Syrian Army in an attempt to maintain power. The presence of Kurdish nationalists and the Islamic State serves to further complicate the conflict, creating a vicious cycle of destruction and chaos. This conflict has crippled the Republic’s economy and infrastructure and has resulted in the death, injury, and/or displacement of hundreds of thousands of its civilians.
Furthermore, it has sent political and economic shockwaves throughout the modern world. Countries bond together, or in some cases break apart, in an attempt to find their footing in interactions with such an unstable situation. The refugee crisis alone has spawned a surge of heated debate about which countries should bear the economic burden, where to house the migrants, and long-term solutions. There are an infinite number of intricacies and networks that complicate the situation in Syria far beyond a simple explanation. Nevertheless, there is value in exploring how global changes may further influence this conflict whether to prepare for the worst, to provide hope, or to simply seek a greater understanding of the situation at hand; this is most certainly the case with regards to the recent shift in United States presidency from Barack Obama to Donald Trump.
Throughout his campaign, President Trump made it clear that he is open to friendly cooperation with Vladimir Putin. In a forum hosted by NBC, for example, he mentioned Putin’s “82 percent approval rating,” and that he expected to have a “very, very good relationship” with the Russian President . This relationship alone could result in a drastic change of course for United States involvement in Syria.
Historically, the United States has provided economic and physical backing for the Syrian rebels and acts as a strong counterweight to Russia’s support for the Assad regime. These policies seem impossible to maintain, however, with the development of a close bond between the Presidents Putin and Trump. Nominee for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has commented that Russia would be an “unfriendly ally,” so at least for now, one can rule out the possibility that the new administration will come out in favor of Russia and Assad directly. However, this mixed political context does set the stage for a possible foreign policy shift in how Russia and the United States interact – not butting heads, but rather coexisting peacefully in the midst of a friendly relationship between the two Presidents. Within these circumstances, there are three main areas of possible action that are especially important to examine.
First, United States involvement with Syrian rebel groups. In the face of a neutral relationship with Russia as well as the devastating cost — both economic and in terms of lives lost — of the civil war to the United States thus far, it is possible that the Trump administration could pull support for these groups entirely. As the United States is currently one of the Syrian rebel’s most powerful allies, action of this kind would dramatically advantage the Assad regime. It could even put the end of this conflict in sight, although the outcome would be the reverse of what the Obama Administration has been supporting for the past three or four years. Of course, such a statement is almost impossible to predict accurately so early on, as are all the combinations of the actions President Trump could take.
Second, United States policy towards the Islamic State. It is highly possible that funding and military action against the Islamic State will increase under President Trump; such a conclusion can be drawn from his frequent references to the threats of Islamic extremist groups throughout his campaign, as well as his criticisms of President Obama’s policies towards the Islamic State specifically. This may be a general increase, or funding that previously went towards rebel groups channelled a different direction. Either way, it is extremely doubtful that United States military presence in Syria will in any way decrease.
Lastly, it is crucial to address humanitarian aid. An executive order carried out on January 27th, 2017 has officially determined the Trump administration’s position towards Syrian refugees — namely, that they will no longer be allowed to seek safety within the United States. This is made clear by a temporary suspension of the US Refugee Admissions Programme, a suspension of all travellers from a select group of Middle Eastern countries and most shocking of all, a restriction on any refugees from Syria specifically. This being the case, it seems that United States humanitarian aid going towards Syria has a very uncertain future. In the face of an increasingly stringent refugee policy, however, sending aid is more important than ever. Those most affected by the continued conflict in Syria are ordinary neighbors, parents, and siblings being forced to survive through terrifying events, and the United States is much too powerful a player on the international stage to simply turn the other cheek to this kind of suffering.
This article is but a short and rather simplistic foray into how the vast “Syrian Problem” — as it is called by many Western media sources — may be affected by political change in the United States; this is crucial to examine, for however unpredictable the individual outcomes of these changes are, they will without question influence millions of lives across the globe, not to mention the future of foreign policy itself.