Ever since the start of the Syrian Civil War, the United States has held a range of positions regarding the use of force and their recognition of Assad. This started with the Obama Administration, who at first released public statements condemning Assad’s escalation of attacks on peaceful protesters into a civil war. Later, when the war escalated further, Obama drew a red line, stating that if chemical weapons were used the United States would respond with military action. When Assad eventually used chemical weapons, Obama quivered, and instead of using military force, negotiated for all the chemical weapons to be withdrawn from Syria.
Unfortunately, the Trump administration has also had an irrational Syria policy. Shortly after entering office, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, criticized Assad as a brutal dictator, who must be removed from office. A few weeks after that, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that it is no longer the official policy of the United States to seek the removal of Assad. Once week after Tillerson’s comment, Assad attacked his own people with chemical weapons.
What came next appeared to be the only coherent part of U.S. policy towards Syria. Trump launched 59 ballistic missiles at one of the basses that was used for the chemical weapons attack. However, the launch was mostly for show, and does not hinder Assad’s ability to launch chemical weapons in the future.
One week after the attack, Haley reaffirmed that Assad must be removed. Tillerson once again moderately defended Assad, citing the defeat of ISIS as the number one priority for the United States. These comments confused the American public, and Trump has not clarified the U.S. government’s official position.
Trump has spoken of his desire to partner with Russia to defeat ISIS, but the air strike he launched destroyed a base where Russian soldiers were stationed. If Trump truly wants to ensure that Assad can no longer use chemical weapons, he would destroy all of Assad’s airfields. How can we say we support democracy when we aren’t advocating for the removal of Assad? We simply don’t know what Trump wants.
Having no policy towards Syria is detrimental to advancing the interests of the United States in Syria, let alone the broader region. Trump must make known the clear principles that will guide our policy towards Syria, or else we cannot expect there to be an outcome that would bring an end to one of worst humanitarian crisis in history.