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As the Syrian conflict enters its 6th year, the prospect of sustainable peace being reached remains improbable. Since the peaceful uprising in 2011, the conflict has escalated massively, which has taken the lives of 470,000 people and displaced 11 million people. Despite the current ceasefire between the regime and non-Islamist forces, the violence continues as regime forces, with Russian support, recently recaptured Palmyra and continue to fight ISIS. The recent accidental Russian bombing of US-backed coalition fighters highlights the complicated nature of the conflict. Since the start of the conflict, the number of groups fighting has increased dramatically, generating the current multi-sided war, made up of a myriad of domestic, regional, and international actors all taking part. This complexity of interests makes the possibility of the conflict ending by military victory or conflict resolution, very difficult.
The US has taken a backseat role in the Syrian conflict by supporting several different rebel groups and providing civilian aid. Nonetheless, the US remains an important actor and how the newly elected President Donald Trump will affect the conflict is yet to be seen. The presidents’ rhetoric so far has been, like it is with most subjects, ambiguous. He has called for “beautiful safe zone(s)” that are pledged to “demolish and destroy” ISIS, whilst also implementing the infamous travel ban. What does seem to be coherent in Trump’s rhetoric is an isolationist position that puts “America first.” In terms of foreign policy, a rapid implementation of such a policy could leave a vacuum where the US once asserted its views of liberal peace.
Trump’s primary goal in Syria is to see ISIS defeated. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we got together with Russia and knocked the hell out of ISIL?” asked Trump last summer as he alluded to his willingness to defeat ISIS. While the focus on ISIS signals no drastic change from that of the Obama administration, Trump’s aggressive rhetoric and suggested removal from the international order could be problematic.
Firstly, while it is unlikely that the US will intervene, Trump’s rhetoric of destroying ISIS suggests an insistence that is in danger of overlooking war crimes to achieve its aims. For example, Trump may do little to dissuade Assad or Putin from the bombing strategies, which have been brought under question by Human Rights Watch and the UN.
Secondly, by solely focusing on defeating ISIS, the Assad regime is set to benefit as it removes a major force from the multi-sided conflict. This is problematic as the regime is the source of the conflict and, to an extent, the extremism. Trump’s seeming support for Putin and his admiration of ‘strong leaders’ suggests that he would be satisfied with an Assad victory in the conflict. Trump has shown strong signs that he wishes to “get along” with Russia, and so it is unlikely that he will interfere with Russian interests in Syria, which are to reinstate Assad’s government. Thus, there is a danger that Trump will allow a Russian-backed Assad regime to resume rule of the country, without pressuring for reform. Trump’s recent travel ban and discourse about human rights are worrying as they suggest a disregard for international human rights. This could mean that he will do little to pressure Assad forces to pursue peaceful options or refrain from committing war crimes to attain victory. Equally an
Meanwhile, Trump’s recent travel ban and discourse about human rights are worrying as they suggest a disregard for international human rights. This could mean that he will do little to pressure Assad forces to pursue peaceful options or refrain from committing war crimes to attain victory. Equally, an Assad victory would not create sustainable peace. Assad would install a stricter regime to deal with the instability, and the grievances from which the conflict grew would continue to exist.
Therefore, there is a danger that an isolationist US could allow the re-emergence of a stricter Assad regime that will surely end in more violence. Unless significant political reforms are outlined, long-term peace will not be achieved.