Donald Trump is a wild card in the Syrian conflict

Some analysts think he may paint his own reality in the war torn country

In this Aug.25, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Trump Tower in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert
In this Aug.25, 2016 file photo, Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks at Trump Tower in New York. CREDIT: AP Photo/Gerald Herbert

As President Obama’s term ends, one of his most haunting legacies, that of the civil war in Syria, will be passed onto the next administration.

It is still too early to piece together what Trump’s Syria policy will be. Experts on Syria say Trump will have to deal with what the Obama administration has left him. The only sort of clue he’s given regarding his intentions lies in his apparent eagerness to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin and defeat ISIS.

“My sense is that Trump has made one clear promise and that is to fight ISIS aggressively,” Joshua Landis, an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, told ThinkProgress. “Trump’s articulated a point of view that is quite constant with Russian analysis in the region.”

Taking his comments and appointees into account, however, only paints a paradoxical portrait. Trump’s pick for Defense Secretary, retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, has repeated on multiple occasions the mantra that America’s gravest threat is “Iran, Iran, Iran.” This could make things awkward for the Trump administration in Syria, seeing that Iran is allied with the Russians in supporting the Syrian regime.


With regard to Syria, Trump indicated during the presidential debates that the United States should let Russia continue fighting ISIS. While the Russians are currently working with Turkey to route ISIS from al-Bab, a town in Syria’s north, Russia has largely waged war on other targets.

Last month, Trump said at a Florida rally that he would get Gulf states to pay for Syrian safe zones. Setting up Gulf-funded safe zones certainly wouldn’t align with Russian interests. Putin’s goal in Syria is only to support the Assad regime, and the regime’s goal is to recapture all of Syrian territory by eradicating the opposition, who they label as a monolithic group of terrorists. Even if that weren’t the case, experts interviewed by ThinkProgress think safe zones are not a realistic prospect.

Trump may have trouble sorting out the conflicting stances he’s made with the ideology of his appointees.

“He’s going to have a hard time reconciling a policy that says work with Russia on Syria against the Islamic State (ISIS) with an approach that says resist Iranian expansion of influence in the Middle East,” former U.S. ambassador to Syria Ambassador Robert Ford, a fellow at the Middle East Institute and Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, told ThinkProgress. “And they’ll have to factor in Turkey.”


While Turkey has been a powerful actor in Syria for some time, the country has taken a more proactive role as of late. Ankara hashed out a ceasefire with Russia and Iran last week and is set to travel to Kazakhstan’s capital Astana later this month to represent the Syrian rebels in peace talks.

The United States’ policy under President Obama has been to focus on targeting ISIS in Syria. They’ve done that by primarily funding the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a collective of militias of varying ethnicities, including Arabs, Kurds, Armenians, Assyrians, Turkmen, and others. The largest unit in the SDF is the Kurdish YPG, which is the Syrian branch of the Turkish Kurdish group PKK. The Turks are currently fighting a PKK insurgency in southeastern Turkey and want the coming U.S. administration to cease funding Kurds in the SDF. The U.S maintains it is only funding Arab groups in the SDF.

Trump’s diplomatic staff may also have a hard time keeping the concerns of American allies in check. Any expansion of Iranian influence in Syria will surely concern Israel, Turkey, and Jordan, as well as Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states.

The fact is, we don’t know what the Trump administration’s policy is going to be

These complex realities may not matter to Trump though. For one, the U.S. role in Syria could largely be diminished by Turkish involvement — though the Turks will struggle to represent a rebel cause that is hardly unified. But even if there is a place for the Trump administration to influence the realities in Syria, Trump may focus more on public perception of his accomplishments than their lasting impact.

“The thing with Trump is that he creates his own reality,” Barak Barfi a research fellow at the New America think tank, where he specializes in Arab and Islamic Affairs, told ThinkProgress. “He’s going to find it hard to work with the Syrians and Russians to reach any type of ceasefire, and if those things are violated it might not upset him. He might just spin a new reality.”


That reality could be confronted by interventionist members of Congress like Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsay Graham (R-SC) who have vocally denounced the Obama administration’s lack of action in Syria. It’s hard to tell what kind of pressure Trump may feel from his own party. All this conflating information has left analysts doing the only thing they can: wait.

“The fact is, we don’t know what the Trump administration’s policy is going to be,” Tony Badran, a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies who focuses on Syria, told ThinkProgress. “To talk with any certainty right now about what that policy will look like, based on things that Trump or some of his picks have said, is to engage in idle speculation and credulous literalism of the kind that badly misled so many Syria observers for the past five years.”