The corruption and shady financial dealings that landed much of Trumpworld in legal hot water are so vast and all-encompassing that virtually no aspect of Donald Trump’s presidency can escape untouched — and American policy toward Syria is no exception.
The Syrian civil war has become a maelstrom of competing factions, each with its own regional backers pursuing their own agendas both inside Syria itself and in the Middle East more generally. These countries compete for influence on the ground but also inside Washington.
In the Trump era, several of them play a more personal game with the president — they host real estate businesses that the president is involved with, have the ability to directly funnel cash into the president’s wallet through his US businesses, or both.
- Earlier this month, Trump’s sons Eric and Donald Jr. were in the United Arab Emirates to promote the family’s golf resort in Dubai. The UAE is supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is the umbrella organization led by Syria’s Kurdish separatists.
- George Nader, who once served as a key influence peddler on behalf of the UAE, is now a cooperating witness working with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
- Trump also has a major real estate venture in Turkey. Turkey backs some opposition groups in Syria, but its main current interest in the war is blocking the SDF and Kurdish separatists from controlling too much territory.
- Kuwait, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at Trump’s hotel. Bahrain and Saudi Arabia loudly support military action against Assad, and the Saudis in particular have at times been key financial backers of anti-Assad rebels. Kuwait is less vocal about its position.
The sheer number of financial conflicts of interests is so large that it’s unclear which direction, exactly, personal business interests would push Trump. But it’s certainly clear that he has interests in the region that are separate from the national interest.
And while to an extent the military strikes tend to distract attention from Trump’s mounting troubles at home — nothing blows an FBI raid of your longtime personal attorney and all-around fixer off the front pages quite like a few cruise missiles — fundamentally, the questions about his ethics only grow more pressing when considered in a foreign policy context.
The Syrian civil war is a tangle of regional interests
The Syrian civil war began as a fairly straightforward clash between regime military forces. They’d begun firing on peaceful demonstrators and armed rebels, whose original cores were defectors from the Syrian military itself.
But over the years, the war has become a multifaceted conflict marked by multiple foreign interventions. Not only are Russian and Iranian forces on the ground in support of the regime, but a massive influx of Hezbollah troops from neighboring Lebanon came to fight on the regime side. They’ve given that group de facto control over a swath of Syrian territory.
Meanwhile, descendants of the original armed opposition are still in the field and backed by Sunni powers in the region, with Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates all having their own favored rebel groups. Kurdish groups who are fighting not to change the regime in Damascus but to secure their own autonomy control a large amount of territory. They emerged as America’s favorite partners for fighting ISIS.
Turkey not only borders Syria but harbors its own Kurdish minority; therefore, it strongly opposes Kurdish national aspirations in Syria and Iraq as well. It has its own military operations inside Syria aimed at checking the Kurds and the regime in Damascus.
It is possible to categorize all these various groups as broadly pro- or anti-Assad. But doing that substantially flattens a conflict in which groups that are broadly “on the same side” may nonetheless compete for influence, have improperly aligned incentives, or have major objectives that are not primarily focused on Syria at all.
“Some strategic games are too complex to be readily modeled,” writes economist Tyler Cowen of the extraordinary mishmash of groups and objectives fighting in Syria. “And when we see such games in the real world that’s exactly when we should be the most worried.”
It’s a situation that would challenge even the best group of decision-makers, and instead we have the Trump administration.
The president faces many relevant conflicts of interest
Earlier this month, Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr. were in the UAE for promotional work related to the family’s golf resort in Dubai.
These days, the UAE’s role in Syria mainly involves supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces, the umbrella organization led by Syria’s Kurdish separatists. We also know that George Nader, who once served as a key influence peddler on behalf of the UAE, is now a cooperating witness working with special counsel Mueller’s investigation. Nader also has close ties with Russia — and the UAE seems to have been involved with a mysterious meeting between Russians and Erik Prince in Seychelles.
The SDF itself, of course, is opposed to the Assad regime but in a more proximate sense is clashing with Turkish-backed opposition groups and increasingly with Turkey itself, which has gotten more directly involved in Syria over the past year.
Trump, naturally, has a major real estate venture in Turkey.
Turkey has also cultivated ongoing ties with Trump, ensuring, for example, that the American-Turkish Council held its annual Conference on US-Turkey Relations at the Trump Hotel in Washington last year.
The small Persian Gulf states of Bahrain and Kuwait both held their National Day celebrations at the Trump Hotel, and MSLGroup Americas, a public affairs shop that does extensive work for the Saudi government, has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars at the Trump hotel. Saudi Arabia — a leading financier of what’s left of the original Syrian rebel groups — and Bahrain are both loudly supporting the military action against Assad, while Kuwait seems more cautious.
None of this is to say that Trump’s decision-making on Syria is being driven by narrow financial considerations — indeed, one could make the case that’s impossible since Trump is on the take from so many different directions — but it underscores that essentially nothing the administration does in the region is entirely on the level.
We don’t know who’s paying Trump — or whom he listens to
As America heads deeper into conflict with Assad, we have no official secretary of state to run American foreign policy. There is also no Senate-confirmed assistant secretary of state for the region. We also have no ambassador to Jordan, the Arab state on Syria’s southern border through which much support for the opposition flows, since Jordan’s king got Trump to fire career foreign service office Alice Wells last summer. There’s no ambassador to Turkey or Saudi Arabia either.
On the other hand, actually filling these positions wouldn’t necessarily accomplish anything since we know Trump has no intention of listening to professional diplomats about anything anyway.
What he has instead is first son-in-law Jared Kushner, whose mysterious portfolio includes extensive diplomatic work in the region. And Kushner, as a family loyalist rather than a professional diplomat, is in a position to know what American diplomats and the public at large do not — who, exactly, is paying the Trump family and how much.
There is a powerful impulse in the press to want to believe that the aberrant behavior of the Trump administration somehow does not extend to the life-and-death aspects of national security policy. Mike Allen proclaimed in his morning newsletter that “amid distraction and dysfunction, Trump looked and acted like a traditional commander-in-chief last night.” But superficial appearances are misleading in this regard. A normal commander in chief would not operate ongoing businesses in two countries that are backing rival factions in an ongoing civil war while pivoting US policy toward that war. A normal commander in chief would not be pocketing checks from foreign governments and their lobbyists in Washington.
Most of all, a normal commander in chief would not collect large, entirely secret financial flows on an ongoing basis — flows that make him an easy mark for foreign states seeking to influence American policy. The reality is that nothing Trump does can or ever will be normal — regardless of how it looks — as long as he’s this deeply enmeshed in a web of corruption. And all indications are that he always will be.