How Should Trump Tackle the Syrian Civil War?

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Injured boys at a field hospital after Assad government or Russian airstrikes on the rebel held areas of Aleppo, Syria, on November 18. Christopher Preble writes that Trump has suggested he would withdraw support for anti-Assad rebels, and focus on fighting ISIS. Abdalrhman Ismail/reuters

This article first appeared on the Cato Institute site.

Discussion of President-elect Trump’s approach toward Russia, and what that means for U.S. policy in the Syrian civil war, is heating up.

Last week, Senator John McCain warned Trump that “the price of another ‘reset’ would be complicity in Putin and Assad’s butchery of the Syrian people.”

Donald Trump doesn’t necessarily see it that way. During the campaign, he tangled with his running mate, Mike Pence, over Syria, and late last week Trump admitted that he “had an opposite view of many people regarding Syria,” and suggested that he would withdraw support for anti-Assad rebels, and focus on fighting ISIS.

Related: Putin and Obama at Daggers Drawn Over Aleppo

Although he sometimes speaks derisively of regime-change wars and nation building, Trump is hardly an anti-war dove and there are reasons to believe that his administration will be quite hawkish.

At a minimum, he is likely to be receiving advice from many establishment voices who have been urging the U.S. government to play a much more active role in the Syrian civil war.

The president-elect should go out of his way to consider other perspectives. President Obama was caught between wanting to see Bashar al-Assad’s regime overthrown, but not wanting to see violent extremists take its place (for example, Jabhat Fatah al-Sham, formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra). Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration’s efforts to arm the few factions that cleared the vetting process were an abject failure.

Despite the anxiety surrounding the election, and the expectations that Hillary Clinton would have substantially increased U.S. military intervention globally, the great irony is that Clinton’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Russia and Syria might not have been all that different from Trump’s.

Related: Aleppo: Now Is the Time for Action, Not More Hand Wringing

Clinton’s so-called smart power would have struggled to find the moderate elements capable of prevailing in the Syrian civil war, and would have struggled to keep them alive once found.

She, too, might have dropped the demand that Assad and his followers evacuate the country, and tacitly worked with Russia to target the very worst extremists, including ISIS, a group that poses a threat not merely to Assad, but to many others around the world.

Clinton also would have confronted a skeptical Congress, reflecting the sentiments of a skeptical public.

As I note over at The Skeptics, “Some in Congress have pushed back against the executive branch’s occasional zeal for intervention in Syria,” and that is likely to continue. Recall that:

In the late summer and fall of 2013, members of Congress were flooded with phone calls urging them to block U.S. military action there. Obama got the message too, and backed away from his ill-advised red line that would have entailed direct U.S. military action in the civil war.

But the Obama administration continued to funnel money to some anti-Assad rebels. Since then, a few in Congress have tried to cut off funds for the so-called “Syrian Train and Equip” program. An amendment to the Defense Appropriations Bill sponsored by Reps. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) and Austin Scott (R-GA) garnered 135 votes from both Republicans and Democrats, despite opposition from party leaders and the White House.

It is reasonable to believe that a similar effort would fare even better in the post-election environment.

Christopher Preble is the vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.

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