May must stand up to Trump on Syria

May must stand up to Trump on Syria
Comment: If Trump decides to heavily diminish, or end the support the US provides to Syria's armed rebels, the UK will face some difficult decisions, writes Tim Eaton.
6 min read
01 Feb, 2017
British PM Theresa May was the first world leader to meet with President Trump [Getty]

Britain's Syria policy appears to be in flux. The Trump administration's eventual position over Syria may place Whitehall under pressure to reverse longstanding positions to realign itself with the US, as Prime Minister Theresa May prioritises a trade deal.

The UK should nonetheless continue to make the case for support to the opposition and continue its support for local governance in Syria's north.

Matching means and ambitions in Syria

"We can't just see Aleppo pulverized in this way." UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson told the UK Parliament’s foreign affairs select committee in October. "We have to do something… Whether that means we can get a coalition together for more kinetic action now, I cannot prophesise… but certainly what most people want to see is a new set of options," Johnson concluded.

The landscape has since shifted: The regime retook Eastern Aleppo in December, and a Trump Administration now directs US Syria policy. New options have not materialised. 

Addressing a House of Lords select committee on 26 January, far from presenting kinetic options, Johnson made headlines by appearing to signal a shift in UK policy by expressing his hope that new elections could be held as part of a "democratic resolution" without explicitly stating that President Bashar al-Assad should be barred from running.  

It should be noted that Johnson described those future elections as UN supervised, and including the more than 6 million internally displaced and nearly 5 million Syrians who have fled the country, which would dent Assad's chances of victory. 

Accepting Assad's candidacy would be a significant concession, and the latest softening of the UK line

Yet, accepting Assad's candidacy would be a significant concession, and the latest softening of the UK line. Philip Hammond, Johnson's predecessor, had previously stated in September 2015 that Assad could be allowed to remain in a transitional arrangement, provided that he did not stand for re-election. Prior to that, the UK's position was that Assad must leave in order for a settlement to be reached. 

For nearly two hours the select committee questioned Johnson last week, principally on Syria, with the Foreign Secretary casting a realistic tone. "We've been wedded for a long time to the mantra that Assad must go, and so on. And we haven't been able at any stage to make that happen," Johnson told the committee. "The old policy doesn't command much confidence."

Reading the Trump Administration's approach

The introspection is necessary: The UK lacks the capacity to effect Assad's ouster, and it is unlikely that the Trump Administration will expend much effort to force the Syrian president's departure. Yet, the problem that Whitehall faces in recalibrating its approach is that it is unclear where the new US administration stands.

Trump did not discuss Syria in any depth on the campaign trail apart from fleeting references to his fears that the US didn't know who the opposition fighters really were - despite years of vetting through covert programmes - and emphasising that so-called Islamic State should be the primary foe. His comments about the rebels have led some to conclude that he may end US support for them.

Trump has discussed collaboration in Syria in a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin

Trump has on a number of occasions shown willingness to explore collaboration with Russia over the targeting of extremist groups.  And, since taking office less than two weeks ago, Trump has discussed collaboration in Syria in a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin and given his new secretary of defense, James Mattis 30 days to formulate a plan to escalate US efforts against IS.

On the other hand, Trump has also given Mattis and his new secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, 90 days to explore options for the establishment of safe zones in Syria, a policy that Hillary Clinton had supported on the campaign trail and which would require significant US military involvement to implement. Trump also reportedly agreed with King Salman of Saudi Arabia, a key backer of the Syrian opposition, to support safe zones in Syria (and Yemen).

Falling in line?

In Syria, the UK currently finds itself on the outside looking in. Negotiations essentially shifted to a bilateral track between the US and Russia in 2016 before the sidelining of the United States in the last days of the Obama Administration saw Turkey become the lead interlocutor with the Russians. The UK had no official role at the Russia-Turkey brokered talks in Astana.

  Read More: Obama and Trump: Putin's Russian dolls

The UK is not a decisive actor in Syria, but it has been a major donor to the international Syria response and an important member of the counter-IS coalition. London and Washington will likely be able to agree over the prioritisation of efforts to defeat IS. 

But, if Trump does decide to heavily diminish the support it provides to Syria's armed rebels, or bring that support to an end, the UK will face some difficult decisions. In the realms of non-military assistance, in addition to support for the political opposition, the UK has provided considerable support to local governance and reconstruction efforts.

The UK lacks the capacity to effect Assad's ouster, and it is unlikely that the Trump Administration will expend much effort to force the Syrian president's departure

These are important functions in the lives of Syrians that should be continued, although it should be noted that they are highly compromised by the absence of security. 

Indeed, the areas that the UK supports, principally in Aleppo and Idlib provinces, are already increasingly under threat and face an even more uncertain future if the US reduces or withdraws its support to the armed opposition.  

The initial signs are that the UK is not likely to act as much of a brake on Trump's policies in Syria. May appears to be following a Britain first approach in the formulation of her relationship with Trump. The Prime Minister has been criticised in the UK for her courtship of Trump in pursuit of a trade deal. In addition, her decision to avoid open criticism of Trump's travel ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority states, has led to her being dubbed 'Theresa the Appeaser' in some circles.  

May now faces a public backlash over an informal invitation for a Trump state visit to the UK. In foreign policy, the UK also has a number of major policy positions to impress upon Trump, who has labeled NATO "obsolete" and the Iran nuclear deal a "disaster". 

It will be tempting for May's government, consequently, to conclude that it can accomplish little in Syria and that its effort would be better served elsewhere. But this would be a mistake. The Trump Administration's formulation of Syria policy appears set to be unpredictable and potentially incoherent. A strong UK voice and continued commitment is required. 


Tim Eaton is a Research Fellow with the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House.  Follow him on Twitter: @el_khawaga

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.