A common criticism of the Obama administration’s foreign policy on Syria is that the decision not to intervene militarily in the civil war starting in 2011 prolonged the conflict and paved the way for the Syrian government’s external allies to alter its course. This formulation contains two related, but false, assumptions. First, it assumes that the administration was either confused or indecisive about how to approach the complexities of the conflict, and second, that US policy was vacuous and thus immaterial. A closer look at the Obama administration’s policy, however, reveals forms of political and military engagement that were anything but inconsequential and demonstrate that the choice was never simply between intervention and non-intervention.
The Obama administration’s involvement in Syria included a sustained military campaign against ISIS in the northeast, the imposition of a sanctions regime against the government, participation in the Geneva talks led by the United Nations and structured around Syrian opposition demands, and the turning of a blind eye to—or outright support of—the flooding of weapons, money and fighters into Syria from US regional allies. These actions were policy choices that were not driven by indecision or confusion but by a particular vision of the Syrian conflict that favored destabilization over resolution. The Russian intervention that began in September 2015 subsequently reordered the conflict’s geography and military balance, which created new realities. But these changes did not necessarily challenge existing US forms of intervention or force a dramatic shift in US policy.
The Trump administration has thus inherited a basket of policies that were largely focused on narrowly targeted US military intervention against ISIS, and the acceptance of continued violence and instability in Syria even amidst Russian military intervention into the conflict. In the first year of the Trump administration, these policies, for the most part, have been continued and expanded. Candidate Donald Trump’s promise to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS bore fruit in the first few months of 2017 as American military attacks intensified1 and coalition planes killed an increasing number of Syrian civilians.2 The intensification of US bombing occurred alongside the Trump administration’s increased coordination with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a multi-ethnic fighting force dominated by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), in order to battle ISIS forces in the northeast.
The Trump administration’s relationship with Russia and the Syrian government is complex. At times, it has accepted Russia’s military role in Syria while continuing to pay lip service to the need for a political settlement through the Geneva process, much like its predecessor administration. On the ground, the battle against ISIS has also become a complex battle for leverage with Russia and the Syrian government over strategic territory. The reality is that the Russian-US convergence on Syria policy was taking shape well before the Trump administration assumed office.
Moving forward, it is likely that US policy will be shaped by two major processes: a looming confrontation, after the retreat of ISIS, between the SDF and forces aligned with the Syrian government; and the repercussions of the Astana process. This process is composed of talks being held in Kazakhstan’s capital, Astana, between the Syrian opposition and government, sponsored and guided by Russia, Turkey and Iran, which has emerged as the most substantive mechanism to end the conflict. To date, on both fronts, there appear to be no signs of a break from existing US policy. The United States remains committed to not challenging the order established by Russian intervention to stabilize the Syrian government, while maintaining its own intervention capacity.
Once the military tide began to shift in favor of Syrian government forces, around 2015 when Russian military intervention intensified, it became apparent that another major military campaign would target those aligned with the SDF over areas they govern as the Democratic Federation of Northern Syria (DFNS), also known as Rojava, which was created in 2012 and has since been expanding geographically. The war of words between the Syrian government and Kurdish officials has only intensified as the campaign against ISIS comes to a close and the government’s allies take aim at what they see as a project of sedition and fragmentation couched in the language of federalism and decentralization. A political compromise over the future of the DFNS in this context may be unlikely. Most recently, in late 2017 when the campaign against ISIS was all but declared over, the Trump administration suggested it would cease support and coordination with the SDF,3 thus leaving them militarily and politically vulnerable in the event of confrontation with the Syrian government and its allies. It remains to be seen whether this policy of disengagement from the SDF holds, but it is unlikely that this administration will remain invested in what was merely a relationship of convenience.
Perhaps slightly more uncertain is how the Trump administration will address the consequences of the Astana process, which—as a counterweight to the Geneva talks—is producing regional consensus around the future of the Syrian conflict and providing legitimacy to the military interventions of the tripartite powers of Russia, Iran and Turkey. Unlike the Geneva talks, which at least have the pretense of negotiation, the Astana process is not deliberative in any meaningful way. The creation of de-escalation zones, the rejection of a political transition, and the imposition of a political order that sanctions continued violence against recalcitrant communities and geographic areas represent the emergence of an authoritarian peace. Through this process violence is normalized and sanctioned against amorphous enemies subsumed under the label of terrorists. The US administration has done little to challenge this new order, including by not incentivizing or encouraging a reinvigoration of the Geneva talks. Thus, much like its Russian counterpart, the Trump administration pays lip service to the illusions of a peace process in Geneva, while it will need to contend with the realities that Astana advances. How the US response materializes, and whether the administration becomes a willing participant in the tripartite group’s designs, is unclear. What is clear is that it is unlikely to militarily or politically challenge this emergent order.
In the absence of a continued ISIS threat—notwithstanding the celebration of their demise and the fear mongering about their return—the US administration will have to face the realities of a confrontation between the Syrian government and the SDF, and a post-Astana order, both of which represent new regimes of violence and a reordering of the Syrian conflict. The United States recently announced in November 2017 that it was maintaining a military presence, including troops, inside Syria indefinitely and for unspecified purposes,4 in a sort of waiting game. Such moves should not be confused with inaction, in the way that the Obama administration’s positions on Syria were misunderstood, but rather they should be seen as specific US policy choices advanced since 2011 that privilege instability over resolution. This approach is premised on the idea that a destabilized Syria negatively impacts and weakens Iran’s role in the region: a shared goal of Israel, the Arab Gulf states and the United States. As a major battleground of regional confrontation, Syria has emerged as a space for the Obama, and now Trump, administrations to impact Iranian policy and power in the region. In the absence of any viable alternative to the Syrian government, either militarily or politically (let alone one palatable to Western states), any resolution to the conflict was bound to maintain Iranian influence in Syria. Destabilization has thus become a more productive means of influencing the regional order than active resolution of the Syrian conflict.
Endnotes John Haltiwanger, “Trump Has Dropped Record Number of Bombs in the Middle East,” Newsweek, September 9, 2017.
 Micah Zenko, “Why Is the US Killing So Many Civilians in Syria and Iraq?,” The New York Times, June 19, 2017.
 “US to Stop Arming Anti-IS Kurdish YPG Militia—Turkey,” BBC, November 25, 2017.
 Karen DeYoung and Liz Sly, “US Moves toward Open-Ended Presence in Syria after Islamic State Is Routed,” The Washington Post, November 22, 2017.