As the tragic civil war in Syria grinds through its eighth year, it is impossible to make sense of the Trump administration’s strategy as it moves in one direction and then shifts in another, again and again. American policy is utterly incoherent, and there is no sign that will change.
President Donald Trump’s position on Syria, expressed more often in tweets than in formal policy statements, vacillated wildly even before he was elected president. In June 2013, for instance, he contended that the United States should “stay the hell out of Syria.” But two months later, after Syrian President Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, Trump advocated for a U.S. military strike and vociferously criticized then-President Barack Obama for not ordering one.
Once in the White House, Trump initially focused on defeating the Islamic State, which by that time controlled a miniature, self-proclaimed “caliphate” based in the northern Syrian city of Raqqa. He expanded support for local militias fighting the extremists and increased direct U.S. air and artillery strikes. But after Raqqa fell and the Islamic State dispersed, the Trump administration appeared to have no clear idea how to turn battlefield success into strategic victory. By March 2017, administration officials were saying that the U.S. would not be involved in determining Syria’s long-term future.