Consortium Against Terrorist Finance Nov. 17, 2016, 8:47am

Only three days after speaking in front of thousands of energized Hillary supporters in Philadelphia’s Independence Mall, President Obama emerged as the leading force in calming post-election ire and ensuring that the transition to President-Elect Donald Trump is both peaceful and respected. Although Obama has not entirely shielded his personal dissatisfaction with the American people’s choice from public view, the U.S. President has been clear that facilitating a successful transition is his number one priority over the next two months.

Yet President Obama’s efforts to facilitate a transition are not limited to dissuading anti-Trump protestors to abandon their cause. On healthcare, President Obama has lobbied the President-Elect to uphold aspects of the Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, and may have advocated for Trump to reconsider his positions on U.S. involvement in international organizations and agreements. On Syria, however, President Obama appears more willing to forgo aspects of his long running anti-Assad legacy. Intentional or not, recent U.S. moves in Syria under the Obama administration also appear to be easing the transition to the President-Elect’s coming administration and its expected policies.

While Mr. Trump’s selection of a Secretary of State will undoubtedly impact the foreign policy of the incoming administration, several of Trump’s policies pertaining to Syria appear to be already set for implementation. Trump’s focus on fighting ISIS and improving ties with Russia, both of which served as core aspects of his successful campaign, and his suspicion of U.S.-backed rebel groups hint at a Syria policy that curbs or ends support for anti-Assad rebels and partners with Russia in a more intense fight against ISIS and jihadist rebels. In fact, it took only a matter of hours after Putin and Trump spoke about renewed cooperation between the two superpowers for the Kremlin to resume attacks on rebels in Idlib and Homs. For his part, Assad described Trump as a potential “natural ally” if he fulfilled his campaign promises to fight terrorism.

Last week, Obama took new action against al-Qaeda linked Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham - previously known as Jabhat Al-Nusra - one of the terrorist groups fighting against President Assad’s forces. While prior authorization only extended to attacks on Al-Nusra leaders actively planning external operations, Obama’s new directive gives the U.S. military greater authority and resources to attack al-Nusra’s extended leadership. Obama’s most recent order and gradual prioritization of counterterrorism over the removal of Assad serves as a convenient transition to  Syria policy under Trump who has said he will be “even more aggressive in going after militants than Obama.”

The announcement of expanded U.S. military authorities to attack Al-Nusra’s leadership was announced only a day before the release of a fresh batch of sanctions against four Al-Nusra leaders. Abdallah al Muhaysini, listed among the sanctioned individuals, is a Saudi member of Al-Nusra’s “inner leadership circle” who worked in the group’s military operations room in Idlib. In addition to being known as a prolific recruiter for Al-Nusra, Muhaysini led an effort to reconcile ISIS with its jihadist adversaries in Al Nusra and Ahrar al Sham, both of which have received funding directly from the Qatari government or sources based in Qatar. In response to Muhaysini’s proposal, only ISIS rejected the plan, while both Ahrar al Sham and Al Nusra agreed to coordination with ISIS. The willingness of forces that receive funding from U.S. ally Qatar to fight alongside and/or join forces with ISIS almost certainly alarmed the Obama administration, and may have caused Washington to pay closer attention to the rebel groups.

Yet, overall, Obama, aware of the extraordinary geopolitical implications at stake, has moved tactfully in Syria. Careful not to enrage U.S. allies in the Gulf or fight Assad’s war for him, the administration has commonly steered clear of heightened attacks against rebel groups supported by Gulf regimes, mostly Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. Yet President-Elect Trump has yet to demonstrate a similar meticulous approach. Conversely, Trump appears set to solidify policies that Obama has only, and at times nervously, flirted with: heightened attacks on anti-Assad, Gulf-supported rebels, U.S. cooperation with Russia, and a full abandonment of the demand for Assad’s removal. This hardened Syria policy would face serious, unmistakable challenges.  

Abandoning a strategy to remove Assad and toning down anti-Assad rhetoric in Washington will stir resentment in the countries that have spent billions on his eventual removal. Implicit cooperation with a Russian-Iranian axis in Syria, despite promises to crack down on Iran, will enrage allies who place limiting Iranian influence above destroying ISIS on their strategic agendas. Lastly, direct and heightened attacks on the leadership forces supported by U.S. allies, the type that have only recently been implemented under Obama, will - at a minimum - lead to deteriorating relations with GCC allies and could potentially elicit a harmful response.  

As President Obama continues to push for a successful transition to Trump’s presidency, he is undoubtedly aware of the threats to his legacy and work that the next four years may hold. Domestically, large portions of Obamacare look set to be repealed while many initiatives firmly upheld by Obama’s administration, like the DREAM Act, may also be revoked. In the international arena, Trump constitutes a grave threat to the Iran Deal while his proposed policies in Syria alongside Putin, and perhaps even Assad, could jeopardize U.S. relationships with Gulf allies.

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