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Trump's Syria policy could be engagement or outsourcing to Russia, experts say

This photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows Syrian troops and pro-government gunmen marching through the streets of east Aleppo, Syria, Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2016. Syrian rebels said Tuesday that they reached a cease-fire deal with Moscow to evacuate civilians and fighters from eastern Aleppo, after the U.N. and opposition activists reported possible mass killings by government forces closing in on the rebels' last enclave. (SANA via AP)

Over the past week, the Syrian Army routed rebel forces who were holding on to their last major stronghold in the northern city of Aleppo. On Dec. 13 the opposition laid down its weapons after years of fighting and after both sides inflicted horrendous horrific human suffering on Syria's ancient city.

It is unclear how significant the recapture of Aleppo will be for President Bashar Assad, who maintains only a tenuous hold on vast swathes of his country, and how the victory will play among his backers in Moscow and Tehran. It is equally unclear what U.S. policy will be in Syria as the incoming Trump administration prepares to inherit the nearly six-year civil war in a region fraught with instability.

Under President Obama, U.S. policy in Syria has been as complex as the conflict itself. In August 2011, Obama declared that "Assad must go," expressing outrage over the Syrian president's violent suppression of protesters during the Arab Spring. Since then, the administration has engaged in endless diplomatic negotiations, expressing outrage over the 400,000 killed during the six year conflict and the millions of refugees. Obama held back any military intervention until the Islamic State captured large portions of territory in Syria. The administration announced a multi-national anti-ISIS coalition to "degrade and defeat" the terrorist group, but less than a year after the coalition was formed, U.S. aircraft are now sharing the skies with Russian fighter jets as Iranian-backed militias operate on the ground.

The factions currently fighting in Syria range from terrorist groups to nation states. The Islamic State and former al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham are part of a mixed bag of jihadist groups. The United States has entered the second iteration of a "train and equip" program for Syrian rebels, and is now backing the Syrian Democratic Forces. And the nations who are now active stakeholders include Russia fighting on behalf of the Assad regime, the United States and its 60-plus member anti-ISIL coalition are conducting limited air strikes, and regional powers Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and other Gulf states are vying for increased influence.

On January 20, Donald Trump will inherit all of this, one of the most challenging conflicts in the region.

"Fundamentally there are two ways he can approach the Syria question," says Alex Vatanka, a specialist in regional security affairs at the Middle East Institute. "President Trump can be actively involved, actively try and push back what is happening on the ground in Syria...or, what most people suspect he will do, or fear he will do, is kind of outsource Syria to others," he said, suggesting that could mean Russia or Iran.

Based on Trump's statements on the campaign trail, both options are possible. On the more interventionist side, Trump said during the Republican primaries that he would be willing to commit 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq and Syria in order "to knock out ISIS." He has also committed on multiple occasions to confront Iran's regional ambitions and tear up the Iranian nuclear agreement. According to reports, Trump may also appoint George W. Bush's former UN Ambassador, John Bolton to be second in command at the State Department. Bolton has called for a much tougher, confrontational posture towards Iran, Russia, China, and North Korea and was recently described by a Democratic lawmaker as an "unreformed Neocon."

Vatanka sees a more "hawkish posture," where the administration challenges Iranian and Russian influence in the region, as something that Washington's foreign policy establishment would prefer. However, the idea that Trump would revert to a George W. Bush kind of military interventionism is "highly unlikely if you listen to what he said during the campaign." Trump regularly criticized Bush's Iraq war, U.S. regime changes in Iraq and Libya, and has also questioned the financial costs of continued support to some of America's allies in the Middle East, like Saudi Arabia.

The other option Vatanka sees is the "outsourcing" option, and he is not alone in considering this as a very possible foreign policy approach for the incoming administration.

In Trump's most recent press conference back in July, he was asked about cooperating with Russia in the Middle East and said, "There is nothing I can think of that I'd rather do than have Russia friendly, as opposed to the way they are right now, so we can go knock out ISIS together with other people." Trump continued, "Wouldn't it be nice if we actually got along, as an example, with Russia?" And that was not the only time Trump suggested possible benefits in working with Russia to defeat ISIS.

Trump has also suggested some leniency towards Assad, saying early on in the campaign saying that "maybe he's better than the people we're backing," referring to the Syrian rebels. Trump also offered some questionable praise for the Syrian president during the second presidential debate, when he said "Right now, Syria is fighting ISIS...I believe we have to get ISIS."

At a Bipartisan Policy Institute forum on Friday, Derek Chollet, a former defense policy official under President Obama, argued that while Obama did try to cooperate with Russia and Syria to defeat ISIS, there was one big problem: "They are not fighting ISIS." Chollet continued that for those who were appalled at Obama's outreach to Russia and Iran, that would look "tame" if the Trump administration "goes all in with Russia and Iran and Syria" to say "we're going to partner with these guys against ISIS."

Chollet also worries about the what Russia may charge as a kind of transaction fee for their cooperation. In a brief statement to Sinclair Broadcast Group, he elaborated that if it is Trump's goal to get along with Russia, there are ways he can make that deal, but it would cost the United States.

"We could lift sanctions against Russia, we could cooperate with them in Syria, we could block efforts to investigate war crimes committed by Russia in Syria, that could all be in the service of 'getting along' with Russia," he said. "But if that was the deal, that, to me, would be a disaster. That would not be good for the United States."

In a rare interview with western press earlier this week, Syrian President Bashar Assad struck a tone of cautious optimism about the incoming administration, saying that Trump is a "natural ally" in the ongoing fight against terrorism. "Trump's statements were clear during his campaign in relation to fighting terrorism, nonintervention against states in order to depose governments, as the United States has been doing for decades," Assad said. "This is good, but this depends on Trump's will to carry on with this approach, and his ability to do that."

There are other options Trump could pursue in Syria, one of which is to completely disengage and essentially cut the region off from American influence. Another option, which could possibly appeal to the deal-maker in chief, is to engage in the ultimate negotiation and make a deal the Obama administration couldn't. Namely, bring together the regional powers, the conflicting parties in Syria, and other international players to make a political deal.

During the multiple rounds of peace negotiations since 2012, also known as the Geneva talks, all parties agreed on one basic tenet, that stability can only be restored in Syria politically.

Even as the Obama administration finishes out its final five weeks in office, Secretary of State John Kerry emphasized again on Thursday that the only pathway forward in Syria is through tough negotiations. Kerry himself admitted that throughout the years of talks at the UN, ending the conflict in Syria "will take negotiations, and they haven’t taken place in all of these years – any real negotiations." Granted, business and diplomacy are not equivalent, but it is an option that is open to the incoming administration.

How Trump addresses the issues in Syria will be extremely important in defining America's role in the Middle East for the foreseeable future, Alex Vatanka advised. "The thing with Syria that we need to factor into any discussion of U.S. policy under a Trump presidency, is that what we do in Syria very quickly will shape perceptions in the region about America's willingness and ability to remain an actor in the Middle East," he warned.

As a result of Obama's policies, the departure from Iraq, the pivot to the Asia Pacific, the Iran nuclear agreement, many of America's allies in the Middle East see the United States losing interest. "If that perception remains under a Trump presidency, we can expect the continuing expansion of the influence of other major actors in that strategically sensitive part of the world," according to Vatanka, and that includes primarily Russia, Iran, and most likely China. "And that will all come to the detriment of American influence in the region."

So far Trump's foreign policy remains largely unknown, save a few announcements of key cabinet positions. His comments on foreign policy and Middle East policy during the campaign were often inconsistent, sometimes contradictory. If Syria is the proving ground for the future of the U.S. influence in the Middle East, it may be time for the president-elect to indicate how he intends to travel the road to Damascus.

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