Last week, two top leaders of the Syrian civilian opposition quietly visited Washington to meet with lawmakers and experts with connections to the Trump transition team. Their mission was as simple as it was urgent: to convince Donald Trump that he needs Syria’s rebels as much as they need him.
Before the election, Trump often railed against the U.S.-backed resistance to the regime of Bashar al-Assad, suggesting the United States did not understand its true nature and questioning whether the success of the Syrian revolution would be better than the preservation of the Assad regime. Trump pledged to join with Moscow to fight the “terrorists” without defining who they were. He even declared that the city of Aleppo had fallen although rebels and civilians there are still fighting for survival.
The aim of opposition leaders is to convince the next president that the Syrian civil war, and the threat it poses to vital U.S. interests, cannot be ended without their collaboration. In an interview, they told me that they want to help the Trump administration work with Russia and against the terrorists.
“Our message to him is this: The opposition that he describes, that he does not know, is the Syrian nation, is the Syrian civilization,” said Jawad Abu Hatab, prime minister of the opposition Syrian Interim Government. “He should make an effort to know us more.”
The interim government is one branch of the Syrian opposition leadership. It is located inside Syria and has links to civilian councils in rebel-controlled areas. If the Trump administration is serious about taking territory from the Islamic State in northern and western Syria, these political bodies will be needed to help stabilize and govern those areas after the war.
The Sunni Arab troops who are fighting the Islamic State in northern Syria are also connected to the civilian opposition. Thousands of them are part of a Turkish government-organized mission called Euphrates Shield, which has taken large amounts of territory from the terrorists. Unless he wants to depend on Syrian Kurds, whom Turkey considers terrorists and enemies, these are the Syrian troops Trump will need to capture the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa.
Abdul Ilah Fahad, secretary general of the National Coalition of Syrian Revolution and Opposition Forces, told me that the Syrian opposition has no problem with Trump’s plan to work with Russia in Syria. In fact, he said, the opposition has already been meeting with the Russian government, without the Obama administration in the room. Turkish-supervised negotiations in Ankara for a cease-fire in Aleppo broke down last week, he told me.
Though they have brutally assaulted the opposition-held side of Aleppo, the Russians are deeply involved in Syria and therefore must be part of any negotiation or solution going forward, Fahad said. But he said Trump must distinguish between working with Russia and helping Iran.
Russian and Iranian interests are not the same in Syria, Fahad pointed out. The Russian government has told Syrian opposition leaders it is less wedded than Iran to the idea of keeping Assad in power. Working with Russia while isolating Iran would also benefit America’s allies in the region, including Israel and the Gulf Arab states, he said.
“It is good that Trump works with Russia. There must be some sort of U.S.-Russian understanding to solve the issues in the Middle East but without Bashar Assad as a partner,” Fahad said. “If Trump does partner up with Assad, that would directly empower Iran in a major way.”
The Syrian opposition feels betrayed by the Obama administration. Despite years of work to build ties, those representing the opposition are convinced that President Obama overpromised and underdelivered. The change of government in Washington gives them a chance for a reset but also carries risks.
Trump might decide to ignore the main opposition groups and turn to a small segment of the opposition that Moscow favors. But those figures have no credibility on the ground, and any deal struck with them could never be implemented.
The authentic, non-extremist opposition has some allies in the Trump administration. Incoming national security adviser Michael T. Flynn wants to work with Russia but also with Sunni Arab opposition groups and Turkey. Incoming CIA director Mike Pompeo has consistently advocated working with Syrian rebels to both fight terrorists and put pressure on Assad.
The Syrian opposition has a chance to convince the incoming president that working with them is in the United States’ national security interest. And if Trump rejects them? Hatab and Fahad say they and the Syrian people they represent will keep on resisting, just without the United States on their side.