On April 7th, 42 people were reportedly killed and another 500 injured in an alleged chemical attack in the Douma neighborhood of Damascus, Syria. If confirmed this would be the 8th chemical weapons attack launched by Syrian military forces against Syrian rebels since Donald Trump has taken office. This would also be the highest casualty chemical attack in the ongoing Syrian civil war since April 4th, 2017 when 86 people were killed in a sarin gas attack in Khan Shaykhun.
On April 10th Trump promised a “forceful” response to the alleged chemical attack in Syria stating, “We have a lot of options militarily,” and that a response will be decided on shortly.
These statements came just days after Trump stated, “I want to bring our troops back home,” at an infrastructure speech in Ohio. Trump also stated on March 29th that the U.S. would “be coming out of Syria very soon.” Advisers reportedly persuaded him that this could cause a jihadist resurgence.
U.S. entry into the Syrian conflict began under the Obama administration which established a policy calling for the ouster of Assad. In 2011 Obama called on Assad to step down “for the sake of the Syrian people” and issued sanctions on his regime. Obama Administration efforts were complicated by ongoing negotiations between the U.S. and Syria’s Iranian allies over the Iranian nuclear program. Those negotiations resulted in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), a controversial nuclear agreement from which President Trump has repeatedly indicated his intentions to withdrawal.
U.S. involvement during the Syrian civil war before 2012 was sparse. In 2012, however, Obama created a red line policy which was put in place to deter Assad from using chemical weapons on civilians and rebel forces. Obama said that if Assad used chemical weapons against the rebels he would cross a “red line” that would “change the calculus” regarding U.S. policy towards the civil war but did not respond to a 2013 Sarin gas attack, after which it became clear Assad no longer faced a serious threat of military action under the Obama Administration.
Rather than use military force the U.S. worked alongside Russia to create a frame work in which Syrian chemical weapons would be placed under international control. On September 14th, 2013 the U.S. and Russia came to an agreement on a framework to discard Syrian chemical weapons. Obama said in a statement that the framework “represents an important concrete step toward the goal of moving Syria’s chemical weapons under international control so that they may ultimately be destroyed.” As we know, however, Assad never got rid of all these weapons, and he kept enough to continue murdering civilians.
Today, Trump’s administration has proven more aggressive in responding to chemical weapons use than Obama’s administration. On April 6th, 2017 Trump ordered a military airstrike on Shayrat airbase in Syria near Homs firing 59 tomahawk missiles at the base. The airstrike was in response to a chemical weapon attack where more than 100 civilians were killed.
However, Trump’s administration has primarily focused on combating the Islamic State (IS) in Syria, and he has expressed interest in pursuing a strategy to address either the Assad regime or the influence of its Iranian and Russian allies.
While Islamic State is virtually defeated and maintains little to no influence in Syria, Pentagon officials argue that pulling out of Syria now could cause a jihadist resurgence. Yet, the current situation in Syria is much different than that of Iraq back in 2011.
The Pentagon estimates that 90% of IS fighters have been killed. There are currently 2,000 U.S. troops in eastern Syria fighting alongside Kurdish forces, also known as the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), against the IS to push them out of the region. With the help of U.S. airstrikes SDF forces have taken back thousands of square kilometers from IS.
The IS once held a vast territory in Syria and Iraq, a territory that included the major cities of Mosul and Raqqa. At the height of their power approximately 10,000,000 people lived in territory under IS control. IS still holds land in eastern Syria by the Euphrates river valley, but the land is largely unpopulated.
As of late, progress has been slow against IS. Many SDF fighters have been called to fight on a new front against Turkish troops in northwest Syria. Turkey has started a campaign to push Kurdish forces away from their border and Turkish troops recently captured the Kurdish-held city of Afrin.
On April 3rd Trump met with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Gen. Joseph Dunford to hash out a Syria strategy. Trump made it clear that he does not want to engage in nation-building efforts in northeastern Syria but did not set a withdraw date for troops in Syria.
The following day Trump indicated that the Gulf States concerned over the role of Iran in Syria would have to take a greater role in the situation if they wish the U.S. to remain in Syria to counterbalance Iranian interests. Trump noted, “Saudi Arabia is very interested in our decision, and I said, ‘Well, you know, you want us to stay, maybe you’re going to have to pay’.”
Saudi Arabia is paying close attention to Trump’s plans in the region given that Iran and Saudi Arabia are currently engaged in a proxy war in Yemen, and fears seceding control of Syria to the Iranians.
Syria’s situation is incredibly complex and very difficult to predict due to so many countries being involved in the region. Due to Trumps latest statements on Syria promising a “forceful” response to the most recent chemical weapons attack, it does not look as if U.S. troops stationed in Syria will be coming home anytime soon.