The U.S. policy toward Syria has not been clear, realistic or rational for nearly a decade, perhaps ever since the beginning of the uprising. Washington has had varying and always contradictory policies that were fruitful neither for the U.S. nor its allies.
The unclear policy of the U.S. started with the Barack Obama administration and it is continuing. Actually, even though the current U.S. president, Donald Trump, has been seeking to undo Obama's work, from the Iran nuclear deal to Obamacare, he did nothing in reverse the policy in Syria. He is like an illiberal version of Obama when it comes to the war-torn country.
Obama tried to be an "anti-war" president. But in fact, he chose to find proxy groups to fight in the U.S. wars. He just wanted to keep American boots off the ground. At some point, he had to send U.S. troops to Syria, numbering at least 1,000, to train and support those groups. Obama chose the YPG, the Syrian offshoot of the PKK terrorist group, in 2014, for the fight against Daesh. However, the PKK had another goal: They aimed to found a terrorist statelet in northern Syria. Actually, this idea seemed to be backed by the U.S. as Washington overlooked the terror organization's atrocities as well as its real agenda in Syria. Supporting a terrorist organization to fight against another was an absurd idea in the first place.
Earlier this fall, Trump said he was pulling the U.S. forces out of Syria as Turkey launched a ground operation, namely Operation Peace Spring, to cleanse the Turkish-Syrian border of terror elements. Founding a PKK statelet in northern Syria became a dream for the PKK and its backers after the efforts of six years.
Although Trump said there would be complete withdrawal, he then decided to keep around 600 U.S. troops of the 2,000 in the country. Trump has kept saying that "the endless wars must end," but Washington is now seeking ways to slow the withdrawal of the U.S.
Obama was the first world leader who said, "Bashar Assad must go," and that was the first reason that the U.S. became involved in Syria. He backed the Syrian opposition, and the U.S. started to arm and train them. Obama changed his mind in 2013. When Daesh started to rise from the ashes of al-Qaida in Iraq enjoying the chaos in Syria, he decided to shift his goal: defeating Daesh. He said that the U.S. mission was limited to Iraq in August 2014, but in a short while, Syria was included. More than 70 countries joined the anti-Daesh coalition, and yet, Obama was cooperating with a terror organization, the YPG. He could have continued to support the Syrian opposition and dismantled Daesh as well as draining the swamp in Syria. He abandoned them and made the U.S. one of the leading countries responsible for the never-ending war in Syria.
Let's accept that the priority of the U.S. was and is securing the enduring defeat of Daesh, al-Qaida and all of its affiliates, a goal which will not be totally ensured in the current situation in the Middle East and Africa: Obama could not achieve defeating Daesh during his term, and I am not sure he wanted to. He was always too late to act, and when he acted, he was always too late.
Trump was more eager than him. Maybe it was because he accused Obama of founding Daesh and doing nothing to stop it during his election campaign. He harshly attacked Raqqa, the so-called capital of Daesh, and then declared that the U.S. defeated Daesh. He was the winner of the prize when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed last year as he succeeded in what Obama couldn't do. However, there is no guarantee that Daesh will never come back or that another terror organization will not take its place. Unless Syria is stabilized, this risk will always be there.
As I mentioned above, Obama was the first leader that said "Assad must go" among world leaders. After Hosni Mubarak was ousted in Egypt and Moammar Qadhafi was killed in Libya with the support of NATO, it was possible for the U.S. to help the Syrian opposition topple Assad. He hesitated. As we know, his red line was "chemical weapons." But Assad had already used chemical weapons many times in Syria. After the chemical attack in Eastern Ghouta, in which around 1,300 people were killed, he said the U.S. would intervene. We later understood that his priority was to push Iran, the backer of the Assad regime, into a tight corner and make Tehran accept the nuclear deal negotiations. Obama abandoned the Syrians once again.
Trump attacked the Shayrat Air Base near Homs in Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles in 2017 after a horrific chemical gas attack in Idlib province. He got the support of the U.K. and France. Many of the U.S. allies expected the rest to follow; however, it was just a show. Trump has shown that he could do what Obama didn't. At the end of the day, he withdrew the U.S. from the Iran deal. So, Washington was back to square one once again with empty hands.
In addition to that, the Obama administration indirectly worked with Iran in Syria and Iraq during the fight against Daesh, but this de facto cooperation ended as well when he left office. The Trump administration said a couple of times that the U.S. was and would stay in Syria to counter Iran. After the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp's Quds Force Qassem Soleimani was killed by a U.S. airstrike at Baghdad International Airport last month, the Syrians were happy since Soleimani had a lot of Syrian blood on his hands. In fact, Trump did not give the order for the sake of Syrians; he was serving Israel's interests.
The U.S. has always opposed the Assad regime in words but has not done anything which would hurt Damascus. Russia has filled the void, the Assad regime has survived, more than half a million people have been killed (until we lost count), and half of the population of Syria has been displaced. No one really understood Washington's policy toward Syria until now. What did the Americans do other than stirring up more trouble and raising the devil? We don't have an answer.