What Donald Trump said on the campaign trail in regards to foreign policy (actually, all policy areas for that matter) was mixed and often contradictory, so it is hard to know what he will and will not do as president. However, most of what he said on the Middle East was reasonably consistent (by his standards) so I can make a few measured guesses as to what might follow. None of it is very good news for Syrians in particular or for the world generally.
The US have been fairly indecisive in Syria, and for most of the last two years at least that has been understandable. Having failed to act when they could have, the Americans found themselves behind events and seeing that any decisive move available would have meant risking actual war with Russia. They have since acted as a sort of brace on Russian ambition, taking a “we’re going softly lightly for the moment, but go too far and we might change tack” approach. Putin has done what he always does in response – taken the piss step by step, seeing just how much he can get away with.
But now that Trump is in charge, things in Syria may change rather quickly. If Trump is serious about his plans to make a rapprochement with the Russians using Syria as a first step, then it only depends on what that actually means in regards to time scale. If the Americans are happy to help Russia identify the “terrorists” (i.e. everyone who is anti-Assad in Syria) and then further aid the Russians and the regime in destroying them all, then we’ll find ourselves in a situation which could unfold in a most unpleasant way very quickly. If the Americans stay out of it but let Russia do whatever they like, it only slows down the following scenario a little bit.
A lot of people have been hoping for the US to “get out of Russia’s way” in Syria and for us all to accept that Assad is the lesser of several evils. Further, that the basic way to restore peace in Syria is to get rid of everyone trying to remove him (including Daesh). Only, of course, peace would not actually be restored in this fashion. In order to maintain the Syrian regime in power in any way resembling the way it was pre-2011, Assad would have to enact a reign of terror on a mass scale. I can’t see anything short of genocide combined with a large progrom doing the trick. And this is a lot of people we’re talking about. Almost three quarters of Syrians are Sunnis, so we could be talking mass bombings of civilians and large scale executions. If you think I’m being hysterical here, you don’t understand the nature of the Assad regime or what it is up against.
Two things beyond the sheer horror of it all will emerge from this: one, a mass exodus of Syrians to Europe that will make the migration crises of the last few years look like nothing by comparison. Two, a very real question of how the Saudis and other Sunni nations react to a genocide of their fellow Sunnis. The Saudis aren’t strong enough to militarily take on Iran by any means – but the Saudis in concert with the Egyptians and even the Pakistanis is a whole other thing. A full on Sunni-Shia war could be the result.
I want to stress this is all just sketching and I’m not predicting any of this will definitely happen. I’m just saying that this apocalyptic scenario is now much more possible than ever – and no one seems to be really talking about it.