Reasons for US intervention in Syria

What is the US Role in Syria Now?

US has plenty of reasons to want to get rid of the Syrian regime, but it has been reluctant to get directly involved in the country's civil war. Kristoffer Tripplaar-Pool/Getty Images

Why does the United States feel the need to intervene in the current Syrian unrest?

On November 22, 2017, Russian president Vladimir Putin unveiled plans for a Syrian peace congress, intended to finally end the six-year civil war inside Syria. To get to this point, Putin conducted talks with Turkish President Recep Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, after conferring with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Although Putin did speak about the proposed actions with Saudi Arabia's King Salman, Israel's Benjamin Netanyahu, and US President Donald Trump, neither the United States nor Saudi Arabia has a role in this as-yet-unscheduled congress. It remains to be seen whether the Syrian opposition will.

Civil War in Syria

The conflict in Syria is along sectarian lines, with the majority Sunni party backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, and the Shia Alawite party led by Assad backed by Iran and Russia. Extremist Islamist forces have also entered the fray, including the Lebanese Shia Islamist movement Hezbollah and the Islamic State. Arguably, the main reason the civil war in Syria has lasted as long as it has is that of intervention by external powers, including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the United States.

Perhaps as many as half a million people have been killed during the conflict—estimates vary widely.

At least five million refugees have fled Syria to neighboring countries of Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Russia's armed intervention in 2015 and the military defeat of the Islamic state in Syria has led to the near-collapse of Assad's opposition. US President Trump canceled the CIA program that supplied the rebels in July of 2017.

Why Did the US Want to Intervene?

The main reason for US intervention in Syria was the apparent use of chemical weapons by Assad outside the Syrian capital Damascus on August 21, 2013. The US has blamed the Syrian government forces for the deaths of hundreds of civilians in the attack, an accusation vehemently denied by Syria. A second chemical attack apparently took place on April 4, 2017, in Khan Sheikhoun, where 80 people died and hundreds suffered symptoms consistent with being exposed to nerve gas. In retaliation, US President Trump ordered an attack on a Syrian airfield where military sources suspected that the nerve gas had been launched.

The use of chemical weapons is banned by international conventions, although the Syrian government is not a signatory. But in 2013, it was the prospect of appearing irrelevant that spurred then US President Obama into action, after two years of seeing US influence in the Middle East slowly erode with the changes brought about by the Arab Spring.

Why is Syria Important?

The US had other reasons to play a role in the Syrian crisis. Syria is one of the pivotal countries in the Middle East. It borders Turkey and Israel, has a close relationship with Iran and Russia, plays an influential role in Lebanon, and has a history of rivalry with Iraq.

Syria is a key link in the alliance between Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement of Hezbollah Lebanon. Syria has been at odds with US policies in the region practically since its independence in 1946 and has fought several wars with Israel, America’s top regional ally.

Weakening Assad

Weakening the Syrian regime has been a long-standing goal of successive US administrations down the years, with multiple layers of sanctions in place against the regime in Damascus.  But, a push for regime change would require a massive invasion using ground troops, an unthinkable option given the war-weary US public. Plus, many policymakers in Washington warned that a victory for Islamist elements among the Syrian rebels would be equally dangerous for US interests.

It was also unlikely that a limited bombing campaign lasting a few days would really impair Assad’s ability to use chemical weapons again.

The US would most likely have had to target a wide range of Syrian military facilities to significantly degrade Assad’s fighting capacity, sending a clear message that more damage could be inflicted at a later stage.

Containing Iran, Reassuring Allies

Much of what the US does in the Middle East has to do with its antagonistic relationship with Iran. The Shiite Islamist regime in Tehran is Syria’s chief regional backer, and Assad’s victory in the fight against the opposition would be a major triumph for Iran and its allies in Iraq and Lebanon.

This, in turn, is unpalatable not only for Israel but also for the Gulf Arab monarchies headed by Saudi Arabia. Assad’s Arab foes would not forgive the US for handing Iran another victory (after invading Iraq, only to enable an Iran-friendly government comes to power).

Trump Administration Policy

Although it is currently unclear what the proposed peace congress will accomplish, US President Trump has signaled that he will maintain a US troop presence in northern Syria, the strongest remaining bastion of the Syrian opposition.

Given the situation as it is today, it is far less likely today that the US goal of regime change in Syria will happen. Given Trump's relationship with Putin, it is also unclear what the current US goal is in the region. 

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