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HomeMiddle EastSyrian Rebels Brace for a Trump Cutoff, and Look for a Silver Lining

Syrian Rebels Brace for a Trump Cutoff, and Look for a Silver Lining

November 13, 2016

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The hours are ticking down to what the Syrian government and its main ally, Russia, say could be the most devastating aerial assault yet on besieged rebel-held districts in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

The Obama administration has offered no military lifeline even to rebel groups it has vetted and backed.

But Donald J. Trump, the American president-elect, has gone a step further, at least in his remarks, suggesting that he will end all support to rebels and perhaps even treat the Syrian and Russian governments as allies in the fight against the Islamic State.

Some rebels and civilian supporters say such a move might not make much practical difference, and would at least put the American position out in the open, instead of hiding it behind condemnations of Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president.

Seeking a silver lining, some rebels express hope that American allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey would then go it alone and defy United States orders not to provide more sophisticated weapons to rebels — though in the short term, such a cutoff could mean losing supplies of American antitank guided missiles.

“At least today we can get rid of the burden of this so-called harmful friend,” said Hisham Skeif, a member of a local council of rebels and civilians in an insurgent-held part of Aleppo, where, the United Nations says, 250,000 people are trapped.

Referring to the United States, he added, “Today, we know that they are really and practically not backing us, whereas before, we considered them our friend while they were implementing our opponents’ agenda.”

But other rebel leaders, as well as policy analysts in the Middle East and in Washington, caution that it is too early to determine from a few statements how Mr. Trump will approach the complicated war, which contains several interlocking conflicts.

In suggesting that he would abandon support for American-backed rebel groups in Syria, Mr. Trump appeared to be referring to a covert C.I.A. program. The effort has coordinated aid from the United States and its allies — at its peak, close to $1 billion a year — for rebel groups fighting Mr. Assad that were deemed relatively moderate by United States officials, including several of the main groups in and around Aleppo.

But some of those groups, in a separate offensive aided by Turkey, have pushed the Islamic State back from the Turkish border and appear to be on the verge of retaking the city of Al Bab from the extremist group, which Mr. Trump has vowed to defeat. A Pentagon program supports other rebel groups working with Kurdish militias to fight the Islamic State.

“We don’t consider his statements to represent the new U.S. administration stance,” said Bassam Hajj Moustafa, the political spokesman for the Nour al-Din al-Zenki rebel faction, which lost its American support after being deemed too close to Qaeda-affiliated groups.

Mr. Moustafa called Mr. Trump’s statements “a show” tainted by earlier “racist, problematic comments,” adding, “We’re not taking them seriously, and they will be deleted later.”

Frederic C. Hof, a former Obama administration official who has been a vociferous advocate for more robust intervention against Mr. Assad, said it was too early to predict Mr. Trump’s Syria policy — especially since he had more to learn about the conflict.

“No doubt Mr. Trump will learn during the course of his intelligence briefings,” Mr. Hof wrote in an essay published by the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy institute, that Mr. Assad’s “collective punishment policy” and “mass homicide” of opponents drives recruitment for the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Ending United States support for rebels would only push them closer to Qaeda-linked groups, Mr. Hof and other analysts say.

Mr. Trump’s statements about Syria so far, Mr. Hof noted, came in a domestic political campaign in which he emphasized the threat of the Islamic State and played on fears of Muslims among his base, with no room for the nuances and contradictions of the Middle East. For instance, Mr. Trump has vowed to be tougher on Iran — which, along with Russia, provides decisive support to Mr. Assad.

Mr. Trump’s victory was closely watched across Syria. Like people the world over, Syrians reacted instantly with a mix of surprise, enthusiasm, despair and confusion.

Syrian officials generally welcomed the result, and an adviser to Mr. Assad, Bouthaina Shaaban, said the government was ready to work with Mr. Trump.

Syrian officials and their main allies, Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, had drawn up their military plans to come as close as possible to taking back all of Aleppo by January, out of concern that if Hillary Clinton won the election, she might increase support for rebels or enact a no-fly zone.

Nizar al-Sabah, 50, serving coffee in a Damascus hotel, called Mr. Trump “more straight and clear than Clinton,” saying he “wants to ally with Russia and Assad.”

But some Assad supporters expressed trepidation about Mr. Trump for the reasons many in the opposition cited: his comments denigrating Muslims and his vows to reduce the flow of Syrian refugees into the United States.

A guard at the entrance to a Hezbollah-controlled area around the Sayeda Zeinab shrine said Mr. Trump would be little different in practice from Mr. Obama. “A dog gave birth to a puppy,” he said.

Some Syrian opponents of Mr. Assad agreed, saying they expected little real help from the United States in a war that has killed 400,000 people and displaced half of Syria’s population.

Others, though, were crestfallen, seeing Mr. Trump as similar to authoritarian figures like Mr. Assad and his allies, Vladimir V. Putin in Russia and Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt.

“Assad in Syria, Putin in Russia, Sisi in Egypt,” Malek Tarboush, a photographer in eastern Aleppo, said in a Twitter post. What could be worse? “Trump.”

On Sunday night, fighting in Aleppo appeared to be worsening. Doctors reported that at least six people in rebel territory, including children, were killed when a government artillery round hit a car.

New leaflets dropped over rebel territory promised safety to anyone willing to leave, an offer so far met with skepticism on the rebel side, with the government saying rebels refused to let people out.

“We give you 24 hours only to take the decision to leave,” one leaflet read. “Your worn, rotten leadership outside is unable to get you out.”

Anne Barnard reported from Beirut and Damascus, Syria. Hwaida Saad contributed reporting from Beirut and Damascus, Maher Samaan from Paris, and Safak Timur from Istanbul.

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(via NY Times)