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Diana Dikhanbayeva. The strategy of B.Obama and D.Trump administrations with respect to the Syrian conflict: a comparative analysis

To date, the civil war in Syria is one of the most dangerous regional conflicts, which is capable to start a global military conflict under adverse development of events. Since 2011, it claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, destroying the country and destabilizing the situation in the Middle East; more than 5 million Syrians fled their homes [1] (mainly to the countries of the European Union). The United States and its NATO allies have been on the verge of starting a direct confrontation with Russia because of the Syrian conflict.

One of the central issues of US policy regarding the conflict in Syria since 2011 is the issue of recognizing the personal responsibility of Syrian President B. Assad for the emergence and development of this protracted conflict [2]. The United States and the regional decision-making bodies tried to determine who should be resisted in Syria to ensure long-term stability in the first place – the regime of B. Assad or «ad-Daula al-Islamiyya» («Daesh»)?

 

The evolution of American approaches to the Syrian conflict

In 2011, against the background of protests in Syria that were inspired by the «Arab spring», the administration of B.Obama strongly urged President B. Assad to resign [3]. However, B. Assad demonstratively refused to leave his post, and the conflict moved to a new stage of escalation. The pressure and threats of Islamist terrorist groups grew.

President Obama and his administration defended US interests with respect to Syria as part of a comprehensive regional strategy in which the main priorities were freezing Iran’s nuclear program and minimizing the direct involvement of US military forces in combat operations.

The administration of B.Obama in 2012-2017 tried to resolve the Syrian conflict through negotiations. Official representatives of the administration of B.Obama have repeatedly stated, «there is no military solution to the conflict» [4]. This formulation clearly reflected the position of the administration about the advisability of ending the conflict in such a way as to preserve some elements of the current Syrian state apparatus, not allowing military events to lead to the collapse of the state system or direct victory of Bashar Assad forces.

If President Obama relied on political and diplomatic methods in relation to the civil war in Syria, then the new American president, D. Trump, said that one of the most important foreign policy tasks of the United States is the destruction of the Daesh. Speaking to the Senate and the House of Representatives of the US Congress, D.Trump instructed the Pentagon to develop a plan for the destruction of the Daesh [5] and bluntly stated:  « We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet».

The speech of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in April 2017 confirmed the position of the D.Trump administration on a number of issues concerning Syria. Thus, R. Tillerson stated that defeating ISIS / Daesh is the main goal of the USA in the region. He also said that the US objectives also include the following: to stabilize areas in southern Syria, stabilize the areas around Rakki, conclude agreements on a ceasefire between government forces and opposition forces; to begin the restoration of the normal life of the local population, to get Bashar Assad to leave the presidential post [6].

The chemical attack in April 2017, the subsequent missile attack of the United States on the Syrian airbase of Shayrat, as well as further incidents involving US defensive strikes against Syrian government forces, seriously complicated US-Russian cooperation in resolving the Syrian conflict. In August this year, representatives of the D. Trump administration characterized the US strategy in Syria as encompassing two stages: the first focusing on the defeat of ISIS/ Daesh, the second on establishing a peace regime in Syria and focusing on ceasefire agreements [7].

 

American support for the Syrian opposition

In early 2013, Barack Obama launched the secret program «Timber Sycamore», according to which the Syrian opposition forces received military training and weapons from the US [8]. Thus, the CIA armed the insurgents with ammunition and small arms, including rifles, rocket grenades and anti-tank missiles [9]. According to expert Fayzal Ethani, by launching this program, President Barack Obama sought to create a lever of pressure on B. Assad, but his plan was not implemented due to the entry of Iran and Russia into the conflict. On the eve of the US presidential elections in November 2016, D.Trump said that if he comes to power, he intends to stop supporting the Syrian rebels and bluntly stated: «We have no idea who these people are», suggesting that we focus on «DAESH» [10] ]. In July 2017, American officials confirmed that President D. Trump had terminated the program, saying that these efforts failed [11].

 

The USA and the problem of the possible use of chemical weapons during the Syrian conflict

The main issue of concern to the US in Syria is the use of chemical weapons during the ongoing civil war. Therefore, after the use of chemical weapons on April 4, 2017, in Khan Sheikhun, the provincial province of Idlib, more than 100 people were killed [12], which brought to the forefront the issue of chemical weapons in Syria. US Secretary of State R. Tillerson noted that the US government has «a very high level of confidence» that the Syrian air force used chemical weapons in three recent attacks – March 25, March 30 and April 4 [13].

On April 7, 2017, the United States launched missile strikes at the Syrian air base Shayrat. Thus, D. Trump put his stake on the demonstration of power. In a televised address to the Americans, he said: «Tonight I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types» [14].

Shortly after the chemical attacks on April 2017, the administration of D. Trump expressed concern over the legitimacy of the rule of Syrian President B. Assad. So, on April 6, 2017, US Secretary of State R. Tillerson stated that the main priority of the US in Syria is the fight against ISIS / Daesh, as well as the adoption of an important political decision that «ultimately, in our view, will lead to a resolution of Bashar al-Assad’s departure» [15]. Since then, the administration of D. Trump demonstrates the desire to eliminate the main conflict, emphasizing increased attention to the fight against terrorism.

The Syrian government continues to categorically deny that it used chemical weapons or toxic chemicals, blaming the opposition forces for this and questioning the methods and results of some investigations into alleged chemical attacks. [16] Russia actively supports the position of Syria [17]. Representatives of the United States, France and Britain continue to assert that the Syrian government is conducting chemical attacks [18].

Conclusions and generalizations

Currently, the US is extremely concerned about the following aspects of the Syrian conflict:

  • the coming to power in a number of Syrian regions of radical Islamist groups that use Syrian land as a safe haven for planning transnational terrorist attacks;
  • the possible use of chemical weapons by Syrian government forces;
  • destruction of large urban areas and Syria’s infrastructure, leading to internal and external migration of the peaceful Syrian population, etc.;
  • possible strengthening of Iran and the «Shiite arc» in case of complete defeat of ISIS / Daesh;
  • the growing geopolitical role of Russia and its military-strategic positions in the Middle East, etc.

In general, it is necessary to take into account that the opinions of observers, members of Congress and high-level US officials on the effectiveness of US actions in Syria continue to vary. Time will tell what actions the US will take to carry out the subsequent political transition acceptable to the Syrians, to protect civilians, to help reconcile hostile parties, and to help restore the country destroyed by years of brutal war.

Certainly, the final solution to the Syrian conflict depends on many factors, but only the willingness of the warring parties and countries involved in this conflict to establish a dialogue with each other can put an end to the deaths of civilians and the restoration of peace in the once prosperous Syrian land.

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[1] Syria Regional Refugee Response. //http://data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/regional.php.

[2] Donald Trump says he has changed his position on Bashar al-Assad and Syria after chemical weapons attack and has ‘responsibility’ to act. //http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/04/05/donald-trump-says-has-changed-position-bashar-al-assad-syria.

[3] Assad must go, Obama says. //https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/assad-must-go-obama-says/2011/08/18/gIQAelheOJ_story.html?utm_term=.9fc152f7631f.

[4] Obama: No military solution to Syria conflict. // http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/obama-no-military-solution-syria-conflict-1556443.

[5] The Joint Session of Congress. //https://www.whitehouse.gov/featured-videos/video/2017/03/01/joint-session-congress.

[6] Remarks With National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. //https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2017/04/269543.htm.

[7] Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. // https://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2017/08/273198.htm.

[8] U.S. Relies Heavily on Saudi Money to Support Syrian Rebels. //https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/24/world/middleeast/us-relies-heavily-on-saudi-money-to-support-syrian-rebels.html?_r=0.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Donald Trump Likely to End Aid for Rebels Fighting Syrian Government. //https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/12/world/middleeast/donald-trump-syria.html.

[11] Trump Ends Covert Aid to Syrian Rebels Trying to Topple Assad. //https://www.nytimes.com/2017/07/19/world/middleeast/cia-arming-syrian-rebels.html?mcubz=0.

[12] Scores reported killed in gas attack on Syrian rebel area. //http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-idlib/scores-reported-killed-in-gas-attack-on-syrian-rebel-area-idUSKBN1760IB.

[13] Press Briefing by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster, 4/6/2017 //https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/04/06/press-briefing-secretary-state-rex-tillerson-and-national-security.

[14] Statement by President Trump on Syria. //https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/04/06/statement-president-trump-syria.

[15] Remarks With National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. //https://www.state.gov/secretary/remarks/2017/04/269543.htm.

[16] U.N. Security Council Meeting on U.S. Airstrikes in Syria. //https://www.c-span.org/video/?426668-1/un-ambassador-challenges-russias-continued-support-assad.

[17] Syria chemical ‘attack’: What we know. //http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-39500947

[18] Ibid.