(Left to Right) U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, future First Lady Melania Trump, and President-elect Donald Trump view the mall from the Speaker's Balcony, November 2016.
(Left to Right) U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, future First Lady Melania Trump, and President-elect Donald Trump view the mall from the Speaker's Balcony, November 2016.
Joshua Roberts / Reuters

By and large, world leaders have gone from being taken aback about Donald Trump’s unexpected victory to being outright alarmed. The exceptions to this rule are Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad, both of whom expect Trump to be far better to deal with than Secretary Clinton. However, while it still is not remotely clear what a Trump doctrine will strategically comprise, his upcoming moves in Syria do not bode well.

Russia and the Syrian regime look to be the chief beneficiaries of the coming shifts in U.S. policy toward the 5-year old conflict that has weaponized half the country as refugees, that has killed half a million people, and that continues to mete out suffering en masse in Aleppo and elsewhere.

Trump has said—erroneously—that Aleppo has already fallen, and he has described the opposition forces “as worse than Assad.” Trump will immediately remove support for the moderate opposition forces fighting Syrian/Russian/Iranian/Hezbollah forces, both overt and covert.

The UN’s efforts to broker peace will be thoroughly undermined. At one point early in the campaign, Trump spoke favorably of a safe/no-fly zone, but that is not in the cards at this point. He will avoid acting contrary to Russian interests.

The upshot of the coming Trump administration’s moves in this space will be to strengthen the Russian hand and give it free rein in and around Syria. As such, Putin is unlikely to test Trump in the manner in which some have speculated. Effectively, he has no need to see how far he can go down the road of harming U.S. national security interests when his partner in this potentially dangerous diplomatic dalliance is doing the work for him.

Trump is further expected to curb U.S. sanctions on Russia over Ukraine and simply accede to a permanent Russian annexation of Crimea, which means the Minsk II diplomat efforts on behalf of occupied Ukraine will be undercut in the process. Just as serious, once the United States ends sanctions against Russia over Ukraine and domestic business voices get louder, it is hard to see how our European allies will be able to keep theirs in place.

The risk for Trump, aside from dealing strategic setbacks to our own national interests, is political. He risks the appearance of offering Putin a quid pro quo for his help getting Trump elected as president. This politicization will further damage our core interests. On multiple occasions, Trump has erroneously stated that Russia and Syria are fighting ISIS.

On multiple occasions, Trump has erroneously stated that Russia and Syria are fighting ISIS.

In Syria, Trump claims that the true target of our military and diplomat efforts should be ISIS. While it is technically true that eradicating ISIS is a higher-order Western security interest, this politicization makes this appear to be a sort of feint. In fact, it is strategically unwise to let Damascus off the hook and embolden Russia when you can do the opposite of these things and continue the currently successful efforts to eliminate ISIS (oddly, Trump has criticized the massive operation that is presently kicking ISIS out of Mosul).

Trump has stated that “we should bomb the hell out of ISIS.” Along with other statements, this suggests that he will deploy up to 30,000 troops to Syria to combat ISIS. Again, however, he would be unwise to proceed with such an initiative when the Kurdish YPG and Peshmerga, as well as opposition SDF along with Iraqi government forces and militias, have the situation well in hand. Turkey has also pledged to help the U.S.-led anti-ISIS coalition by kicking ISIS out of Raqqa soon.

Furthermore, Trump may inflame the conflict because Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and the GCC will likely respond to the Trump administration’s weakening of the Syrian opposition forces by recommitting and significantly increasing their support for these forces. In fact, strategically speaking, they may decide at that point that all bets are off and they should go all in. Such a response would fan the flames of this civil-cum-regional war and engender wider, greater regional instability.

In terms of Iran, Trump will not be able to outright cancel the Iran nuclear deal as he has promised, but he will be able to weaken the deal enough to cause the Iranians to cease what up until the election has been full compliance. This would renew Iran’s drive toward nuclear weapons, with the Europeans being unwilling in the short term to reimpose sanctions on Tehran. Moreover, such a gambit would backfire even further by severely and irreparably undercutting Iranian moderates such as President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif. To paraphrase Trump’s words of choice, this would be an unmitigated disaster.

Thus, in a few fell swoops, unless he is persuaded to alter the course he has set, Donald Trump will start off by strengthening the dictatorial regimes in Russia, Syria, and Iran; enraging China with a trade war (causing it to double down on wooing our own allies); and undercutting our European allies by damaging NATO, weakening our commitment to Article 5 collective defense, and hurting the EU with a new wave of Syrian refugees.

As such, the Trump doctrine emerging from all this will end up thoroughly harming core U.S. national security interests. Its highly deplorable transference of Donald Trump’s nativism to the international realm—making it the hallmark of a new U.S. foreign policy—will make the United States and the rest of the world worse off than they already are at this delicate juncture of history.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now