Thursday, April 6, 2017

'Something should happen'

Few notes on the latest developments concerning Trump Administration's policy on Syria


Some serious strikes will take place against the Assad regime soon in order to signal that Trump is serious about Syria and that he is different from his predecessor and will respond differently when he is challenged. Trump needs to send a strong message in this regard, because the North Koreans, Iranian and the Russians are watching closely.

The “something” that “should happen," to borrow Trump's own words, will have to be serious enough to curtail Assad’s ability to launch new airstrikes or major military operations against the rebels. If the Administration wants the regime to start taking peace talks seriously, its ability to launch major offensives must be curtailed. Still, the operations at this stage will not be meant to undermine the stability of the regime.

On the political level, talks will be held with the Russians and other international player over the next few weeks to revamp and intensify ongoing peace-talks. The administration and its allies will insist on Assad’s eventual departure, but contrary to speculations and assertions, the removal of Assad does not amount to regime change. Also, the different international and regional parties will now have to agree on how to move forward with the fight against ISIS and on what Syria will look like post-Assad.

Framing the situation in terms of regime change is neither accurate nor helpful at this stage, and will give anti-war movement as well as the Russians, the Iranians and other regime-supporters fodder for their campaign to waylay the administration’s plans. This is about bringing peace to Syria and about ending the suffering of the Syrian people – a step that clearly requires the removal of the “few bad hombres” who are responsible for it. That these “bad hombres” should include Assad and some of his adviser and generals and not only the heads of ISIS and Al-Qaeda should not come as a surprise to anyone. After all, the former bear responsibility for the overwhelming majority of death and destruction in Syria.

Getting the Russians on board this scenario will not be easy; Obama was not able to do it, not that he pursued as seriously as he needed to. Still, a Russian OK, no matter how reluctant, is not impossible to obtain. The Russians might be willing to show more flexibility at this stage in regard to Syria realizing that this might translate into future American flexibility in regard to the situation in Ukraine and could lead to an easing if not downright removal of sanctions. Indeed, if the Russians want Trump to be able to deliver on these issues, they cannot allow him to fail on a test that he has now embraced so publicly and forcefully. The situation in Syria now has become a test of the credibility and character of both Putin and Trump. If Putin cannot work with Trump to resolve this conflict, after the latter spent the last few months sending him a billion positive signals at tremendous and continuingly increasing political cost at home, then, the message Putin will be sending to American officials of all stripes and standings is that he is not a person with whom one can do any business, and that he is indeed engaged in warfare against America.

Be that as it may, Trump has transformed the conflict in Syria into a test of his leadership and resolve in particular, and he seems to have done so willfully. This might be a cynical exercise of wagging the dog in an attempt to put the Russia Scandal and all controversies surrounding his business interests and nepotism behind him. But that’s exactly why he would need to show results, and soon. This situation cannot be handled in the same way the wiretapping accusations against Obama and the leak accusations against Rice were. Mere noise will not be sufficient here. The stakes are very high, he himself made sure that they are, and has left himself little wiggle room in this regard. Failure to produce results will cost Mr. Trump many valuable allies at home and abroad, ensuring that all investigations into his affairs will be pursued with greater vigor and more bipartisan support.