US Syria policy: signs of shift as Trump son meets pro-Russia Damascus figure
The president-elect’s son reportedly met with Randa Kassis, a Syrian politician who strongly supports Russian intervention, in Paris last month
A meeting in Paris between Donald Trump’s son and a Syrian politician with strong ties to Russia has strengthened expectations that the new US administration will side with Moscow in the conflict.
The meeting Donald Trump Jr attended at the Paris Ritz on 11 October, reported in the Wall Street Journal, was co-hosted by Randa Kassis, who runs a Syrian group portrayed as the “patriotic opposition” by Moscow. Kassis is widely viewed as pro-regime by many dissidents, because she advocates political transition in cooperation with the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, and because of her strong support of Russian intervention.
“Russia intervened to save the country, for the sake of Syria,” Kassis said on the al-Jazeera programme Opposite Direction on Tuesday. “The problem is that you don’t know the Russians, you don’t understand the Russians … you just accuse the Russians of being against the opposition but you need to understand them.”
Bassam Barabandi, a former Syrian diplomat who defected and is now a Washington-based dissident said that Kassis’s organisation does not have widespread support. “It is really her and a group of her friends,” he said. “No one else in Syria recognises her as an opposition except the regime.”
Her husband, Fabien Baussart, is a French businessman who runs a small thinktank in Paris called the Centre for Political and Foreign Affairs, and has strong commercial ties to Kazakhstan and Russia. Baussart introduced Kassis, a former Damascus socialite, to Sergey Lavrov, according to Joseph Bahout, a Syrian expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“She is a good friend of Lavrov, and he invited her and several others to Moscow and they created what is known – with a certain irony – as the ‘Moscow opposition’,”Bahout said. “The Russians in their cynicism tried to impose these people as an opposition delegation to the peace talks in Geneva. But of course the rest of the opposition all objected.”
Kassis recently posted comments on her Facebook page about the meeting, saying: “Syria’s opposition got hope that political process will move forward and Russia and the United States will reach accord on the issue of the Syrian crisis, because of Trump’s victory. Such hope and belief is the result of my personal meeting with Donald Trump Junior in Paris in October.”
“I succeeded to pass [to] Trump, through the talks with his son, the idea of how we can cooperate together to reach the agreement between Russia and the United States on Syria,” Kassis said in her Facebook posting.
Throughout his campaign, Trump praised Russia and the Syrian regime for “fighting Isis”, although very little of the war effort of either government is focused on the Islamic State movement. It is mostly aimed at areas held by other opposition groups, and their bombing of those areas has been responsible for the great majority of the civilian casualties, according to human rights groups.
Earlier this month, Assad appeared to give the president-elect a cautious endorsement, saying Trump would be a “natural ally” if he fulfils his pledge to fight “terrorists”.
In an interview with the New York Times on Wednesday, Trump said: “I have a different view on Syria than everybody else.”
He gave no specifics other than to say his view was opposed to the Republican senator Lindsey Graham, who has proposed tougher action to back some opposition groups, defend civilians and confront Russia and the Syrian regime. He said he had very strong ideas on Syria, but would only discuss them off the record.
In the same New York Times interview, Trump also suggested that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, might serve as an envoy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That suggestion and his son’s attendance at the Paris meeting have reinforced earlier impressions that he would rely heavily on personal and business connections in foreign policy, using family members as go-betweens despite their lack of experience.
Members of Trump’s entourage also came under fire from a former counter-terrorist official on Wednesday for their lobbying on behalf of an Iranian rebel group, the Mujahidin e-Khalq (MeK), that was on the state department foreign terrorist organisation list from 1997 until 2012.
Daniel Benjamin, the coordinator for counter-terrorism in the state department from 2009 to 2012, accused the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani and former ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, both candidates for high office in the new administration, of accepting lavish fees from an organisation that had in the past been responsible for the deaths of American citizens and other civilians.
“You can tell a lot about potential Cabinet nominees by the terrorist group they shill for,” Benjamin wrote in Politico on Wednesday. “The MeK has plenty of American blood on its hands, as well as that of thousands of Iranians killed while the group was a strike force serving Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and ’90s.”