The Syria conflict is always getting worse, and America’s presidential transition period has been no exception to this sadly ironclad rule. The Assad regime seized a strategic residential area of Aleppo on election night, and Russia launched a “major operation” in the city just hours after president-elect Donald Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin’s November 15 phone conversation.
The battering of Aleppo has intensified in recent days: Airstrikes destroyed the last of rebel-held east Aleppo’s hospitals on Sunday, with one rescue worker telling Al Jazeera that the bombings in the city were the worst he had seen during the five years of the conflict. On November 21, the UN’s humanitarian aid chief said that conditions in the city were “barely survivable.” Syria, and not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, promises to be the next administration’s most flummoxing challenge in the Middle East.
Russia is largely to blame for the escalating carnage in the city, as Moscow and its allies in Damascus believe they are close to crushing the last rebel positions in what had been Syria’s largest city. The Trump administration raises the prospect of a second “reset” between Washington and Moscow, and Putin has reason to believe he’ll have a freer hand in Syria when the New York real estate mogul takes office in January. At the same time, Trump isn’t president yet, and Putin already has a basis for thinking that the U.S. has reached a certain, pragmatic acceptance of his moves in Syria: U.S. and Russian military planners were discussing the possibility of carrying out joint airstrikes against jihadists in the country as recently as this past September.
In a November 20 statement, Obama announced that he fully expects Syria to deteriorate further, with an assist from Russian and Iranian intervention. “Once Russia and Iran made a decision to back Assad and a brutal air campaign and essentially a pacification of Aleppo regardless of civilian casualties … it was very hard to see a way in which even a trained and committed moderate opposition could hold its ground for long periods of time,” the president said, all but admitting that his administration believes itself incapable of changing the behavior of Assad and his allies, or of affecting a shift in the conflict’s underlying conditions. The Obama administration isn’t ready to invest its remaining diplomatic capital in stymieing Russia’s brutal aerial bombardment of Aleppo, and it is continuity, rather than any abrupt switch of the U.S.’s posture, that could characterize Trump’s policies towards the conflict.
The Obama administration has also reportedly been thinking about new ways to assist the Assad regime’s other most important ally. On November 20, the same day east Aleppo’s last hospital was destroyed, the Wall Street Journal reported that the Obama administration was considering lifting additional sanctions on Iran, and issuing more licenses to U.S. businesses looking to set up shop in the country. Obama likely intends for this sanctions relief to make it more difficult for the incoming Republican administration to reverse the landmark July 2015 Iran nuclear deal, fostering business relationships between Iran, the U.S., and American allies that could prove impossible or unpopular for a future president to disentangle. Preserving or strengthening the deal arguably bolsters the agreement’s limits on Iran’s nuclear program. But U.S. sanctions removal also sustains the Iranian regime’s ability to wage war on the Assad regime’s behalf.
In its final days, the outgoing administration is making it clear that it believes the Syria conflict can be subordinated to other strategic concerns, whether it is the defeat of the Islamic State, or the survival of the Iran nuclear agreement. Cooperation with Russia and Iran might even seem like a free good from the perspective of the current White House: After all, potential Trump administration UN ambassador and Democratic congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard warned of “the drumbeats of war that neocons have been beating drag us into an escalation of the war to overthrow the Syrian government” in a statement issued after her meeting with Trump on November 21. Why shift policy away from the Assad regime’s allies, only for a Trump White House to shift it back again? And why risk existing areas of cooperation on terrorism and nuclear proliferation, just to pacify a country that’s largely been destroyed and where the combatants have no apparent short or even mid-term intention of making peace?
America’s policy towards Syria is likely to get even more pragmatic during the Trump years. But the U.S.’s coldly resigned stance towards Syria—and its decision that displacement, mass slaughter, the empowerment of US adversaries, and the Syria-fueled European migrant crisis weren’t America’s most overriding concerns in dealing with the country’s conflict—began long before November 8.