But there is one front where Trump-Russia collaboration — or collusion, if you will — looks increasingly certain: Syria.
My colleague Karen DeYoung reported this week that “cooperation with Russia is becoming a central part of the Trump administration’s counter-Islamic State strategy in Syria.” American troops and U.S.-backed Kurdish forces have made significant inroads into eastern Syria as they seek to drive the Islamist militants out of their de facto capital, Raqqa. In the process, they have found themselves at times in awkward confrontation with the forces of the Syrian regime and its Iran-backed allies.
U.S. military planners, wrote DeYoung, are relying on Moscow to help prevent coalition-backed operations from stumbling into the wider Syrian war, which they consider separate from their own campaign against the Islamic State. Earlier this summer, U.S. aircraft shot down a drone and a jet used by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Trump also hit a Syrian government airfield as a one-time punitive measure in the wake of an alleged chemical weapons attack carried out by the Assad regime.
But, not unlike the previous administration, Trump and his lieutenants have little interest in entering the messy, grinding struggle that has convulsed Syria over the past six years.
“We just refuse to get drawn into the Syrian civil war,” said Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis last month. “We [will] try to end that through diplomatic means.”
What that probably means, though, is settling for a status quo favored by Russia.
“An east-west 'deconfliction' line is being observed south of Raqqa, where U.S. warplanes and advisers are supporting an offensive by American-trained and -equipped local proxy forces. U.S.-backed forces control most of the territory north of this area to the Turkish border and east to Iraq,” wrote DeYoung. “In southwestern Syria, a cease-fire negotiated by the United States and Russia has largely stopped fighting between Assad and opposition forces.”
Earlier this month, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hailed the progress made in achieving this tentative arrangement. “This is our first indication of the U.S. and Russia being able to work together in Syria,” said Tillerson at the G-20 summit in Hamburg. “Russia has the same, I think, interests that we do in having Syria become a stable place, a unified place.”
On Tuesday, while standing next to Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri in the Rose Garden, Trump said he was “not a fan of Assad” and that “what he's done to that country and humanity is horrible.” Yet it's been only a week since news broke that Trump was scrapping a covert Obama-era CIA plan to fund moderate Syrian rebels — a program, to be sure, that was long lambasted for its inefficacy. It was the clearest sign yet that this White House was abandoning any pretense of agitating for Syrian regime change.
Contacted by Washington Post reporters, various rebel commanders affiliated with the CIA program have said they feel “betrayed.”
“It will give a boost to the Assad regime and strengthen the Iranians,” said a colonel in the Free Syrian Army, fighting in the Damascus countryside. “And it will weaken America’s influence in Syria and the region.”
Critics among the Washington commentariat, many of whom were equally irked by former president Barack Obama's seeming indecision and reticence to plunge into the Syrian war against Assad, saw the move as a sign of Trump's muddled strategy.
“The end of the U.S.-backed push against Assad is not only a gift to Russia and to the Syrian president — it is also a point on the scoreboard for his ambitious allies, the Iranian regime and its Lebanese catspaw, Hezbollah,” wrote columnist Frida Ghitis for CNN. “With his confusing Syria policy, Trump has created an awkward parallel to his predecessor's: Obama may have refrained from taking more forceful action in Syria partly in an effort to improve relations with Iran and now Trump may be stepping back from Syria to improve relations with Russia.”
My colleague Josh Rogin wrote that Trump was repeating another Obama-era mistake, “which was to negotiate with Russia without leverage. That’s why Trump’s reported decision to cut off the CIA program to train and equip some Syrian rebel groups fighting Assad is so shortsighted. Trump is giving up what little leverage he has for nothing in return.”
All this sets the table for the next phase of the Syrian conflict, once the Islamic State is driven from its bastions: A situation where Syria's rebels drift further into obscurity, where Iranian-backed militias find increasing room to maneuver across Syrian territory and where Moscow can push for a lasting settlement that keeps Assad firmly entrenched in power. It's a scenario where Russian and American interests in theory do not align — though under Trump, a democratic, post-Assad Syria certainly seems less of a priority.
“I think the Russians know they ultimately cannot shoot their way out of Syria completely,” said Andrew Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, to Bloomberg View. “They want a deal, but the deal they want isn’t just about Syria. For them, it’s related to U.S. sanctions and their annexation of Crimea specifically.”
Of the Russians, Tabler added: “They like to horse trade, and we do not.” But there is now a supposed wheeler-dealer in the White House, and he may soon have no choice but to strike a bargain far better for Moscow than for Washington.
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