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10 April 2017

Why Donald Trump may walk away from Syria

The US president likely lacks the patience to even try to resolve a conflict this complex.

By Stephen Bush

It’s a short week thanks to the Easter bank holiday, and it may be a short century thanks to the clash between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Boris Johnson has cancelled his trip to Moscow, originally intended to repair and reset the tattered relationship between London and the Kremlin, and will instead focus on building the case for a tough response from the G7’s foreign ministers, who meet today.  Michael Fallon, the Defence Secretary, has said that Russia is culpable for the actions of the Assad regime due to its support of the government. 

Russia, Iran and Hezbollah have warned that further Western intervention against Bashar al-Assad will cross “a red line”, triggering a response from Putin and his allies.  The Russian Embassy in London’s Twitter account has warned that if the G7’s foreign ministers deliver an ultimatum to the Kremlin over its continued support of the Assad regime it may lead to war. 

“Russia ups the ante on Syria” is the Mail‘s splash, “Russia and Iran raise the stakes over Syria strikes” is the Metro‘s, “Russia’s threat to strike back at Trump” is the Telegraph‘s, while “Russia and Iran threaten new conflict” is the i‘s.

There are two reasons in particular why the failure to intervene directly in Syria in 2011 and 2013 has been disastrous, as John Jenkins writes for the NS, the first is that before Barack Obama’s decision to pull back from enforcing his “red line” on chemical weapons, the Russian government wasn’t a factor in the region. Added to that, in the four years since then, Assad has largely achieved his dream scenario: in which the only viable alternative to him is the self-styled Islamic State.

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The former means that any Western intervention in Syria carries with it the risk of escalation well beyond Syria. The latter means that for all Trump, his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his UN Ambassador Nikki Haley talk about the need for “regime change” in the region, none can give a convincing answer to the follow-up question: “Change to who?”

It’s even more complex and difficult a problem – and the stakes even higher – than that of replacing Obamacare with an alternative that doesn’t upend Republican dogma over healthcare or trigger a voter revolt. We know how Donald Trump dealt with that complexity – by walking away. There’s no reason to believe the President will react any differently to the problems of Syria, and his own repeated aversion to “losing” may mean that his reaction to that complexity is worse than mere withdrawal.

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