Syrian government seems pleased with US President-elect Donald Trump’s stunning victory last week.
The government signalled its relief last week over Hillary Clinton’s loss, saying it was “happy” she did not win because “she’s the one who considered all these terrorist, Islamist, jihadist groups as moderate rebels.”
And Syrian President Bashar al-Assad followed up Tuesday by saying Trump will be a “natural ally” if he keeps his promise to fight “terrorists” in Syria.
“We cannot tell anything about what he’s going to do, but if … he is going to fight the terrorists, of course we are going to be ally, natural ally in that regard with the Russian, with the Iranian, with many other countries,” Assad told Portugal’s RTP state television.
Zakaria Malahifji, head of the political office of an Aleppo-based rebel group, told Reuters last week that he fears things for Syria’s opposition “will become difficult because of Trump’s statements and his relationship with Putin and Russia.”
“I imagine this is not good for the Syrian issue,” he added.
Kenan Rahmani, a Syrian-American political and human rights activist, put it bluntly.
“This is the most dreadful turn of events imaginable, I think, Rahmani, whose family is from Damascus, told Business Insider.
“We’re scared for our lives,” he added. “But we’re afraid if we criticise Trump he will be more likely to let Russia bomb the opposition into oblivion.”
Trump has said he wants to try and work with Russia and Assad to fight the Islamic State, and he has indicated that he could pull back US support to Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime.
“I don’t like Assad at all, but Assad is killing ISIS,” Trump said during the second presidential debate.
And in an interview with the Wall Street Journal last week, the president-elect said that “we have no idea” who the rebels really are.
On Monday, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone in their first postelection interaction. The day after, Putin ordered the first airstrikes on Syria in more than three weeks.
In a heartening sign for the opposition, however, Congress on Tuesday overwhelmingly voted to pass a sanctions bill — titled the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act — on the Assad regime, as well as Russian and Iranian actors close to it, for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The bipartisan legislation was proposed by New York Rep. Eliot Engel, a ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He said Tuesday that “under this legislation, if you’re acting as a lifeline to the Assad regime, you risk getting caught up in the net of our sanctions.”
Ed Royce, a Republican representative from California and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said “America has been sitting back and watching these atrocities for far too long.”
“Vital US national security interests are at stake,” he said. “For there to be peace in Syria, the parties must come together. And as long as Assad and his backers can slaughter the people of Syria with no consequences — there is no hope for peace.”
It is unclear what steps the president-elect will take with regard to Syria once he is inaugurated. He is reportedly considering a range of options as his potential secretary of state, including former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former UN Ambassador John Bolton, and South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley. Both Giuliani and Bolton are foreign-policy hawks, while all three have little diplomatic experience.
Giuliani has said indirectly that he would support a no-fly zone in Syria in order to stem the flow of refugees trying to enter the US and Europe.
“You pour them back into Syria, and you put them in a no-fly zone in Syria,” Giuliani told MSNBC last year. “Send them back to Syria, that’s where they belong.”
Bolton, meanwhile, has called for the US to take on a more aggressive role in challenging Assad’s power, both with the creation of an independent Sunni state in northeastern Syria and western Iraq and by “moving beyond sanctions and diplomacy, and toward regime change” in Iran, an Assad ally.
In any case, some rebels and opposition leaders — frustrated with what they perceive as a lack of support from the US — don’t think Trump’s Syria policy will differ dramatically from that of President Barack Obama. They remain steadfastly committed to ousting Assad.
“We are like cockroaches, nothing can kill us,” one opposition leader said during a meeting in Stockholm last week as news broke of Trump’s victory.
Still, a European official told The Guardian that the EU expects Trump “to defer to Putin on many things.”
“This one is actually rather simple for him,” the official said. “He will outsource it and concentrate on ISIS.”