WASHINGTON ― As the fall of the rebel-held city of Aleppo pulls the world’s attention back to the civil war in Syria, Syrian President Bashar Assad is quietly readying for his next big coup: re-establishing ties between Damascus and Washington.
Assad’s government is cautiously optimistic that the incoming Trump administration will reduce its international isolation and aid it in its efforts to reclaim all of Syria from armed groups that include relative moderates known as the Free Syrian Army, the brutal Islamic State organization and a local offshoot of al Qaeda, according to sources in frequent contact with officials in Damascus.
The U.S. and Europe have imposed heavy sanctions on the Assad regime since 2011, when it violently responded to peaceful protests against the leader’s repressive rule. Though Assad’s tactics have only become more vicious since, with the latest assault on Aleppo threatening thousands of civilians, it would be possible for a new U.S. administration to reverse the policy President Barack Obama laid out — and Donald Trump has made it clear that he does not see Assad as his chief worry in Syria.
“Damascus is optimistic on the incoming Trump cabinet,” Kamal Alam, a fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and consultant for the analysis firm Hoplite Group, told HuffPost in an email. “It does not guide their policy ― as they know the main policy shift will not change the battleground ― however, abolishing support to the FSA by the Americans will make it far easier for Damascus.”
The Assad regime is interested in high-level communications with Trump’s White House once it launches a review of overt and covert U.S. policy toward Syria, a nongovernmental U.S.-based source with long-standing relationships with the regime told HuffPost. “They have no issues dealing with anyone so long as that person is authorized to really get this thing done,” he said.
“Building trust with Damascus will not be easy given the minimal amount of direct contact between D.C. and Damascus over the last five years,” Alam said. “The first step would be reaching out to Damascus directly rather than going through Russia or Iran or other regional allies. There needs to be direct communication.”
However, the source denied rumors that Trump’s team and figures close to Assad are already in touch. In November, The Wall Street Journal reported that Trump’s son, Donald Jr., had met with Syrians close to Moscow and discussed ways to end the war while keeping Assad in power. The Trump team did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
Trump has repeatedly said he believes he can fully defeat the Islamic State group; accomplishing that rapidly is understood to be a top priority for him. He has also said he believes Assad and his primary allies, Russia and Iran, are battling the the militant group, also known as ISIS (despite evidence they have focused their attention elsewhere).
“Any nation who shares in this goal will be our friend in this mission,” Trump said in September.
Combined with the president-elect’s talk of strengthened ties with Moscow, his criticism of the humanitarian norms the Syrian regime regularly violates and his fascination with undemocratic strongmen, this kind of thinking suggests a rosier future for Assad. The Syrian ruler has long disliked Washington’s talk of promoting democracy and human rights abroad, noted Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma. With Trump’s election, “Assad is hopeful, more hopeful than he has been in the past, because he can see that that ideology … its due date seems to be arriving,” Landis said.
There’s added evidence for this shift in the fact that Trump often speaks admiringly of authoritarian Russia without inspiring much backlash. It’s a sign, Peter Beinart wrote for The Atlantic, that ideological conservatives committed to spreading liberal democracy and capitalism are losing ground in the ruling Republican Party to civilizational conservatives who are more interested in what they see as a battle between the Judeo-Christian world and Islam. Assad is well-liked in these conservative circles because of his narrative that he is standing up to radical Islamists and his courting of Syrian Christians wary of Islam.
But there’s one big problem.
“At the beginning, of course, they were happy,” the source said. “Since the new names have been filling up the posts in the administration, there’s an anti-Iran stand and that’s a really interesting new twist.”
Trump’s chosen national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and his Pentagon pick, Gen. Jim Mattis, are both skeptical of Iran, which has seen its power in Syria grow significantly during the civil war.
Disavowing Tehran is not an option for Assad.
“If Syria were to renounce military aid from Iran, which is what the West wants them to do, the regime would be changed overnight,” Landis said. “Why would Russia want to pay for the whole thing?”
Iran’s influence has been clear in the battle for Aleppo, with cease-fire efforts Tuesday and Wednesday stalling because Iran’s rulers want any agreement to take place on their terms ― not just those of Russia and Assad.
The hope in Assad’s circle is that the U.S. can see its approaches to Syria and to Iran as separate issues, the source said, the way Russia is able to balance relationships with both Syria and Israel despite their animosity for each other.
For all Trump’s criticism of Obama, that approach would echo the outgoing administration. It insisted for years that its nuclear diplomacy with Iran was completely separate from its policy on Syria. Just as Trump has pledged to, Obama also spent significant time seeking a Syria bargain with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin ― one reason, The New York Times recently reported, that the president’s team did not want to go public with intelligence findings showing Russian involvement in the 2016 election.
Obama “allowed Russia to win, which is more or less the Trump policy. Trump was only being honest about a policy that Obama had already put in place,” Landis said.
A proponent of the idea that Assad’s army is the key force in the ISIS fight, Alam thinks the Trump administration should remember the limits of Iran’s power in Syria. “Moscow and Tehran do not directly interfere in domestic Syrian politics, and whilst they have provided considerable battlefield support, it does not translate into a strategy on what to do with local politics,” he wrote.
Still, the Iran news has dampened dreams in Damascus.
“They understand that the incoming administration is a little unpredictable and could be quite dramatically opposite to their rosy scenario,” the source said. “I don’t think they have any misplaced hope.”
This explains the regime’s commitment to retaking Aleppo and making further gains as soon as it can, before the Obama policy ― a major gift to Assad’s hopes ― potentially dies. “The decision has been made to proceed as if nothing really has changed,” the source told HuffPost.
For those in Damascus and in Trump’s circles who do seek a real shift, including potentially the president-elect himself, history offers an example ― albeit a troubling one. Syria was a linchpin of the torture and rendition program run by the Bush administration following 9/11. At a time when civil rights and liberties were disregarded in favor of a largely ineffective counter-terror strategy, Washington chose to ignore Damascus’ excesses because it was convenient.
“It was always ludicrous to accept assurances from the Syrian regime that no one was tortured,” Katherine Hawkins, senior counsel at The Constitution Project, told HuffPost. The U.S. has yet to acknowledge its role in sending terror suspects to Assad’s notorious jails, Hawkins continued, but Assad has spoken of it publicly ― thus strategically embarrassing his former partners.
That level of cooperation is unlikely to be re-established, the analysts said. They believe a more realistic goal for Assad is to simply hope that the U.S. stays out of his way and eventually becomes willing to forge deals of limited scope with him, as it did with his father in the 1990s.
“Assad believes that he can rebuild Syria without the United States,” Landis said. “As long as the United States does not block him.”
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