Syria Crisis

Trump, Just The President Assad Has Been Waiting For

A pro-Assad protester in Warsaw last month
A pro-Assad protester in Warsaw last month
Annia Ciezadlo


BEIRUT — On the morning of Nov. 9, as the U.S. presidential votes were being counted, residents of rebel-held eastern Aleppo, which has been under total siege since July, were trying to find some consolation in dark humor.

"I think Trump will win in the elections because he is the real face of American politics," Najmaldin Khaled, an English teacher and editor at the Shahba Press Agency, said in a group conversation on WhatsApp, which residents of Eastern Aleppo use to communicate with the outside world. "Trying to look at the bright side of it, no more claims about the "friends' of Syrian people, it seems," replied Wissam Zarqa, also a teacher.

If the Obama administration has supported the Syrian opposition more with words than with deeds, the incoming administration may not even do that. U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has made it clear that he considers the fight against the so-called Islamic State, ISIS, more important than anything else in the Middle East — including Syrian civilian lives, which are likely to be a low priority for his administration. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is "bad," Trump has noted, but the U.S.-backed rebels "could be worse." That's exactly the lesser-evil image that Assad has carefully cultivated for years.

On Nov. 16, in an interview with the Portuguese state channel RTP, Assad said the United States and Syria would be "natural allies' in the so-called war on terror, but only if the U.S. president-in-waiting met his expectations: to respect international law, not interfere in other countries and "stop supporting terrorists in Syria." With the air of a manager granting an underling probation, Assad said he'll "wait and see" until Trump proves himself.

"Of course, I would say this is promising," said the Syrian head of state. "But can he deliver?" Assad went on to say that Trump, who has never held elected office before, will face many "countervailing forces." But if Trump really is going to fight "the terrorists' — a term the Syrian president, like the U.S. military, often uses indiscriminately to describe anyone who opposes him — "of course we are going to be an ally, a natural ally in that regard with the Russians, with the Iranians, with many other countries that want to defeat the terrorists," Assad said.

With the American government making a pivot toward Russia, and Assad sitting in the catbird seat, the first casualty of the rapprochement between Trump and Assad is likely to be rebel-held eastern Aleppo. Because Aleppo is not a battleground for ISIS, it's not a priority for either Obama or Trump. Barely a week after the election, the Syrian government and its ally, Russia, launched a devastating aerial bombardment of eastern Aleppo.

As the Syrian president and his American counterpart continued their diplomatic flirtation, warplanes were bombing eastern Aleppo's last remaining hospitals — seven hospitals, for a quarter of a million people — out of commission. "A world where running a hospital or a school is becoming a crime that one should hide is a crazy world," said Zarqa, the teacher from eastern Aleppo, on Nov. 18. "Trump is the best representative of its leaders."

Under Obama, the U.S. government has funneled up to $1 billion a year in weaponry, primarily antitank missiles, to various armed groups fighting the Syrian government. Trump has been saying for months now that, if elected, he will most likely cut off U.S. military aid to Syrian rebel groups.

"I've had an opposite view of many people regarding Syria," Trump told the Wall Street Journal on Nov. 11. "My attitude was you're fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS and you have to get rid of ISIS. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is becoming powerful, because of us, is aligned with Syria … Now we're backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who these people are."

If Trump does end U.S. support for rebel troops, one possible scenario for eastern Aleppo and areas like it might well be a series of negotiated surrenders along the lines of the "truces' that cleared rebels and civilians out of besieged areas such as Daraya, the al-Waer neighborhood of Homs and Mouadamiya. The government transferred most of the populations of those areas to Idlib, a northwestern province with poor infrastructure predominantly controlled by armed anti-government groups. For the past year, Idlib has been subject to bombings almost daily from Russian, Syrian and American warplanes.

Large-scale population transfers would sit well with one policy that the Trump administration may pursue: "safe zones' in northern Syria along the Turkish border, an option that Vice President-elect Mike Pence and other hard-right conservatives have been pushing. During the vice presidential debates, Pence recommended setting up safe zones to be administered by "our Arab partners' — presumably Saudi Arabia and its allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (although it's entirely possible he may have also meant Turkey, which is a U.S. ally and NATO member, but not an Arab country).

Safe zones have a history of failure — as evidenced by the massacre of 8,000 civilians in the U.N.-designated "safe zone" of Srebrenica, the indiscriminate killing of Tutsis in humanitarian zones in Rwanda and the slaughter that ended the Sri Lankan civil war. But the policy appeals to Trump, who said last year he'd "take a big swatch of land" inside Syria — "which believe me, you get for the right price" — and set up a "big beautiful safe zone" instead of letting Syrian refugees "destroy all of Europe."

A safe zone would actually require a more substantial military commitment than a no-fly zone, which was the policy that Trump's rival, former secretary of state and Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, seemed to be leaning toward. This may actually be a plus for the incoming president, many of whose appointees are decidedly hawkish retired generals who will want to maintain some sort of military presence.

In the meantime, neither the old administration nor the incoming one seems willing to do anything to stop the bombardment. On Nov. 19, the last hospitals in eastern Aleppo were forced to suspend operations. "I have never seen a more pathetic "international community" than what we are seeing," said Zaher Sahloul, a Syrian-American physician and former head of the Syrian American Medical Society, in the WhatsApp group conversation. "It looks that the world has lost its compass and that is why we are punished by Trump."

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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