Recent U.S. policy in Syria, from the moment that former U.S. ambassador Robert Ford showed support for Syrian protesters in 2011, has been one of good intentions that were mismanaged through conflicting policies. This week it led to the decision to withdraw. A new crisis will unfold in eastern Syria, an area that, liberated from ISIS, has seen too much war and where the people are just beginning to reconstruct their lives. Many are expressing feelings that the U.S. betrayed its partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces, who are mostly Kurdish. The larger context is that the U.S. has been seen as abandoning one group after another in Syria, reducing American influence in Syria and the region.
It is at least the third time that President Donald Trump has sought to leave Syria. In March 2018, he said that the U.S. was leaving “very soon.” In December 2018, he wrote that the U.S. was bringing the troops home after defeating ISIS. In fact, ISIS was not defeated on the ground until March 23, 2019, in its last pocket near the Euphrates river. ISIS sleeper cells are still active, and there are thousands of ISIS detainees in eastern Syria. However, Trump now says that Turkey or other countries will need to deal with the remnants of ISIS and the detainees in Syria.
How did the U.S. get here? In 2011, Americans were outraged by scenes of Bashar al-Assad’s regime cracking down on protests. There was bipartisan support for backing the Syrian protesters and then the Syrian rebels. At the time, the Obama administration had a vast spectrum of options, from giving them anti-tank missiles to carrying out airstrikes against Assad and punishing him for using chemical weapons. But Obama walked back from his 2012 red line on the use of chemical weapons.
Washington shifted from directly opposing Assad to training and equipping Syrian rebels, a program that cost up to $1 billion and was largely seen as a failure by 2015. By this time, the U.S. was working on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or the “Iran deal,” and the overthrow of Assad, who is backed by Iran, was no longer a priority. ISIS had exploited the Syrian conflict to take over a third of Syria and Iraq, controlling the lives of 12 million people and committing genocide. The U.S. began anti-ISIS operations in Syria in September 2014 and helped the Kurdish fighters in Kobane resist ISIS. From there grew a unique partnership between the U.S. and these leftist Kurdish fighters, whom Turkey accused of being linked to the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which the U.S. views as terrorists. The U.S. supported the creation of the Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015 in eastern Syria, as a way to rebrand the Kurdish fighters and distance them from the PKK, so that Washington could train and equip them without appearing to support the party.