The world’s most powerful country sidestepped responsibility, switched allies and left a power vacuum that threatens to destabilise the entire region.

The United States has been directly and indirectly involved in the Syrian conflict since 2011, when a popular uprising turned the Arab country into a bloody battlefield for varying interest groups. 

All along, various stakeholders, including the Syrian people have looked up to Washington, hoping it plays a decisive role in ending the violence that has left half a million people dead and pushed 5.6 million more to take refuge abroad. 

While US President Donald Trump has been in the spotlight lately for the swift and abrupt changes in his Syria policy, the confusion in the American approach goes back many years. 

The elusive ‘red line’ 

In August 2013, the embattled Syrian regime of Bashar al Assad attacked rebel-held areas around Damascus with chemical weapons. More than 1,500 people, many of them women and children, were killed. 

That attack came just a year after the then US President Barack Obama had warned Assad that the use of sarin and other chemical weapons would be a “red line” and a violation that would trigger US retaliation. 

But instead of using a military option, and to the chagrin of some of his advisers, the Obama administration went along with a Russian proposal to dismantle the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons stockpile. 

A massive exercise was launched under the supervision of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) to discard more than 900 tonnes of chemical agents and precursors.  

This picture is of the man who lost his infant twins in a chemical attack blamed on the Syrian regime, which has continuously lied about its stockpiles of chemical agents.
This picture is of the man who lost his infant twins in a chemical attack blamed on the Syrian regime, which has continuously lied about its stockpiles of chemical agents. (AP Archive)

But in subsequent years it turned out that Assad’s chemical weapons programme had remained intact and functioning as his forces attacked rebel-held towns on numerous occasions.

Trump’s approach towards the Syrian regime crossing the “red line” differed from his predecessor. US forces hit a regime airbase in 2017 with tomahawk cruise missiles after a chemical attack. 

How the US abandoned Syrian rebels 

After Syrian opposition began gaining territory in 2012, there was intense debate within the Obama administration if the US should support them militarily.

Besides battle gear, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supplied small arms and ammunition to the opposition in a covert operation on several occasions. But the weapons such as the much-needed stinger missiles to take down jets were never provided despite repeated pleas from the opposition groups. 

Obama and his advisors insisted that any aid or assistance should go only to moderate opposition who were continuously vetted for their ideology in a time-consuming exercise.  

The US administration also failed to understand the ground realities in Syria where the brutal crackdown of the regime slowly decimated the moderate opposition, leaving the ground open for extremists to exploit. 

In September 2015, a senior US commander told the Senate that an attempt to create a moderate force of rebels ended in failure. The US spent $500 million to train and equip 5,000-6,000 fighters to take on Daesh but only four or five actually showed up for the fight. 

Analysts had hoped the US would punish Assad for dropping barrel bombs and chemical weapons on civilian territories. But except for a few strikes, the US did nothing to deter the regime, which was backed by well-trained Iranian militias. 

Millions of Syrian refugees are living in camps after they were displaced by the civil war.
Millions of Syrian refugees are living in camps after they were displaced by the civil war. (AP)

This uncertainty and shift in Washington’s policy left the Syrian opposition wondering why the US wouldn’t stop Assad from committing atrocities against his own people.  

In mid-2017, the US stopped its programme to fund and train opposition factions, something which it had been doing since 2013 in half-hearted support. 

Many contradictions 

Russia entered the Syrian conflict in September 2015 and shifted the balance of power in favour of the Assad regime when it was reportedly on the brink of collapsing, which unleashed barrel bombs and relentless airstrikes against civilian areas. 

By then the US had shifted focus to counter Daesh, which had emerged a year earlier and quickly took control of large chunks of land in Syria and Iraq. 

US forces built a number of airfields and bases in northeastern Syria and began coordinating with the YPG to fight Daesh. 

The YPG, which claims to be representative of Kurds in northern Syria, is the Syrian arm of the PKK, the Marxist terrorist group behind a decades-old insurgency in Turkey. 

The US left northeast Syria under the YPG’s control, paying little heed to warnings from Ankara, its NATO ally. 

What about the refugees?

Throughout the conflict, more than five million Syrian people continued to seek refuge in other countries. But it was Turkey which was left to meet the needs of 3.6 million of them.

Besides the rhetoric on the issue of refugees, the US didn’t want to host many of them, writes Steven Metz, the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy. 

The figures substantiate this point. 

The number of Syrian refugees allowed into the United States in fiscal 2016 was 12,587. In fiscal 2018, the United States admitted 62, according to a Washington Post report

The US says it has spent more than $9 billion on humanitarian assistance programme while Turkey says it’s expenditure on housing the refugees comes to around $40 billion

Source: TRT World