Issues in American Foreign Policy

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The series of anti-government demonstrations, known as The Arab Spring, resulted in regime changes in various Middle Eastern and North African countries including Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. Similarly, what started as nonviolent protests in Syria escalated quickly into a seemingly endless civil war when the regime forces used force to suppress the protesters. The Syrian Civil War gave rise to security and humanitarian concerns such as refugee crises, the emergence of radical terrorist groups and the issue of foreign terrorist fighters.

The Syrian Civil War did not only have an immediate impact on the Middle Eastern countries, but it also provided a playground for the regional and global powers to engage in a power play. This gave the US the opportunity to become one of the influential leaders in the Syrian conflict.

Council on Foreign Relations marks the situation in Syria as critical to the US interests. The focus of this research paper is to examine the US foreign policy in Syria by contrasting the strategies formulated under the administrations of the presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. After elaborating on the background of the Syrian conflict and its implications for the US interest and foreign policy objectives, the paper presents a brief historical background of bilateral relations between Syria and the US. The report concludes by discussing the continuities and changes in the US foreign policy priorities and strategies after the election of Donald Trump as the President of the US.

U.S. interests in Syria date back to the nineteenth century, however, the US became a significant player in the region following the Second World War. The United States acknowledged the state of Syria and established diplomatic relations in 1944 when Syria gained its independence from the French mandate.

Since the recognizing of the state of Syria, the US-Syrian relations never reached the point of a friendly and allied nation. The Council of Middle East summarized the relation between two countries as, “No U.S. administration will befriend Israel's principal Arab enemy.”[footnoteRef:2] The relations between the two countries were hurt further due to the Arab- Israeli Wars in 1967. The US supported the Israelis against the Arab states; Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. The relations worsened when Syria was listed as a sponsor state of terrorism in 1979 by the US. The US accused Syria of financing and harboring terrorists, contributing to the spread of mass destruction weapons as well as occupying Lebanon and adding to regional instability. Likewise, Syria was against the invasion of Iraq by the US forces. The US imposed economic sanctions to restrict trade relations and prohibit direct aid to Syria. In 2003, President Bush authorized additional economic sanctions under the Syria Accountability Act. The previous aid ban was also supported by the Bush administration. In 2006, the US officials accused Syria of logistic support for Hezbollah and thereby enabling Hezbollah to stage military operations against the Israeli forces.

When President Obama took office, he aimed to restore relations with Syria. His effort, however, did not lead to positive outcomes. For instance, when Obama nominated a career diplomat to serve as the US ambassador in Syria, the Congress blocked his nomination. There were “tremendous pressures in Congress, various branches of government, and at every level of U.S. society to punish Syria for its enmity toward Israel.”[footnoteRef:4] During the first months of his administration, several conferences were arranged in Damascus between high-ranking U.S. military officers and their Syrian counterparts. The purpose of these military meetings was “to draw the contours for possible future military cooperation and fixing the border,” since cooperation between two countries could lead to valuable intelligence sharing in contribution to counterterrorism efforts. [footnoteRef:5] However, with the outbreak of the conflict and civil war, the US increased its criticism of the Syrian president and called for his overthrow. Eventually, the relations between the two countries grew worse compared to the past. 'The U.S.-Syria Relationship: A Few Questions | Middle East Policy Council.' Homepage | Middle East Policy Council. Web.

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The series of anti-government uprisings, known as the Arab Spring, also sparked protests and demonstrations in the Syrian land as early as January 2011. The protestors demanded democratic reforms, the end of corruption and lifting of the state of emergency as well as the release of the political prisoners.

In March 2011, a group of teenagers was arrested for writing political graffiti on the walls of the Southern city of Daraa. People took the streets to protest the brutal treatment of teenagers by the regime forces. When the Assad regimes used force to suppress the protesters, the tension heightened, causing protests to spread to the rest of the country. Assad blamed the protestors for being a tool of external agents and then declared to crush the anti-regime protestors. Troops and tanks were sent into the cities to suppress the protests.

Soon after, the use of force by the regime triggered violent unrest and the protests transformed into armed conflicts nationwide. In July 2011, a group of former Syrian Armed Forces officers joined to bring the opposition forces together under the Free Syrian Army in order to fight against the Assad regime. In December 2012, countries including the US, Turkey, and the UK recognized the opposition under the Syrian National Coalition as the “legitimate representatives” of Syrian people. [footnoteRef:7] Moreover, President Barack Obama warned the Assad regime on the use of chemical weapons, quoted as saying, “that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized” and thereby he signaled for a US military response in case of a chemical attack by the Assad forces.

The Assad regime continued its bombardment of the opposition forces in various cities while thousands of people took the streets of many cities including Aleppo. Due to the intensified armed conflict, the International Committee of Red Cross declared the situation in Syria a civil war when Spokesman Hassan regarded the Syrian conflict as a 'non-international armed conflict' in 2012.

In September 2013, UN inspectors released a report stating that the regime forces utilized chemical weapons such as sarin nerve agents against civilians in the city of Damascus, which resulted in the death of hundreds of people.[footnoteRef:10] The use of chemical weapons caused an international reaction against the Assad regime as many countries released statements condemning the use of chemical agents and raised concerns about the human rights violations in the international arena. However, the efforts of the countries did not result in a military response to the Assad regime as promised by the Obama administration.

By 2014, the civil war in Syria worsened, resulting in deaths of thousands of people, causing millions of people to be displaced within and beyond Syria and creating a power vacuum to be filled by terrorist organizations. By June 2014, the radical Islamist terrorist organization Daesh took over the northern part of Syria and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the creation of a caliphate including regions from Iraq to Syria. Following the rise of Daesh, the US-led coalition forces started airstrike campaigns to target the terrorist organization. On 22 September, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby stated that the United States with other nations as part of the coalition forces conducted airstrikes in Syria “using fighters, bombers, and Tomahawk missiles in strikes authorized by President Barack Obama.”The Russian ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich warned against the US intervention in Syria, stating that airstrikes by the US “in the absence of a UN Security Council decision, would be an act of aggression, a gross violation of international law.” The rapid rise of the Daesh extended the US involvement in the Syrian civil war when the US provided aid to the opposition forces. The first aid packages included non-lethal military gear, food, and medical kits. Following the events, the US Congress authorized 500-million dollars to initiate a “train and equip” program to help the Syrian opposition in the fight against Daesh as Obama stated, “I’m pleased that Congress has now voted to support a key element of our strategy: our plan to train and equip the opposition in Syria so they can help push back these terrorists.” In addition, the US planned to send 400 troops to the neighbor countries of Syria to train 5000 opposition soldiers. The US also sent special troops into Syria in a rescue mission in July 2014 to save the Americans held captive by the ISIS. However, the rescue mission was aborted because the hostages were not present at Obama’s counterterrorism advisor Monaco stated.

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Issues in American Foreign Policy. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 26, 2024, from
“Issues in American Foreign Policy.” Edubirdie, 15 Sept. 2022,
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