The Obama administration’s Syria policy has been inconsistent from the very beginning. The restoration of relations between US and Syria was a policy priority for the Obama administration after his inauguration. Through fixing relations with Syria, President Obama aimed to provide a smooth withdrawal of US forces from Iraq, the isolation of Iran, and the resolution of disputes between Syria and Israel.
This ambitious agenda and diplomatic movement came to a halt after the start of demonstrations in Deraa in Syria. At the beginning of the government’s crackdown on the Syrian protesters, the US administration tried to convince the Syrian regime to adopt some political reforms and avoid using force against the protesters. However, the regime did not heed this advice and continued its intensified attacks on protesters.
In August 2011, President Obama made a definitive statement and asked Bashar al Assad to step down. This statement was seen as a sign of a new US policy that would remove the Assad regime from power due to its brutal suppression of the peaceful protesters. However, soon it was revealed that the administration did not have a strategy to remove Assad from power. Most analysts today say that the Obama administration did not want to lose the chance of being “on the right side of the history,” and made the statement to preempt a possible abrupt end of the regime. In the months following Obama’s statement, the regime started to use heavy artillery against the protestors. The death toll continued to rise.
In 2012, the US administration was heavily focused on the elections, but a year after the “Assad must go” statement, President Obama made a second strong statement. In August 2012, President Obama, due to the reports about the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, declared that the movement and the use of chemical weapons by the regime would be his “red line.” However, the U.S. did not craft a statement about the use of conventional weapons by the regime. During this period the regime employed the air force and even used SCUD missiles on populated centres in the country.
One of the critical turning points for the Obama administration’s Syria policy came when the Syrian regime once again used chemical weapons, this time in Damascus in August 2013. This was the most well documented and reported attack, killed hundreds of civilians in a clear breach of the “red line” that President Obama drew a year earlier. While everyone was expecting a strong reaction from the US , which was already a dangerous violation of international norms, President Obama decided not to take punitive military measures. This decision significantly changed the dynamics on the ground in Syria.
The agreement with Russia for the Syrian regime to hand over chemical weapon stockpile in order to forestall a US military intervention was interpreted as a green light by the regime. It continued its brutal suppression of protesters and civilians, through unlimited use of conventional weapons. The barrel bombs and militias from Lebanon and Iran were already operating in full swing during this period. Al Qaeda and other radical groups manipulated this inaction as a rallying point for recruitment in Syria during this period.
Following this, these radical groups started to extend their influence and power in the civil war in Syria. The international community was particularly alarmed by the rise of ISIS in these territories. However, the Obama administration underestimated the seriousness of the situation on the ground, considering ISIS to be the junior varsity team of terrorist organisations. Up until the capture of Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq, it was not taken very seriously by the administration. The fall of Mosul was a clear shock for the administration, and yet another shock came when two American hostages were executed by ISIS in August 2014. The US formed an international coalition to launch air strikes against ISIS targets in Syria and Iraq, but the administration did not have a clear strategy to defeat ISIS. After much criticism about this lack of strategy, President Obama revealed his strategy to degrade and destroy ISIS in September. The strategy focused primarily on air strikes, without sending boots on the ground. Later, especially in Syria, the US depended heavily on the YPG, an offshoot of the PKK, which is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey, the US, and the EU. Supporting, arming, and training a terrorist group, the YPG, against another one, ISIS, has created serious problems in the demographics and sociology of northern Iraq, and has also stoked tensions in bilateral relations with Turkey.
Following this period, the primary focus of the US shifted away from the civil war in Syria and moved to the fight against ISIS. Although countries like Turkey reminded the US administration that ISIS was a result of the situation in Syria and that the conflict in Syria needs to be resolved in order to deal with groups such as ISIS, the US preferred to ignore the wider situation in Syria. This situation further emboldened the Syrian regime and its supporters.
Serious humanitarian tragedies followed in Syria. The number of people escaping from the country swelled to more than 6 million, and the number of internally displaced people soared in this period. Despite calls from regional actors and human rights groups, the US administration refused to support a safe zone to protect Syrians from constant bombardments from Syrian jets. In September 2015, Russia intervened in the situation militarily, and started to deploy its military in support of Syrian regime forces.
Although Russia declared that the main goal of the deployment was the fight against ISIS, it was soon clear that the Russian military was attacking Syrian opposition forces. Russian forces were used to empty Syrian cities and residential areas so that the regime could reestablish control in these territories. The Obama administration once again failed to understand the seriousness of the situation and was shocked by the rapid Russian incursion in the country. Despite some wishful thinking from the administration, Russia’s support enabled Assad to gain the upper hand on the ground in only a short period of time. While US-armed opposition forces became targets for Russian bombings, the US failed to take any concrete steps other than holding long and inconsequential summits in order to force cease fire.
The Syrian regime’s siege of Aleppo was the last nail in the coffin for US strategy in Syria. Despite some protests and statements, the US administration again failed to foresee and correctly assess the situation on the ground. In the early years of the conflict, the Obama administration failed to react to the situation when the Syrian regime was supported primarily by Iranian regime forces because the administration did not want to endanger a possible nuclear deal. When the chemical weapon attack took place, the administration avoided military action out of fear of starting another Iraq war. The lack of an exit strategy became the biggest talking point against a military intervention. After Russia became directly involved in the conflict, the US sought to avoid a proxy war with Russia, just like in Afghanistan and decided to cede the ground to Russia. At the end of the day, the US willingly became a failed superpower and has been relegated to spectator status as another massive humanitarian tragedy unfolds in the Syrian conflict.