With Donald Trump's victory, Assad has been given free rein in Syria

Whatever hope for peace Syria might have had became weaker with Trump's win, writes Michael Petrou.

Syria’s opposition and civilian victims will find themselves as alone and isolated as they have ever been

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in the capital Damascus. (AFP/Getty Images) (AFP/Getty Images)

The same day Americans elected Donald Trump for president — a man who has dismissed the shattered, starved, gassed and barrel-bombed refugees of Syria's civil war as "definitely in many cases ISIS-aligned" — Syrian government forces fought their way into a strategic neighbourhood on the southwestern outskirts of Aleppo.

The two events are linked. Aleppo, once one of Syria's most glorious cities, has been pulverized by fighting between rival forces, as well as by airstrikes carried out by the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad and his Russian allies. The nihilistic head-hackers of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State, prowl beyond the city, mostly untouched by Russian or Syrian bombs.

Whatever hope that city, and indeed all of Syria, might have had before last Tuesday became fainter with Trump's astonishing victory. Trump has made it clear he has no desire to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin in Syria, and he has said America would have been in much better shape if it had done nothing to help Syria's opposition.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shares the billing with Russian President Vladimir Putin at an airport in Latakia, Syria. (CBC)

Assad and his allies, which include Russia, Iran and the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, are by far the most prolific mass murderers in Syria. ISIS has seized headlines with its videotaped gore. But most of Syria's dead are dead because of Assad and indeed, most Syrian refugees have fled because of Assad.

Unlike ISIS, Assad's forces don't publicize their bloodlust. But anyone who doubts its existence need only consult the photographs of thousands of torture-scarred corpses smuggled out of Syria by "Caesar," a former Syrian government forensic photographer who once worked at two Syrian military hospitals in Damascus.

And now Assad has been given free rein. He knows he has nothing to fear from America. American support for Syria's opposition —"we don't know who the rebels are," Trump says — will dry up. Trump will try to forge some sort of cooperation with Russia against ISIS, reinforcing Putin's growing strength and influence in the Middle East. And Syria's opposition and civilian victims will find themselves as alone and isolated as they have ever been.

To be sure, America's support for Syria's opposition and its will to confront Assad was always tepid.

Obama addresses more than 20 foreign defence chiefs to discuss the coalition efforts in the ongoing campaign against ISIS back in 2014. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

President Barack Obama said the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a "red line" for him, but then withered when Assad's forces used sarin-filled shells to kill some 1,400 Syrians men, women and children in 2013. America has armed and trained Syrian rebels, but only in small numbers. It never bombed Assad's forces their behalf, or established a no-fly zone where Syrian civilians might be safe from Syrian and Russian airstrikes.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton had called for more aggressive assistance for Syrian rebels when she was secretary of state. During the election campaign, she also said she would push for a no-fly zone and safe havens in Syria. Some Syrians hoped a Clinton presidency might bring some relief from their greatest tormentor. It now seems certain Assad will endure.

"That S.O.B. we have in Damascus is the luckiest bastard in the world," says Faisal Alazem, Montreal director of the Syrian Canadian Council.

"He had eight years of Obama, where red line after red line was crossed with no consequences. And now he gets Trump, probably the Western leader that is going to be the closest to Vladimir Putin."

Five years ago, Alazem says, he was the most optimistic person in the world. He believed the interests of Syrian democrats and Western governments were aligned, and together they would force Assad from power.

Now, Alazem, who also runs a charity that operates a school for Syrian refugees in Turkey, has concluded that no one outside Syria will help its people. But he still doesn't believe the Syrian revolution is dead.

"As long as there is one person on the streets defying all this violence around him, whether it's ISIS or these barrel bombs falling on their heads, it's not [over]," he says.

"Because it's a miracle. No normal human being can sustain and resist so much violence, and people still are. But it's not the spring we were dreaming about five years ago. And the price Syrians have to pay is just incredible."

With Trump as America's new commander in chief, that price likely just got a little higher.

This column is part of CBC's new Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

Michael Petrou

Michael Petrou is a journalist and historian. He’s a fellow at the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, the recipient of the 2017 R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Fellowship and the 2018 Martin Wise Goodman Canadian Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.


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