Donald Trump’s first 100 days of presidency have been marked by new positions and by the symptom that the US want to play a new role in Syria. Nevertheless it is not clear in which way the US will contribute to the defeat of Daesh and to the end of al-Assad’s regime, without hurting its foreign policy interests .

Trump’s first 100 days of Presidency

The starting point is the travel ban and the first executive orders  Trump signed in his new role as the 45th President of the United States of America: one of them,signed in January 2017, opened the way for the Pentagon and the State Department to develop a series of “safe zones” in Syria. The safe zones are more than a “no-fly zone”, these controlled areas would help, in Trump’s vision, to limit the refugees´ flow from Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and other conflict zones from migrating to the United States. Trump commented the creation of these safe zones as a way to guarantee the protection of the Syrian population and to give them a second chance to set-up their own life. But the issue has been seen as the first step to put an American footprint in Syria. The idea for a safe zone has been revived as Turkey, Russia and Iran are attempting to impose the latest cease-fire in the Syrian conflict. The rebel groups battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have been plagued by infighting in recent days, with mainstream rebel groups battling an al Qaeda-linked faction.[1]

With the evolution and stall of the Syrian conflict, the United States changed their position from an uninterested one to the elaboration of a possible involvement. This new approach is mainly due to the chemical weapons attack in Idlib, on April 5th, that killed dozens of people and that was able to shock President Trump.

During his presidential campaign, Trump always pledged a resolute anti-interventionist foreign policy, taking the distances from Obama´s attempt to use force in Syria after another chemical weapon attack in 2013. But this time, after the Idlib attack, President Trump was forced to study some possible military options, presented by the Pentagon, to take in response to the April 5th attack.

The solutions approved by Trump, a military strike launched on April 7th,was justified as the response to the chemical weapons attack.[2] This strike has been the first direct military action taken by the US against Bashar al-Assad´s regime after six years of civil war. It can be considered as an escalation of the US military campaign in the area and has been highly criticised by Russia and Iran, but on the contrary supported by the majority of the European countries and Israel.

Some political analysts affirmed that the strike should not be interpreted as an act of aggression against a sovereign State, rather as a mean to deal with the unacceptability of Assad´s use of chemical weapons: a retaliation and a warning for future attacks. Anyway, Trump´s priority remains to defeat Daesh; weakening or removing Assad is part of this programme but not the first in line. However, the fight against the self-proclaimed Islamic State and the removal of al-Assad from his position merged, on the practical and international relations’ side. In March, one month before the chemical attack and the American retaliation, a few hundreds of marines has been temporarily deployed close to Raqqa to fight against Daesh. This act inaugurated a new phase, for long time avoided, that included the options of “boots on the ground” in Syria to defeat Daesh. As stated by representative from the Pentagon, the “boots on the ground” represents part of a reassure and deter mission. In addition to this, US is preparing to send hundreds of troops to Kuwait in case they will be necessary to give support to the troops deployed in Raqqa.[3]

Trump and US foreign policy

The temporary deployment of men in Raqqa, headquarter of Daesh, not only represents a development in Trump’s instinctive foreign policy, but also confirms Trump´s Administration decision to give the Pentagon a major flexibility in taking decisions in the war against Daesh. The strategy foreseen by the Pentagon to defeat the Islamic State at home points to increase the number of American troops in Syria to better guide and enable the Syrian fighters in Raqqa. Furthermore, the Pentagon has foreseen an increase in the artillery support, with the deployment of more Apache helicopters and a more robust training campaign for the national troops.

Is this the right moment to send American troops to Syria? The potential risk to recreate a second Iraq in Syria is always behind the corner. The Syrian scenario gets complicated by the fact that now the Syrian battlefield is much more crowded and the alliances are much more complicated than the Iraqi one. On the “positive” side, the lack of unity among the extremist groups in the region could facilitate a mission. On the other hand, future strikes by the US would damage more the Syrian government´s fighting capabilities that Daesh and other militias one, who would instead gain much space for manoeuvre. [4]

Trump’s decision marked the first 100 days of his presidency and represents a shifting position that the US are taking against the Syrian regime. Unlike his presidential campaign, during which Trump criticised the Obama’s foreign policy in Syria, the President is now  facing the same doubts and the same risks.[5] The escalation of the American involvement in Syria demands for criticism and for attention to the following steps. These latest developments show the main features of Trump foreign policy: a non-consistent one, hard to understand because mutable, instinctive and contradictory. It is interesting to see that a poll found out that the 66% of US voters´ agreed with Trump initiative to bomb Syria after the chemical attack and the 32% of the voters ask for a more substantial American involvement in the Syrian war. On the other side, the Syrian strike brings with it the risk of inflaming anti- American sentiment in the Muslim world, increasing the risk of a retaliation by lone wolves in the US.[6]

Trump’s priority list

Are Syria and Daesh the real priorities for Trump? Or is this place covered by North Korea’s threat?

In one week, Trump has been able to reverse the position on Assad and his future in Syria: This new position clashes against the position of Putin, who is still sustaining al-Assad’s regime and is against a removal from his position. Trump challenged Putin sending to Moscow the Secretary of State, Max Tillerson, who brought with him the clear message: Assad must leave. A major Syrian involvement would weaken the chance to resew the US relations with Russia. [7]

The “America First” promise to the American electorate is now slowly becoming a memory. For the time being, future scenarios are, unpredictable: it is still not clear if Trump acts without thinking about the consequences of his actions in Syria and if he is ready to face them. The boots on the ground are one of the possible scenarios, even if there are some political commenters that exclude this. Is this virtual reconciliation the first step to look for international support? The answer to this question will become clear only after Trump’s participation to the NATO summit in Brussels later this month (24/25 May).

What is obvious is that the risks of a military action are now much more incumbent than before, as well as the domino effect that this would cause, by not helping the defeat of Daesh and probably not even guaranteeing the easy removal of al-Assad from his throne.

On Trump’s plate remains the need to get rid of Daesh. Will Trump be able to reach his goal and to ease the al-Assad’s regime ends, or North Korea’s threats will absorb all his energy?

© Cover Photo by Michael Scott Vadon (CC BY-SA 4.0)


References 

Ackerman, Spencer. “What’s Trump’s plan for Syria? Five different policies in two weeks”. The Guardian, April 11th 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/apr/11/donald-trump-syria-bashar-al-assad-isis

“US sends hundreds of marines to Syria to support fight against Isis“. The Guardian, March 9th 2017. https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/mar/09/us-sends-hundreds-of-marines-to-syria-to-support-fight-against-isis

Collinson, Stephen. “Trump’s stunning u-turns on NATO, China, Russia and Syria”. CNN, April 13th  2017. http://edition.cnn.com/2017/04/12/politics/trump-russia-china-nato-syria/

Enger, Pamela. “The Trump administration seems to be hinting at military intervention in Syria“. The Business Insider, April 5th 2017. http://www.businessinsider.de/trump-syria-intervention-2017-4?r=US&IR=T

Munoz, Carlo. “Trump eyes ‘safe zones’ in Syria despite fears of deeper U.S. involvement in war”. The Washington Times, Jan. 25th 2017. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/jan/25/donald-trump-orders-establishment-safe-zones-syria/

Orioles, Marco. “Tutti i perché delle mosse di Trump su Siria, Corea del Nord, e Afghanistan”. Formiche, April 15th 2017. http://formiche.net/2017/04/15/trump-moab-siria-nato-russia/

Salama, Vivian. “Donald Trump says U.S. won’t get further involved in Syria”. Global News, April 12th     2017. http://globalnews.ca/news/3373538/donald-trump-syria-attack-involvement/    

Starr, Barbara and Jeremy Diamond. “ Trump launches military strike against Syria“. CNN, April 7th  2017. http://edition.cnn.com/2017/04/06/politics/donald-trump-syria-military/

“63% of American voters want more US intervention in Syria – poll”. Russia Today, April 12th 2017. https://www.rt.com/usa/384526-63-us-voters-intervention-syria/

Notes

[1] Munoz, Carlo. “Trump eyes ‘safe zones’ in Syria despite fears of deeper U.S. involvement in war”. The Washington Times, Jan. 25th 2017. http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2017/jan/25/donald-trump-orders-establishment-safe-zones-syria/

[2] Starr, Barbara and Jeremy Diamond. “ Trump launches military strike against Syria“. CNN, April 7th 2017. http://edition.cnn.com/2017/04/06/politics/donald-trump-syria-military/

[3] AP. “US sends hundreds of marines to Syria to support fight against Isis“. The Guardian, March 9th 2017.  https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/mar/09/us-sends-hundreds-of-marines-to-syria-to-support-fight-against-isis

[4] Enger, Pamela. “The Trump administration seems to be hinting at military intervention in Syria“. The Business Insider, April 5th 2017.  http://www.businessinsider.de/trump-syria-intervention-2017-4?r=US&IR=T

[5] According to Trump, Obama had the great opportunity to solve the Syrian crisis long time ago when he draw an imaginary red line, that would allow US to take a military action against al-Assad’s regime in case he would have used chemical weapon.

[6] “63% of American voters want more US intervention in Syria – poll”. Russia Today, April 12th 2017. https://www.rt.com/usa/384526-63-us-voters-intervention-syria/

[7] Orioles, Marco. “Tutti i perché delle mosse di Trump su Siria, Corea del Nord, e Afghanistan”. Formiche, April 15th 2017. http://formiche.net/2017/04/15/trump-moab-siria-nato-russia/