What will Trump do in Syria as his first test?
In the first days of Donald Trump era, the U.S. will have to deal with the Syria crisis as its first foreign policy problem, as it looks like it will be joining the Astana talks on Jan. 23.
The talks, to be held between the Bashar al-Assad regime in Damascus and a coalition of rebel factions, were brokered by Russia and Turkey with the help of Iran. The ceasefire reached between the parties on Dec. 29 - again through diplomacy between Russia and Turkey – has been obeyed so far with minor violations.
The aim of the Astana talks is to institutionalize the ceasefire, halting all military attacks except on those who are designated as terrorists by the United Nations, meaning the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Nusra (and its ghost names) and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). If successful, the ceasefire will be a complimentary base for the political talks in Geneva on the future of Syria scheduled for Feb. 8.
This is not only the first global problem that the Trump administration has to deal with; it will also be the first opportunity to make its stance felt in international politics. And it is a fairly safe test: If the desired result is not achieved in Astana, the Geneva talks will take place anyway in two weeks’ time.
There is another dimension. During this first opportunity on a major crisis for Trump in international politics, the director of the play is Russian President Vladimir Putin (though the stage is not Russia, as the official host of the talks is Nursultan Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan).
Nazarbayev has been a very helpful partner for Putin over the last year, especially in Putin’s moves regarding the Middle East. It was Nazarbayev who brokered the normalization deal (together with the Turkish businessman Cavit Çağlar) between Turkey and Russia in June 2016, after the diplomatic crisis over the downing of a Russian jet by the Turkish military for violating the border with Syria in November 2015. Now Astana is hosting an important meeting between the Syrian regime and rebels with the presence of regional and global actors.
The Syria problem is perhaps among the weakest points of the Barack Obama administration, and Trump could have an opportunity to “immediately correct” what Obama has “ruined,” while also building a bridge between his administration and Obama’s diplomatic and security team, who are willing to help work with the new administration.
So Trump is likely to be on the threshold of a critical decision on Syria during the early stages of his administration: Whether to keep Obama’s non-state partners policy in Syria to fight against ISIL and al-Nusra, or to return to the traditional U.S. policy of working with state partners.
If he opts to keep working with non-state partners, then Turkish complaints about the Democratic Union Party (PYD) militia being used as the U.S.’s ground force will deepen, as the PYD is the Syrian extension of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is designated as a terrorist organization by Turkey and the U.S.
But if Trump opts to shift to working with state partners, those state partners will be Turkey (Washington’s NATO partner), Russia, probably the Syrian regime (perhaps even Iraq and Iran indirectly), and usual allies like the U.K., Germany, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and even Israel.
In that case, it is possible for such a coalition to get quick results against extremist terrorism in the Middle East and extend the situation for a political settlement in Syria, which would be for the benefit of the entire region.