Trump Shatters Obama’s Syrian Legacy

History will not remember Barack Obama kindly for Syria. At least, that’s what the critics of President Obama claim. For Obama, the usage of chemical weapons was a red line that would warrant military intervention from the United States. In turn, Bashar al-Assad, the ruthless dictator of Syria, killed nearly 1,500 of his own civilians with chemical weapons. However, in a decision that would later become one of the most controversial in his tenure, President Obama decided to stand back and not enforce the red line. President Trump has decried this decision in a statement released earlier this year, “President Obama said in 2012 that he would establish a ‘red line’ against the use of chemical weapons and then did nothing.” In fact, this may have influenced Trump’s decision in April of 2017 to send 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Syria after learning that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own civilians yet again. Despite key differences between President Trump and Obama’s approach towards drones and Syrian refugees, both leaders are limited by outside actors in the Syrian conflict. 

Both leaders have been limited in Syria by two actors: Turkey and Russia. In regards to the former, both recognize the importance of on the ground actors in fighting ISIS. Although President Obama strongly considered arming the Syrian Kurds directly, he never followed through due to fears of Turkey’s reprisal. Erdogan, the president of Turkey, views the Syrian Kurds as an extension of the Turkish Kurdish terrorist group, the PKK, which is in an ongoing battle with the Turkish government. Likewise, while President Trump initially supplied weapons to the Syrian Kurds, also known as the YPG, he has walked back on this pledge as of November 24th to temper Erdogan. With these careful actions, both leaders demonstrated the importance of Turkey in Syria and Turkey’s role in broader foreign policy for the United States. Turkey remains a crucial NATO ally and helps the United States maintain national security both in Europe and the Middle East. 

Comparably, Russia has also forced the United States to modify its Syrian strategy. In Syria, Russia backs Bashar al-Assad and has provided military force to support the regime and its crackdown on rebel groups in the area. Therefore, Russia holds immense power in determining the future of a post-ISIS Syria. The chief Russian military staff has announced that Russia will withdraw and diminish the number of troops in Syria by the end of the year, remarking that “[militarily] there is very little left to do…” In fact, Putin is hosting Rouhani, the president of Iran, and Erdogan, the president of Turkey, soon to discuss the postwar outlook for Syria. The meeting most notably excludes the United States, which has lost its role as a power broker in Syria. This comes despite U.S. efforts to coerce Assad to make concessions at United Nations led peace talks. Secretary of State Tillerson has echoed former Secretary of State Kerry in putting pressure on Russia to maintain the peace process in Syria. Foolishly, both leaders attempted to coerce Putin to change his strategy in Syria without realizing that Putin views Syria as a zero-sum game, allowing Russia to dictate the outcome of Syria.

Although Trump and Obama were constrained by outside actors in Syria, their game plan in Syria differs in distinct ways. President Obama infamously relied on drones with little to no transparency. His administration’s failure to accurately report data on drone strikes caught much blowback. In addition, many scholars debated whether Obama’s heavy usage of drones violated international law. Others believed that, regardless of questions about legality, the high number of civilian casualties from his drone strikes warranted their termination. Despite these critiques, President Obama continued to utilize targeted killing. President Trump has also made drone strikes a key part of his Syrian foreign policy. While critics are right to point out the flaws of Obama’s dependence on drones, they should recognize that under Trump, the problems have only magnified. Under Trump, the executive branch has yielded more power to the CIA, reducing executive oversight and accountability in determining when and where drone strikes will be conducted. Moreover, Trump has eliminated the rule that required approval from a coalition of international actors, such as the UK, France, and Jordan, before any U.S. airstrike was launched. As a result, in the first few months under the Trump presidency, a greater number of Iraqi and Syrian civilians have died from airstrikes. To quantify, an average of 80 civilians died per month due to Obama’s drone strikes, a number that has risen to 360 under Trump’s presidency. 

Obama and Trump diverge significantly when discussing Syrian refugee policy. In January, President Trump signed an executive order banning Syrian refugees from entering the country. Although this plan was later disputed and rolled back, the Trump administration has maintained severe limitations and delays on admitting refugees from Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, amongst other nations. In nine of the 11 countries targeted, Islam is the primary religion, demonstrating that Trump’s Muslim ban lives on. On Monday, December 4th, the Supreme Court upheld the enforcement of this edition of Muslim ban, setting an unfortunate precedent. Overall, Trump has lowered the refugee cap to 45,000 for 2018, the lowest since 1980. Trump’s refugee policy clearly differs from the goal Obama set of admitting 110,000 total refugees and 10,000 Syrian refugees. Ironically, while Obama was in office, many criticized him for failing to take in more at a time when over 4 million were displaced from their homes. The Trump and Obama administration demonstrate clear differences in their priorities with refugees and civilians. Obama’s legacy in Syria may not be remembered kindly, but Trump’s approach will be shameful and full of regret.

Katherine Gan is a T’21 Undergraduate and a 17′-18′ Human Rights Scholar at the Institute.

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