Trump Washes His Hands of Syria

Donald Trump is about to become president of the United States of America. As remarkable as this phrase still seems, it’s going to happen. As such, his pronouncements matter; his every utterance is newsworthy.

This is why Trump’s first interview with a British newspaper, conducted by Michael Gove for The Times, is notable. Alongside the expected comments on Brexit, which Trump greeted warmly and enthusiastically, the president-elect also discussed the usefulness of NATO, the situation in Syria, migration to Europe and, inevitably, Russia and Vladimir Putin.

His position has been almost unique in the history of modern American foreign policy. An isolationist and a nativist, Trump’s opposition to trade deals such as NAFTA, as well as his rejection of international alliances like NATO, has given the prospect of his presidency a strange quality.

How much of what he said on the campaign trail will survive when he faces the exigencies of office?

On some issues, Trump remains not only unreconstructed but also proud. He is evidently delighted to have been one of the few Americans to support Britain’s leaving the European Union, and to have said that it was likely. Trump thought, and still thinks, that ‘UK was so smart in getting out’.

Now he forecasts that the European Union cannot survive in its current form: ‘I believe others will leave’. This is a sharp divergence from recent American policy, which has been consistently in favour of the European Union and which almost led to the creation of a free trade area between the United States and the EU only two years ago.

When Trump talks about Europe, every statement reflects two axioms. First, the centrality of national independence: ‘People, countries want their own identity and the UK wanted its own identity’. Second, Trump remains scathing of the actions of European states in response to the refugee crisis.

At heart, it seems, he remains profoundly unsympathetic towards migrants and refugees, calling those Syrians who flee the destruction of their country ‘illegals’. This is a seemingly minor semantic point, but it demonstrates something about the heart of his foreign policy.

Despite an attempt to win over the German chancellor Angela Merkel (‘I respect her, I like her’), Trump maintains that the German decision to take in so many migrants and refugees was ‘a catastrophic mistake’.

Unsurprisingly, Trump doubles down on his criticism of NATO, referring to it as ‘obsolete’ numerous times in the course of the interview. It is not remarkable to hear him say such things, but it is to hear a future president articulating this divergent vision.

He has received classified information, including briefings from military personnel and intelligence agencies. He ought to know now not only that NATO is not obsolete – that it is in fact a central part of American foreign policy; and he must have been told also that its centrality is assured, not least because its treaty obligations are in effect automatic. This is dangerous talk from the future leader of the free world.

On Syria, however, Trump initially appears to be working his way closer to orthodoxy.

There is a point in the interview where Trump appears to acknowledge the scope of Russian and regime war crimes in Aleppo. He says that ‘Aleppo was nasty … I mean when you see them shooting old ladies walking out of town – they can’t even walk and they’re shooting ’em – it almost looks like they’re shooting ’em for sport’.

Trump also criticises the Obama administration’s handling of Syria: ‘we had a chance to do something when we had the line in the sand and … nothing happened’; though he now says it’s ‘too late’ to act. This is the standard critique of Obama’s Syria policy.

And while the first part – that the chance was there to prevent the many hundreds of thousands of deaths which have happened while the world looks on – is true, the latter assertion rather gives the game away: Trump never truly cared about Syria or about Syrians.

Now, because of the refugee crisis, they are a problem to be solved rather than a people to be helped. And the fact that he would be more than willing to ally with a murderous dictator and his foreign backers is demonstration enough.

And though he suggests something may have been done – creating safe zones within Syria – this would have been partial and ineffective without further support for the Syrian opposition, something Trump fervently opposed.

And in addition, in suggesting as he does, that the world should ‘get the Gulf states to pay’ for safe zones, is entirely unconstructive.

But it does not matter to him, for this is not Trump’s problem. Even though he will soon be at the head of the world’s leading superpower, it is not his problem to solve. He washes his hands of Syria: ‘now, it’s sort of very late. It’s too late.’

His comments on the fate of Aleppo represent nothing more than Trump’s paying obeisance to foreign policy norms, and it would be unrealistically optimistic to assume that this could signal something of a retreat from his line during the election campaign.

Trump says that ‘[n]ow everything is over’ with real finality; Syria’s opposition will find no succour with him.

Finally, and as if to give his future foreign policy shape, Trump still commits both to trust and to attempt to work with Vladimir Putin during his time in office. This demonstrates a remarkable callousness on Trump’s part.

Now that he knows the scope of Russian war crimes in Syria, Trump must have the hardest of hearts to persist with his deeply flawed plan of a grand US–Russia coalition against IS.

He knows that Russian forces have committed war crimes in Syria, and also that they have, rather than fighting IS, been bombing civilian infrastructure and targeting Syria’s opposition.

This matters little to Trump, it seems. His fundamental objective is the overthrow of the liberal world order which has existed since the end of the Cold War.

Despite his concession to humanitarian language over Aleppo, it seems he will carry this impetus with him into power, and this could necessitate the biggest single change in American foreign policy in living memory.

This piece was originally published at The New Arab.