Syrian perspectives on US elections: ‘Trump's term will end before the crisis does’

On November 8, 2016, American voters elected businessman and reality television star Donald Trump to be the 45th president of the United States of America.

In the wake of the stunning result, which ended former US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s second bid for the presidency, observers both inside and outside of the US are scrambling to grasp what a Trump presidency means for the world, and, for Syria.

The United States is currently providing direct support to rebel groups and Kurdish forces while leading an international coalition against the Islamic State (IS) in Syria. The battle to seize the so-called caliphate’s capital in Syria, Raqqa city, began last week.

Now that Trump has won the presidency, the question is what he will do in Syria. While he has in the past called for a safe zone in Syria to prevent the flow of refugees out of the country, increased cooperation with Russia and an intensified bombing campaign against the Islamic State, President-elect Donald Trump has yet to present a detailed, coherent policy.

How are Syrians, both supporters and opponents of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, responding to the prospect of a Trump presidency? What does a Trump presidency mean for Syria?

 Street art in south Damascus. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Dimashqi.

The day after the election, Syria Direct’s Muhammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim, Malek al-Hafez and Muhammad al-Aseel asked six Syrians from across the country—a schoolteacher, a college student, a citizen journalist, a rebel spokesman and a doctor—for their reactions to Trump’s election and their hopes for the future.

Their responses below reveal varied and contradictory perspectives, reflecting the lack of detail in Trump’s strongly worded but incoherent positions on Syria. Some Syrians interviewed see him working with Russia, others are worried about increased tensions. Some hope for consistency, and others for a change in what they describe as failed US policy in Syria.

All are deeply concerned about the future of Syria.

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Fares al-Manjad, the pseudonym of a spokesman for the Forces of Martyr Ahmad Abdo, a Free Syrian Army (FSA) division that is a leading member of the United States-backed Southern Front operations room in Syria.

First, we believe in and respect the will of the people to choose their leaders. Trump’s election is the result of that will.

We have followed his speeches, but his Syrian policy is not clear. He has focused on terrorism and cooperation with Russia. Certainly, we are fighting terrorism, but certainly, will not accept to fight under Russian influence.

We cannot be certain whether there would be a serious shift in policy, since Trump has not provided his full vision for the solution.

The news of Trump’s election came as a surprise, since the published studies and polls said that Clinton was the closest.

We did not believe that Clinton would make major changes to Obama’s policy. We think that the Republicans have a new policy that we hope will be in the interests of the Syrian people in fighting terrorism and putting an end to the criminal Assad regime.

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Mahmoud Khalou, a commander with Liwa Ahfad Salaheddin, a US-backed Kurdish FSA brigade currently participating in Turkey’s anti-Islamic State Euphrates Shield operation.

Unfortunately, I expected Trump to win. I didn’t trust Clinton, who was fake. Trump, on the other hand, showed his “bad” personality; his discrimination against Muslims and Islam as a religion.

I expect him to establish a safe zone as he said, and this is what we are seeing on the ground now [with Turkey’s Euphrates Shield operations].

[Ed.: At a rally in New Hampshire in November, 2015, Trump advocated creating a safe zone for Syrians inside Syria, US news outlet MSNBC reported at the time. “In Syria, take a big swatch [sic] of land,” said Trump. “Build a safe zone…build a big, beautiful safe zone and you have whatever it is so people can live and they’ll be happier.”]

 Souq Hamidiyeh in Damascus. Photo courtesy of Lens Young Dimashqi.

I expect the support from the new American administration for us and the other FSA brigades will continue.

We hope that all that will lead to the fall of Bashar al-Assad, putting an end to the suffering of the Syrian people and bringing about a real change.

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Abdelraouf, a university student from the regime-held Old City of Damascus who describes himself as “neutral” in the war.

Honestly, I support Trump. I was hoping for months that he would win. He is the best choice at this moment, in my opinion. He won’t rule by himself, there is an entire administration and the policy of a political party. Obama is the worst [president] to pass through the White House.

The Democrats are weaker, generally, and they have had two catastrophic terms [in office]. The Middle East has collapsed, so what is there to be afraid of? Yes, Trump is a racist and disrespectful person, but I think he is absolutely the best for the future and for the Middle East.

The Syrian revolution was a populist movement. But after no more than seven months, it became an international game in the hands of the west, a field to settle scores, especially with Iran. Certainly, the biggest player is America. In the Obama era, chaos encompassed the area because of his weakness and bad administration, which didn’t know how to play the game. Countries like Russia and Turkey took advantage of that. This is what has prolonged the conflict.

The Democratic party is weaker. To get back into the international game requires resolve. We may see criminal methods like George Bush used in Iraq, but I believe that there will be stability later. That is why I believe the Republicans are better at this stage, regardless of Trump’s bad morals and insane racism.

The Republicans are decisive. [Even if] Trump didn’t resolve the Syrian issue, he would put it on the road in that direction.

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Badeea Muhammad, a citizen journalist in regime-held Deir e-Zor city.

Trump’s election shows how free the American people are to choose their president. For that reason, I wasn’t surprised at all that he won, though I expected that Clinton would.

At the same time, his success reflects that the American people are leaning towards extremism, [as seen] with the support for Trump’s slogans against immigrants, Muslims and Mexicans.

I don’t expect surprising shifts in US foreign policy. All previous policies of American presidents have carried United States interests, but in different ways; the carrot or the stick. In terms of Syria, we could see increased pressure on the opposition to fight [IS] terrorism with increased cooperation with the Russians, which would be new, and then accept a political solution.

[Ed.: In September 2016, Trump stated in a presidential debate: “Russia wants to defeat ISIS as badly as we do. If we had a relationship with Russia, wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could work on it together and knock the hell out of ISIS? Wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?”]

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Amrou Anees, a doctor in regime-held Hama city.

I didn’t expect Trump to win because the polls favored Hillary Clinton just hours before the election. And he is not a traditional American politician.

Under Trump, I don’t believe that America will attempt political regime change in the region or even seriously call to support any non-governmental actor to bring about such a change.

From my personal study of Trump, he seems to be a passionate, violent and aggressive person who has trouble with self-control. So, US-Russian relations could be dominated by suspicion and squabbles, which could develop into something of a cold war.

As for Syria, I think we could see American support for the armed opposition fall away in favor of the Kurdish forces, who are a good ally for the US and have proven their ability to defeat IS in several areas in northern Syria.

With regards to the political opposition, friendly relations between it and the new American administration could continue with the aim of trying to impose a political solution and form a single national government in Syria.

Trump’s term will end before the crisis does.

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Fadal Abdelrahim, a 55-year-old schoolteacher in rebel-held Daraa province.

For me personally, no matter who is the next president in the White House, or who came before, all of them are against the downtrodden people. They support the policies of dictators who are against their own people. The last thing they care about is democracy in Syria, by Syrians. That’s how I see it.

American policy is not imposed by the president alone, but by the relevant institutions. The president just puts on the finishing touches. I don’t expect any change in US policy towards the revolution.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He mvoed to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

Malek Hafez

Malek is originally from Damascus and moved to Jordan in 2013. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Middle East University in Jordan.

Mohammed al-Aseel

Mohammad was a law student at Damascus University when the revolution began. Originally from Daraa, he moved to Jordan in 2013.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.