As Donald Trump was claiming victory on Wednesday, Syrian opposition leaders were wrapping up a meeting in Stockholm that was supposed to map a way out of the mire in Aleppo, but instead ended their hopes of winning the five-year civil war.
The group of political leaders and heads of militant groups had invested much hope in Hillary Clinton, who had suggested as secretary of state that robustly supporting the opposition could serve the US’s interests.
Trump, on the other hand, had spoken in support of Bashar al-Assad. And, more importantly, he had expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin, the Russian president whose support for the Syrian leader has already tipped the conflict in his favour.
“The reaction was simple,” said one of the participants at the meeting, talking of Trump’s victory speech. “One of the leaders shrugged and said ‘we are like cockroaches, nothing can kill us’, and then they moved on.”
Beyond the bravado, there was a clear recognition among those present that Trump would endorse Putin’s policy of bombing the opposition to the negotiating table, while starving communities that support them into surrender.
Opposition political leaders expect the US president-elect to frame his Syria policy as a fight against Islamic State in its last strongholds in the country’s north-east. The position is not completely dissimilar to that of the outgoing president, Barack Obama, although his administration had also spent several years trying to organise a cohesive opposition force – providing training and limited weaponry to 70 opposition units – and consistently demanded that Assad leave and cede power to a transitional government. Trump’s own transition team is reportedly skeptical of investing anything further in the opposition.
One influential Russian foreign affairs analyst, Vladimir Frolov, on Thursday confidently declared that Trump would be unlikely to stand in Putin’s way, and would in January accept as a fait accompli whatever Russia presented him with.
“That might not be too far from the truth,” said a senior European official involved in discussions over Syria. “We expect that he will defer to Putin on many things. This one is actually rather simple for him. He will outsource it and concentrate on Isis.”
Russia has so far not carried out its threat of using a carrier group it has stationed near Cyprus to obliterate what remains of opposition-held east Aleppo, the fate of which will be crucial to who wins the war. The lead-up to Tuesday’s vote in the US was seen as a tempting window for Putin to finish the job he started more than a year ago and ramped up sharply over the summer with a relentless blitz of rebel-held districts that has rendered much of east Aleppo uninhabitable.
Trump had already indicated he would withdraw remaining US support for the Syrian opposition, which remains dug in in east Aleppo and the countryside between the Turkish border. He had also suggested that shoring up Assad could prevent further extremism. Assad was quick to embrace Trump, with his spokesperson Buthaina Shaaban telling US public radio, NPR, of a “readiness to cooperate”, adding that the presidential election had sent “a very important message to the world”.
Both of Trump’s pre-poll positions had been strongly rejected by rebel figures over several years of meetings, in which they had repeatedly pleaded for arms that could defend them from Russia’s battle-changing weaponry and insisted that – far from being a victim of terrorism – Assad had fostered the extremists’ rise, in order to splinter the insurrection’s goals.
Opposition officials have constantly argued that they have invested much in ousting Isis from much of northern Syria, pointing to more than 1,500 casualties and ground lost to Syrian forces while fighting Isis.
The binary “Assad or the terrorists” line has been levelled constantly by critics of the opposition, who say they cannot claim to be keeping extremists at bay while a another jihadi group, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, is embedded among them, and leading a current push on loyalist west Aleppo.
If the US was to withdraw its support, it would mean the CIA would play a much lesser role, or no role at all, in vetting weapons that are sent into Syria from Turkey. A core CIA function has been to ensure that anti-aircraft weapons, which could be lethal against civilian airlines, are not given to rebel groups for use against the Syrian and Russian air forces.
The southern front, which was an active area of operations for the CIA and Jordanian officials has been all but closed to weapons re-supplies for the past six months. The Turkish border remains the only meaningful supply line for rebels who are fast running out of options – and are leaking support elsewhere.
Saudi Arabia, which had supplied CIA-vetted rebel units with anti-tank missiles that had decimated Assad’s ageing armour, has increasingly disengaged from Syria. One senior Saudi official told the Guardian in September that Syria was no longer in the kingdom’s top five regional priorities. Turkey too has adopted a different posture in recent months, with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan – once the most vocal proponent of the Syrian opposition – remaining mute as the Russian blitz of east Aleppo drew widespread international outcry.
On the ground though, Turkey has taken a more direct role inside Syria, sending its armour in support of Syrian Arab forces 11 miles from the Syrian town of al-Bab, the most western stronghold of Isis.
At the same time, it has insisted that the US, which has partnered with Syrian Kurdish forces to advance on the Isis epicentre of Raqqa, does not enter the city itself. Turkish officials say they have receivedassurances from the US military that its Kurdish proxies will only isolate Raqqa and that no decision will be taken to enter the city before Trump’s inauguration.
One senior rebel leader, whose unit still receives weapons through Turkey, said there was little option but to fight on, even with waning support. “At least he isn’t pretending,” the official said of Trump. “I watched the TV and it said we were getting all these weapons from Obama. Where were they? I didn’t see them!”