Syria, Trump and shoulder-fired missiles

Deep differences over how to deal with Syria are certain to last beyond Obama administration.

2016/12/11 Issue: 85 Page: 4

The Arab Weekly
Bernd Debusmann

On December 2nd, as government forces advanced on rebel-held districts of Aleppo, the US House of Representatives opened the door to introducing shoulder-fired, anti-aircraft missiles into the Syrian war. The move speaks volumes about the sharply divergent views in Washington on the conflict.

Ever since peaceful demonstra­tions against the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad morphed into one of the bloodiest civil wars in history, the Obama administra­tion has gone to great lengths to keep man-portable, air-defence systems out of the conflict for fear they would fall into the hands of Islamic extremists and be used to shoot down civilian airliners.

In a congressional conference to match the wording of House and Senate versions of a defence bill, a clause providing for a ban on transferring such weapons to “any entity” in Syria was changed to allowing their transfer to “the vetted Syrian opposition”.

The driving force behind the little-noticed change, congres­sional aides said, was Senator John McCain, R-Arizona, chair­man of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a vocal proponent of increased US military aid to rebels fighting Assad’s forces. McCain and others see parallels between Syria today and Afghani­stan in the 1980s, when Stinger surface-to-air missiles supplied by the United States to Afghan resistance fighters turned the tide of the war and hastened the withdrawal of Soviet forces.

The Stingers proved deadly against Soviet helicopter gun­ships. Similar missiles would be just as deadly against the Syrian Army helicopters that drop barrel bombs on residential districts, killing civilians and rebels alike. A missile fired on a Russian aircraft would also risk war between the United States and Russia.

The prospect of US-backed anti-aircraft missiles being shipped to rebel fighters in Syria appears remote, even though they appear on the verge of defeat in Aleppo.

But behind-closed-doors wrangling that resulted in the legislation indicates that deep differences over how to deal with Syria are certain to last beyond the Obama administration. Will his successor, Donald Trump, succeed where US President Barack Obama failed — working out a clear strategy to help end the carnage? There are reasons for doubt.

Trump has repeatedly said he would end support for armed groups fighting the Assad govern­ment. His statements on the campaign trail boiled down to a preference to fighting ISIS in coordination with Russia, with Assad staying in power.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Trump left no doubt that he considers the Assad government the legitimate force holding power in Syria. “I’ve had an opposite view of many people regarding Syria,” he said. “My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting (the Islamic State) ISIS and you have to get rid of ISIS. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria… Now we are backing rebels against Syria and we have no idea who these people are.”

Note the wording: “rebels against Syria” not “rebels against Assad”.

Buoyed by this equation, the Syrian leader described the United States and Syria as “natural allies” in the fight against “terrorists,” a term used to describe all opposi­tion against him.

Not everybody in Trump’s circle of aides and advisers shares his views on Syria. His choice for vice-president, Mike Pence, said in response to a television debate question in October that the United States “should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime to prevent them from this humanitarian crisis that is taking place in Aleppo”. That remark earned him a public rebuke from Trump.

And while Trump’s choice to head the Central Intelligence Agency, US Representative Mike Pompeo, R-Kansas, has been critical of Russia’s role in Syria, his national security adviser, retired general Michael Flynn, favours close cooperation with Russian President Vladimir Putin and sees the bombing of Syrian cities as inevitable collateral damage in the fight against “radical Islam”.

That puts him at odds with Trump’s choice for secretary of Defense, retired general James Mattis, who has condemned Russia for “violations of interna­tional law” and has in the past spoken up for continued backing for anti-Assad rebels.

Trump, a New York real estate billionaire with no foreign policy expertise, says his business success is evidence of superior management and negotiating skills. They will be put to the world’s toughest test from January 20th, when Trump moves into the White House.

Bernd Debusmann is a writer on foreign affairs based in Washington. He has reported from more than 100 countries and was wounded twice while covering the civil war in Lebanon.

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